The strangest thing happened in the Democratic primary race a couple weeks ago. It finally got started.
I know, it has been a year since Jared Polis got into the race and big-moneyed Ed Perlmutter out, basically setting the primary field, although Donna Lynne was still in the I’ll-let-you-know-eventually mode at that point.
But now, so many months later, so many millions spent, so many signatures gathered, so many caucuses attended, so many meets, so many greets, so many candidates in, so many candidates out, the race has finally settled on an issue — one that’s so obvious you wonder how it took this long to emerge. I know the candidates signed a no-negativity pact, but how about some compare and contrast?
And yet, it wasn’t until Cary Kennedy went negative that everything changed. OK, officially it was the Teachers for Kennedy PAC that went negative, running a TV ad on education attacking Polis for a long-ago position on vouchers and Mike Johnston, who, we know, has been strongly supported by out-of-state ed-reform money. I was stunned. Not by the attack ad, which wasn’t all that hard-hitting, but that Kennedy — OK, or her PAC, most of which work, as Littwin’s Official Unofficial gov ranking’s panelist Alan Salazar said, with a “wink and a nod” from the candidate — was the one who went first.
It just didn’t seem to fit with the positive campaign she was running, one that had been pretty much flawless to that point, or at least since the driving-while-filming ad. And, in the first debate that followed, she looked flustered as she tried to defend it when she was ripped, particularly by Johnston, for going negative.
We had been warned that Gov. John Hickenlooper would come down hard on any negative ads, and he did so quickly and with surprisingly tough words from the shower-ad gov, who generally saves his confrontational mode for closed-door meetings. He said how “disappointed” he was in the Kennedy PAC ad. He also said, though, that from the polls he had seen, Kennedy was leading the race and she had jeopardized that lead. Everyone has assumed all along that Polis was in the lead. If Kennedy was ahead — public polling suggests she isn’t — was this meant to be a knockout punch? Or was it her only and best chance to catch Polis?
As expected, Polis is fighting back. He launched an ad attacking Kennedy for attacking him. His PAC, Bold Colorado — and don’t even ask why a self-funding candidate needs a PAC — is also attacking Kennedy for attacking Polis. Look for more from Kennedy. Hickenlooper might have gone a little overboard in predicting a mud fest, but for a few weeks, it’ll be at least a little muddy anyway.
There are clear differences on the education front among the candidates — not that you’d know from reading their web sites. But it’s hard to even say exactly what education reform means these days by Democratic standards — other than more school choice, meaning more charter schools — and teacher evaluation tied to testing (suddenly, not so popular an idea).
But what it means to many Democrats is something related to the wildly unpopular Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. So, of course, this is an issue. Kennedy is supported by the teachers unions. Johnston is largely supported by ed-reform advocates. Polis has been a supporter of charter schools. Donna Lynne founded Colorado Succeeds, which Chalkbeat Colorado describes as a “bipartisan business-oriented education reform group.” In a Democratic primary, it’s easy to pick the winner in that fight.
This may be a turning point. It definitely marked the start of the home stretch in the race, in which the ballots have arrived in your mailboxes and voting ends June 26.
So, we’ll put this race in context, or as much as we can, in a campaign that is far from over. We’ll look at how we ended up with this field of four fairly mainstream liberals, why the supposed civil war between moderates and progressives within the Democratic Party never made it to Colorado and what the final stretch of this race is looking like.
How did we get here?
We begin with Ken Salazar, because it all began with Salazar. Democrats have employed a stunningly successful game plan for how to win top-of-the-ballot races in Colorado, and Salazar was front and center when the state morphed from red to purple and then to bluish-purple.
When the governor’s race began in earnest in 2017, it wasn’t just Salazar’s turn. It seemed like his destiny. And if it truly had been his destiny, the race would probably look nothing like the four-person contest today.
When Salazar, then Colorado’s attorney general, ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, taking care to big-foot Mark Udall out of the race, Colorado was a deep-red state with a Republican governor, two Republican senators, Republican control of both houses of the state legislature. At that point, if you looked at the distant political horizon, all you could see was red.
And then Salazar won his race against Pete Coors, of those Coors. The Dems won control of the legislature thanks to the efforts of the Gang of Four (of which Jared Polis, not incidentally, was one), who stunned Republicans with their stealth strategy of investing millions in usually low-cost legislative races.
Everything changed that year in Colorado. Democrats have lost only one top-of-the-ballot race since — Cory Gardner beating incumbent Mark Udall by two points in a GOP wave election. Democrats have won by nominating moderates (Salazar, Bill Ritter, Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper, the post-Boulder version of Udall) while Republicans veered right, sometimes way, way right and sometimes (see: Maes, Dan) way, way out. It was the era of the culture wars, and, in Colorado anyway, Republicans were on the losing side. Gardner successfully claimed the middle in 2014 — which may be a much tougher lift for him in a re-election bid in 2020 — but two years later, Bennet and Hillary Clinton both won in Colorado.
Salazar didn’t stay in the Senate long. After four years, he left to take his spot in Barack Obama’s cabinet and, more than occasionally, on Obama’s pick-up basketball team, but it seemed pretty obvious what would happen next. When Hickenlooper was term limited, Salazar would run for governor. It’s what he had always wanted. The Democratic nomination — Dems haven’t had a real primary fight for governor since 1998 — was probably his for the asking.
But he didn’t ask. He had family health issues. There was money to be made. He was many years away from the rigors of the campaign trail, and if he got back in, there was all that money to be raised in a state with low fundraising limits. He was a centrist Democrat when the mood in the party was clearly turning left. He had made some enemies among environmentalists in his time as Interior secretary. The truth is, he probably would have faced an uncomfortable primary battle, even presuming he would win.
The race was basically frozen until he made up his mind. Only Johnston jumped in, although former state treasurer Cary Kennedy was telling people she would run regardless. Congressman Ed Perlmutter had said he wouldn’t run if Salazar did. And there didn’t seem to be any other major contenders.
We know what happened. When Salazar wrote the March 22, 2017 op-ed in The Denver Post saying he wouldn’t run — although he didn’t really say why — Perlmutter entered the race, and it seemed as if the Democratic strategy would remain in place. While Perlmutter didn’t clear the field, he was the clear favorite, as a mainstream liberal with a moderate personality with strong ties to nearly every Democratic constituency in the state. He was a strong campaigner, known for knocking on doors and doing cartwheels when he won, which he usually did. And when the rumors started that Polis would get in the race, one very prominent Democrat, who knows both Polis and Perlmutter well, told me he didn’t believe it. “Come on, they’re friends,” he said. “Jared is not going to try to roll Ed.”
And yet, Polis got in. Perlmutter got rolled. In his shocking announcement that he was leaving the race, Perlmutter said he had lost the fire in his belly. My guess is he also felt a knife in his back. He must have wondered why Polis got in. He must have wondered why there were rumors about Hickenlooper pushing Lynne into the race instead of, say, supporting him. Mostly, he didn’t see how he could compete with Polis’ money.
When he dropped out, Perlmutter said all the right things about Polis, including that he had as much a right as anyone else to get into the race.
The thing is, the fire in the belly returned quickly enough for Perlmutter, who then got back in the race for his 7th CD seat, forcing out a couple of friends of his who were already running to replace him. If Polis did something wrong, then so did Perlmutter.
“Ed is a great friend, a great leader in the state,” Polis told me when I asked him whether he felt any reluctance about joining a race Perlmutter had already entered. “He’s a good personal friend. I’m also good friends with Cary. But when you have a bold progressive vision for the state, you want to give voters a chance to hear it.
“I’m excited to take that vision anywhere in the state. That’s why I decided to run. It’s never a decision based on whether you have friends in the race.”
And so Polis became the presumed frontrunner because of the limitless money he would spend on the race. But no one ever saw it as a sure thing. What many observers said instead was that Polis has a likability ceiling. We may find out if that’s true. Kennedy, the former state treasurer who wrote Amendment 23 and played a key role in the Ref C debate, won the caucuses by winning the base and soon became the co-frontrunner. Johnston keeps saying that he’s the candidate Republicans most fear, and he’s probably right, although he is still searching for a way to turn what is perceived to be a two-way race into a three-way. Meanwhile, Lynne had Hickenlooper urging her to get into the race, which she eventually did. And there’s your field.
I was talking to Republican strategist Dick Wadhams right after Polis had chased Perlmutter out of the race and he was stunned. “This race has had three front runners so far, including one (Ken Salazar) who never got in the race. I’ve never seen that. The Democrats have been great at clearing the field … and now there’s a real race.”
But a race that turned out to be all turtle and no hare — until June rolled in.
The Civil War That Wasn’t
Some questions: In a wide-open field, why isn’t there a Bernie Bro in the race? Why, after Salazar didn’t get in, isn’t there a Latino in the field? Isn’t this the era of identity politics in the Democratic Party? (To be fair, there are two women and one gay man, so there’s that.)
The lieutenant governor strongly considering getting into the race. No, not that lieutenant governor — the one before Donna Lynne. This was in 2017. Joe Garcia was torn. He had credentials (Harvard Law, president of CSU-Pueblo, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education); he had skills, he had been tapped by the most popular Democrat in the state, he was being pushed by many in the Latino community. And so, he went to Hickenlooper and asked him what he thought. Garcia pauses as he’s telling me the story. I ask the obvious follow-up: Did Hick encourage you to run?
Garcia: “Not quite. He didn’t discourage me. But it was pretty much that if Ken got in, I’d be out.”
Garcia was ambivalent at best about running before he got this less than rousing endorsement from Hickenlooper. He didn’t like the idea of constant fundraising. He wasn’t sure his skill set was a good fit for being a politician. So, he didn’t get in. He resigned as lieutenant governor. And Hickenlooper appointed Donna Lynne to replace Garcia, saying at the time that she was presumably not interested in being governor. We know how that turned out.
Another Latino also weighed getting into the race — state representative Joe Salazar. It turned out the weight was too much.
Salazar is one of the few politicians in Colorado to have endorsed Sanders in 2016. And now Sanders has endorsed him — in Salazar’s primary race to be the Dem attorney general nominee. If you remember, Sanders won the Dem caucus in 2016 despite establishment Democratic support for Hillary Clinton.
It seemed as if this were the time for a Sanders-like candidate. There looked like a solid base for such a candidate. So why didn’t Salazar get in?
He laughs. You know the answer.
He says the Dem party leaders — he name-checks Hickenlooper, Ken Salazar and Bennet — don’t want a real progressive. And without that kind of support, he can’t raise the kind of money necessary to be competitive.
“It should be an exciting time to be a progressive, an energizing time, a time of change with millennials so involved,” he says. “But the truth is it sucks to be a progressive in Colorado.”
He explains: “My tia is giving me 50 bucks. How do you compete with Jared Polis and $350 million? The only way is to sell yourself out and lose your progressive credentials.”
Either that or have a whole lot of tias.
The civil war was supposed to pit Bernie progressives and remnants of the Clinton establishment forever fighting the last war. It has been an much-overhyped story from the start, even in an era when stories are routinely overhyped, but wherever it might be happening, and it didn’t show even in California in its primary, you have to look really hard to find a hint of it in Colorado.
There might have been a civil war nationally in the Democratic Party after the Sanders-Clinton primary were it not for Donald Trump. You can put it down to the ever-deepening partisan divide, where issues are overwhelmed by party loyalty. Donald Trump can change years of Republican doctrine with a single tweet — say, open markets or palling around with Kim Jong Un — and with little to no debate. Democrats are defined by their opposition to all things Trump.
I mean, when Trump’s lawyers are claiming that Trump doesn’t have to talk to Mueller’s lawyers because, as president, he can do pretty much whatever he wants to do with impunity, it’s hard for intraparty squabbling to break through.
So beating Trump is really the only thing that a great majority of Democrats care about. In the midterms, taking back the House and maybe even stealing the Senate is what drives Democrats. Here’s a stat from the Brookings Institution that tells it all about the non-civil war: Only eight Democratic House incumbents — one of them Colorado’s Diana DeGette — are facing a progressive challenger. On the Republican side, meanwhile, 60 incumbents are facing at least a nominal challenge.
In Colorado, moderates win as governor. That’s the rule. In this season, the Democratic definition of moderate has changed, moving left — this is Bernie Sanders’ influence writ large — and Democrats hope the state has moved with them. Colorado was one of the rare swing states that stayed Democratic in the presidential election, with Clinton beating Trump by five points.
In this field, Polis and Kennedy lean left, and they’re the apparent leaders. Polis was the wild card, the in-your-face self-funder who tends to line up against whatever establishment is available. And yet in this race, he has done his best not to offend anyone who wasn’t Donald Trump. Cary Kennedy was the Democratic star who lost her treasurer’s seat in 2010 to, yes, Republican frontrunner Walker Stapleton, but who seemed to be headed toward running for governor forever. Lynne was the Hickenlooper stand-in, for what that has been worth. Johnston was the ambitious ex-senator who came to prominence as a leader of the ed-reform movement in Colorado (similar to the type of ed reform, he likes to point out, that Barack Obama was into).
It was a race with promise — a lot of smart people who actually have thought through a lot of the issues facing us. But if Democrats were worried that a wide-open primary would lead to chaos, they may have to rethink things. This didn’t turn out to be Bennet-Romanoff, the 2010 U.S. Senate primary from which there are still hard feelings. It became the nuance primary, marked by friendly debates about slightly different solutions to many of the same problems.
In fact, we had a race in which you couldn’t find a defining issue if you employed an army of drones.
And so the Democratic messaging has been all about who really, really didn’t like Trump and then who had the best plan to reform TABOR and who had the best plan for affordable housing and who had the best plan for full-day kindergarten and who could take us closer to universal health care and who could do something about infrastructure and, sure, there were fundamental differences on education, but not so you’d notice if you read the issue papers on the candidates’ websites. There was also Jared Polis’ 2013 quote defending assault weapons, but I’m not sure how much traction that’s getting.
What I mean is, this was the most civil civil war I’ve ever covered.
So, Now What?
No one cleared the field, unaffiliated voters are eligible to vote in primaries and no one knows how that might turn out. And there isn’t a clear Democratic establishment pick. In fact, the establishment — whose membership is not easy to codify — is probably not rooting for the frontrunner. Polis scares many Democrats because the GOP would easily caricature him in November as a Boulder liberal because, well, he is an easily caricatured Boulder liberal. Of course that’s not a bad thing in the Dem primary. And Polis has run ads featuring his endorsement by liberal icon Pat Schroeder.
If you talk to Polis for very long, you’ll notice that he uses the phrase “bold progressive” at least twice in every sentence. This is what he wants you to take from any conversation or stump speech. He may not have endorsed Sanders — and I’m sure now he wished he had — but he will say this: “The candidates in this race might share most of the same basic values, but where I distinguish myself is by being willing to challenge the status quo, to take on the special interests, to not hide behind PACs or dark money. People know I will do this because I have done it … I might be taking on big pharma one day and oil and gas interests the next.”
Polis does have a PAC supporting him now, which is strange for a self-funder. And there are many in the environmental community still upset about his compromise with Hickenlooper in forming a panel on fracking. If you don’t remember, the compromise came in 2014 when Polis was funding two ballot measures for greater local control of fracking, and oil and gas was funding two in opposition. Hickenlooper persuaded both sides to withdraw their ballot measures and replaced them with a panel to bang out a compromise, which we’re still waiting to see. Don’t be surprised to see new fracking measures hit the ballot.
Polis is still a strong advocate for the environment and for anti-fracking laws, but this is just another piece of evidence showing he can have a problem not just with his enemies, but with his friends. Polis is bold and he’s progressive. And he has taken on the status quo, which is one reason why many in the Democratic establishment aren’t exactly fond of him.
Kennedy got the biggest endorsement available in Ken Salazar. You may have heard whispers that Salazar, who has represented big oil in Colorado, is supporting Kennedy as a way to stop Polis. It seems like a roundabout way to do it — couldn’t oil and gas, which strongly opposes Polis, find a more productive way to hurt Polis. But The Intercept has just run an article making the case, so it’s out there, although Salazar friends tell me that he’s supporting Kennedy because he thinks it’s time Colorado had a woman as governor. Kennedy also has support from Emily’s List and the teachers union. And as you may know, Colorado, which was the second state to grant women the vote, has never had a woman as governor or senator.
Kennedy, who says she’s not running because she’s woman (obviously true) but is hoping that running as a woman might actually be a plus (also obviously true), tells a great story about state’s founding convention in 1876 when one of the big issues was whether to enter the union while giving the women the vote.
“They debated it for weeks,” she said. “They finally decided — and it’s so fun, because history repeats itself so often — as a compromise they would put it on the ballot, let the people decide. So it went on the ballot.
She pauses for effect.
“Of course, only men could vote.”
It failed 70-30 and lost in every county except one. If you can’t guess that county was Boulder, even then, you might need a Colorado history refresher course. A decade later, it went back to the voters and won.
One more note: In primaries so far this year, notes Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman, women have won 59 of 84 races in which there was at least one man, one woman and no incumbent. GOP women had a big night in the most recent set of primaries, winning 5 of 7 races which had at least one man, one woman and no incumbent.
Johnston is running as the version of an appealing centrist Democrat who, history says, is supposed to win these races, but who is still desperately trying to catch up. In the first negative campaign ad of the year, the PAC supporting Kennedy ripped Johnston’s education plan as “conservative.” Meanwhile, Johnston told me that he sees Polis and Kennedy “running in the same lane,” which is presumably the left lane. Maybe the biggest question in the primary is whether it’s a two-person race or whether Johnston, is actually surging, as he puts it.
Part of his shtick is that Republicans are rooting for Polis and against him.
“I do a lot of conservative talk shows,” he says, “and at the end they always say, ‘Thanks for coming on, really great to have you , but we want you to know we’re really rooting hard for Jared Polis, because we would hate to see you in a general election.”
And another, uh, contrast: “I gave a speech once and somebody asked me I was going to self-finance,” he said. “My wife was in the crowd and she laughed out loud.”
Donna Lynne has a story to tell, too, but you have to wonder who’s listening. No one doubts her ability. In fact, Josh Penry, the GOP strategist, says she’s most qualified candidate since Bill Owens, notably the last Republican to win. Hickenlooper has said much the same. But most experts — and non-experts — doubt that someone who is best known as a former executive for an insurance company is going to win a Democratic primary, particularly in this season.
And to this point — and it’s getting late — she has yet to claim an issue as her own. She told The Colorado Independent’s Corey Hutchins that she wouldn’t reveal her tax returns, which might have become an issue against her if she were ever seen as a true contender.
But, if you do listen to her story, she will tell you that she worked her way through college as a waitress, that she was a single mother for 26 years, that for much of that time she lived in a one-bedroom apartment with two kids.
And while she says being the first woman governor is not what drives her, she does like to tell of this conversation she once had.
“What do you do?”
“I work for a health plan.”
“Oh, are you a nurse?”
“No, I’m in administration.”
“What does that mean”
“OK, I’ll just say it. I’m the president.”
“No, you’re kidding. You’re the president?”
“Well, yes I am.”
Now Lynne wants to say, I’m the governor. It doesn’t seem likely at this point, but the way we’ll know if she’s gaining is if someone bothers to make a negative ad about her.
The end game is playing out just the way you’d expect. The race had to go negative if anyone was going to catch Polis, who has spent an astonishing $10.5 million so far in the campaign. Now that Polis is attacking Kennedy for attacking him and Hickenlooper is upset with Polis for using his words to attack Kennedy, don’t be surprised if Kennedy tries something different in the last days — say, hitting Polis for trying to buy the election. It’s hard for me to believe she hasn’t already done it.
A poll came in last week on the Democratic race from Magellan Strategies, a Republican pollster, that confirmed much of the punditry around the race. Let’s just say it didn’t confirm the Hickenlooper-cited poll which had Kennedy leading. In this poll, Polis is in front of Kennedy by 13 points. Johnston and Lynne, meanwhile, are in in single digits.
But maybe the most important number this late into the game is that 39 percent of those polled were undecided. It’s a huge number. It’s double what the pollsters said they expected to find.
There’s only one explanation for that, and it’s the one you can easily guess if you’ve read this far. There’s just so little space between the candidates on the issues. In any case, there is only one issue that really matters for Democrats, even in a governor’s race, and that is Donald Trump. And there is only one way to force that issue, which is to figure out by June 26 which Democrat can win in November.