Victor Mitchell does not want this story to begin this way.
Snapshot I: It’s a Saturday evening in mid-May and the multimillionaire entrepreneur with spiky silver hair and an Everybody-Loves-Raymond smile is working the crowd at a large GOP fundraiser in El Paso County — the beating heart of Colorado’s Trump country.
At such gatherings, Mitchell, who is 52 and running for governor in a four-way primary, often has to introduce himself to the Republican tribe. It has been a decade since he served one term in the legislature as a representative from Castle Rock in conservative Douglas County. And, like two other Republicans against whom he’s competing in the June 26 primary, his bid seemed to offer evidence that this year anyone might try for the GOP nomination. No field-clearing front-runner had frozen out a broad bumper crop of Republicans who wanted a shot at the first wide-open race for governor in a generation.
On this particular night, just inside the door of a black-tie ballroom of the latest GOP dinner, Mitchell runs into a buzz saw. As he’s telling a woman about his plan to roll back state regulations, he’s interrupted by a large man, clearly agitated, who asks whether Mitchell voted for Donald Trump for president.
“I didn’t vote for him,” the candidate answers, “but I do support him.”
The eyes of his interloper — Robert Posch, who runs a cleaning company in the Springs — go wide, and Posch crawfishes from Mitchell, darting away backward toward the cash bar as he gives Mitchell the business. Posch was supportive of Mitchell, he says later in an interview, until he learned he did not vote for Trump in 2016. Instead, Mitchell voted for Evan McMullin, the former CIA officer who ran as an independent for president. Mitchell couldn’t get past the way Trump talked about and treated women. And Posch, who represents the view of a certain slice of Colorado’s GOP electorate, couldn’t get past what he views as Mitchell’s apostasy.
Victor Mitchell might, instead, prefer this story about him to begin like this:
Snapshot II: It’s late February and Mitchell is on a stage flanked by the other Republican candidates for governor, including state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, former investment banker Doug Robinson, and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who was later bounced from the race at the April state GOP assembly.
The morning forum, hosted by the Colorado Business Roundtable, is full of business leaders picking at breakfast plates. The moderator, a reporter for The Denver Business Journal, asks a question: “Knowing that each of you say you support the oil-and-gas industry as a key economic cog for Colorado, what specific rules would you change, if any, to aide the oil-and-gas industry … and how do you address concerns from homeowners about encroachment of drilling?”
While Robinson, Coffman and Stapleton seem to climb all over each other to show who can suck up most to the industry, Mitchell has a different response.
Speaking into a microphone, he tells a crowd likely sprinkled with people in the oil-and-gas business that “first and foremost” he was “deeply disappointed” with the way the industry handled the fallout from a fatal home explosion last year caused by an abandoned Anadarko gas line. “I mean that was a classic example,” Mitchell says, “of that they should have done everything possible to take ownership of it, to offer significant compensation to the victim, and said ‘Listen we’re going to do things better … we’re going to own this, this was a terrible mistake, we could have gotten on top of this,’ and … they’re still finger-pointing today as to who is ultimately culpable in that disaster.”
About 20 minutes later, the forum wraps up, and as the candidates are glad-handing with the crowd, a man buttonholes Mitchell and lets him have it. “It was a lobbyist,” Mitchell says after the exchange when asked about it. “I got read the riot act.”
‘His own man’
The two snapshots from a gubernatorial bid that began 16 months ago highlight some of what sets Mitchell apart in a primary election in which the candidates largely agree on the issues most Republicans care about. As the only GOP contender who didn’t vote for Trump, he has had to show where he’s in line with the president (defunding sanctuary cities, tax policy, shredding red tape) and where he’s not (the president’s “crudeness” and brash style) in a state where 1.2 million people voted for Trump but that was also a hotbed of the #NeverTrump movement.
As a candidate who calls himself an independent thinker who is not taking special interest money or accepting endorsements, Mitchell says things not everyone – including oil-and-gas lobbyists – might want to hear. “I still think fossil fuels [are] the most reliable, efficient form of energy we still have,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean that one industry should run roughshod over our government.”
According to one Mitchell supporter, Rob Witwer, a former Republican lawmaker who served with him in the legislature and co-wrote “The Blueprint,” a book about how progressives turned Colorado blue, Mitchell is “absolutely his own man — not the type to be swayed or pushed by his party or anything else.”
‘Something that burns inside of me’
Mitchell, a father of three, looks younger than he is.
He is energetic and fond of plaid sport jackets with no tie. He wears a sort of fragrance that lingers for a while after you meet him. He is accessible to the press but can be combative if he doesn’t appreciate the coverage or a particular headline. In forums with other candidates, he might dramatically roll his eyes or shake his head at statements he disagrees with, and he won’t hesitate to challenge a rival— on live TV— over a perceived slight. On the stump, he does not dodge questions or equivocate. If a voter asks him something and he doesn’t know the answer he’ll say he doesn’t know the answer.
In this year’s governor’s race, Mitchell was one of the first to take direct shots at his opponents. He said attorneys aren’t qualified for the governorship back when one Republican prosecutor was running and AG Coffman was considering a bid, and he frequently mentions on the campaign trail that he’s running against “George Bush’s cousin” and “Mitt Romney’s nephew,” a jab at the political family connections of Stapleton and Robinson. With a week to go before the primary election, he is paying for negative ads against his chief rival, lobbing a barrage of three different attacks aimed at Stapleton. And he’s dumping boatloads of his own money into the race to do it — he has shelled out nearly $5 million from his pocket for the primary.
A New York native who moved here from California 20 years ago, Mitchell — who comes from the “other side of the tracks”— says his childhood was touch-and-go as he cared for his disabled grandmother, a “dyed-in-the-wool liberal” with whom even at 13 he would argue about politics. He voted for Ronald Reagan when was 18 and started his first company, a driving service, when he was in college. He hasn’t worked for anybody but himself since then. He has a degree in finance from San Diego State and a Masters from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. A serial entrepreneur, he made his millions starting and selling telecom, finance, and real estate services companies. He now runs Lead Funding, a lending firm that serves as an alternative to banks, which he hopes will go public and says he would sell if he becomes governor.
After 10 years in Colorado, Mitchell won a seat to the state legislature where he served one term, from 2007 to 2009. At the time, he says other Republicans urged him to run for governor, but he had a young family and it didn’t feel right. “I didn’t think I had the maturity, the right sense of experience,” he said. In the ensuing years, he started to believe Colorado was becoming more liberal. He had built six successful companies and thought he could use that experience and business mindset to help fix the state’s roads and bridges, to make higher education and healthcare more affordable.
His kids started going off to college, and in 2017 he felt the timing was right to run. A practicing Catholic, he likens public service to a religious calling. “It’s something that burns inside of me,” he said in an interview. “I was given these God-given talents to take on and solve problems. It’s what I’ve done my whole life and I’ve done it pretty darn well and I want to do it for the people.”
In assessing the past eight years of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s governorship, Mitchell sometimes sounds like he’s describing a failed state.
“He’s a likable guy, he’s a charismatic guy, and he’s popular,” Mitchell says of the governor, who is term-limited and leaving office. “But if you take any objective standard, are our roads and infrastructure better than they were eight years ago? No. Is higher education more affordable or less affordable? Way less affordable. … Is healthcare more accessible and more affordable and more transparent today than it was eight years ago? Far worse.”
Asked what he thinks about Colorado having one of the strongest economies in the nation under Hickenlooper’s administration, Mitchell says it has “nothing to do with him.”
‘I am the only…’
With more than 600 campaign stops as of late-May, Mitchell boasts of being on the trail and pressing the flesh more than any of his seven rivals in either party.
He decided that he would spend $3 million of his own money on the race — he has spent that much and about two million more — and that he wouldn’t take special-interest money or accept endorsements. He built a robust digital campaign strategy and poured money into TV and direct-mail advertising, augmented with daily meet-and-greets and stops along the GOP breakfast, luncheon and dinner circuit. Before forums where other candidates would appear, Mitchell’s campaign would make sure every table in the audience was plastered with campaign material. He answers every email he gets from a voter. He lists his personal cell phone number on campaign literature.
On the stump, Mitchell often uses a line that begins with “I am the only.” The only one not taking special interest money. The only one not hunting for endorsements that reek of a kind of quid pro quo. “I’m the only one that’s been very substantive,” he says. “I’m the only true outsider businessman in the race.”
In a speech to voters last July, Mitchell said, “I’m the only one that can win statewide.” To bolster the claim, he said the Republican Governor’s Association met with him “and they said that basically by far and away I have the best chance to win statewide if I can win the nomination.” A spokesperson for the RGA wouldn’t comment on private conversations and said the group remains neutral in primaries.
In a speech to attendees at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver earlier this month, Mitchell said, “I’m the only Republican candidate for governor that opposes any and all new taxes or debt whatsoever that’s being proposed today.”
He is also the only candidate in the race who did not vote for Trump for president, and in August he doubled down, saying in a video interview with a liberal blog that he wouldn’t accept a campaign visit from Trump if the president offered.
Nine months later, he changed his tune. Asked when and why, Mitchell told The Colorado Independent he supports Trump in many respects and tries to separate his “crudeness” from “what’s actually happening.” The economy is booming, he said, and he likes Trump’s new tax plan and how he’s rolling back regulations. “His style is different than mine and will always be, but he deserves the reverence of the presidency,” Mitchell said. “So if he wanted to campaign with me I would accept.”
Like Trump, Mitchell is intent on clawing back regulations on businesses.
If elected governor, he says he would set out to roll back 100,000 pages of them through a mix of executive orders and legislation following a review by a blue-ribbon commission he would appoint. Asked if he knows which ones he would target yet, he said, “I’m not smart enough to tell you.” Asked to name the worst of the worst, he name-checked Colorado’s construction-defects law, which has been the subject of a perennial partisan battle at the statehouse for years and a hot issue on which legislative leadership has oft-struggled to find a compromise. His standard for keeping red tape would be if a regulation kept the public safe. “If you want to go to a doctor, you want to make sure he’s well qualified and [the state has] the right regulations to make sure he’s not a fraud,” Mitchell said. “But if you want to hire somebody to watch your dog, I don’t think we really need regulations for that.”
A top priority if he becomes governor, Mitchell said, would be to tackle gun violence and school shootings by creating a “nonpolitical task force” that involves a spectrum of experts from FBI profilers to mental health professionals and more who would come up with specific solutions. Goals would include greater funding for mental health care, family interventions, strengthening schools and law enforcement, and reviewing HIPAA privacy laws, among others. He said he would want to increase criminal profiling and data sharing, like social media, with a greater collaboration between students, family members, and law enforcement. He is open to the idea of arming teachers. Asked about bump stocks, the candidate who boasts he had an A+ rating from the NRA in the one term he served in the legislature, says he would have no problem banning them as governor. (Mitchell did not answer a questionnaire from the NRA in his bid this year, so the group lists his current grade as a question mark.)
On healthcare, he says he would urge lawmakers to stop expanding Medicaid and end the state’s Obamacare exchange. The state’s Medicaid plan currently covers about 1.4 million people, and about 8 percent of Coloradans are insured through the exchange.
To provide healthcare a different way, he would use federal block grants to create an environment for “young, entrepreneur nurse-practitioner-physician-assistant-type clinics” that could pop up around the state and handle common procedures like mammograms and colonoscopies, even mental health offerings, and could rely on telemedicine connectivity to physicians at larger hospitals. The state would pay up to 50 percent of an approved clinic’s operating costs for a year and then go through annual reviews. He acknowledges he would need to ask for some waivers from the Trump administration to make sure Colorado wouldn’t lose federal dollars that are tied to Medicaid spending. Such clinics, he says, would primarily serve Medicaid patients and other underserved populations in rural areas, but also could serve on a fee-for-services basis as an option for those who aren’t insured.
“Somehow we’ve gotten it to, ‘Oh, insurance should cover everything,’” Mitchell says.
About transportation, he says he would limit overhead in the Colorado Department of Transportation’s budget from 70 percent to no more than 20 percent and send the rest to contractors. To free up even more money in the budget for transportation programs, he said he would want to reform a legislative audit committee to allow it to do performance audits on state agencies to find ways to streamline how they operate and shift saved money from those audits to other initiatives in state government. He thinks doing so would provide political cover for lawmakers who could move money around in the budget by pointing to an independent audit as the reason.
When it comes to higher education, his ideas would bring radical changes if they came to fruition. Mitchell says he would want to take all money earmarked for state universities in Colorado and channel it directly toward STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — to make those degrees less expensive. Asked what that would mean for the humanities, Mitchell said each institution would determine for itself, but he would aggressively push for deploying expanded uses of endowments as well as press universities “to do more with less” by cutting administrative overhead — and reducing the number of associate deans. He also pledges he would not allow tuition increases at public universities as long as he is governor, and says he would want professors, especially tenured faculty, teaching more classes.
Mitchell acknowledges such overhauls would require legislation.
A governor can come up with his or her own budget request, but that’s all it is — a request. Lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee could take such a request into consideration but, eventually, the larger body of the state legislature would get involved in how and where higher-ed money is spent. “It’s really the legislature that determines how the funding is going to go,” says Richard Maestas, CFO of the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
Mitchell also aims to cut the state workforce by 20 percent — around 30,000 people work in Colorado’s executive branch alone — and allow young people to work temporary state jobs “to bring a millennial’s perspective” to state government on two-year contracts that would cancel up to $30,000 of their student loans. Doing so, he says, would also take pressure off the state’s public retirement system.
Mitchell says he would target reductions among all state workers but would exclude teachers, prison workers and other “critical positions.” He refuses to call this a layoff, saying his administration would create incentives to encourage early retirements, consolidate bureaucracies and not rehire after someone leaves a job.
On criminal justice, he told The Colorado Independent he would be open to decriminalizing recreational drug use for “common, everyday drugs” from “cocaine on up” to relieve stress on overcrowded prisons. That’s a libertarian idea for sure, but he also says he would support the repeal of legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado if long-term studies show it has a negative impact on kids.
Like the other Republicans in the race, Mitchell wants to defund so-called sanctuary cities, but he goes a step further. He thinks the legislature should pass a law holding city officials civilly liable if they don’t cooperate with federal ICE agents in detaining an undocumented immigrant who goes on to commit a crime.
On his many campaign stops, his wife Amy, who grew up in Northern Ireland in a Navy family and volunteers for mental health charities, is often at his side.
“If Vic and Amy worked together I think they’d make a good First Couple,” says Lew Gaiter, a Republican Larimer County Commissioner who was also running for governor this year but didn’t make it out of the April state assembly. “He’s got some good ideas and a really smart wife, and he listens to her.”
By far and away, Mitchell has out-campaigned his rivals in the race and he has spent the majority of that time talking about issues and the specifics of his views about them. Yet even in the most recent polling he has remained in double digits behind Stapleton and hasn’t caught fire with voters.
Sandra Foote, a Republican activist in El Paso County, says she believes of all the candidates in the governor’s race — including the Democrats — Mitchell has the most detailed plan for how to make Colorado a better place. In person, she says he has never been anything but kind.
“But it’s his personality,” says the retired nurse who has observed him at multiple events. “He gets really grumpy when people don’t go along with him, and I think that that’s hurt him. … When things don’t go well he gets harsh really quickly and I’m not even sure he knows how harsh he can be.”
‘What’s the alternative?’
Snapshot III: On a recent Tuesday, Mitchell is holding one of his campaign’s “FUN-raisers” in the backroom of a restaurant called The Boardroom in the Denver suburbs. A man in the crowd says a state government overhaul like the one the candidate pitches sounds hugely controversial.
“Yes, it is,” Mitchell says.
“So, is it feasible?” the man asks. “Will you need the support of the legislature? What are your ideas about how to pull it off?”
“Yes, it will be feasible,” Mitchell responds. And yes, it will be difficult and controversial. And, yes, many of the acts he says he would take as governor would require buy-in from Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly. As a data guy, he says with enough empirical and incontrovertible evidence, he’ll be able to form coalitions and persuade lawmakers to his side.
But, Mitchell poses a question back to his questioner: “What’s the alternative? We elect people that take in millions of dollars of special-interest money, they’re totally bought and paid for, they can’t fix anything. How’s this going to end if we don’t start electing people that come from the outside that have actually done things in the private sector?”
That same evening, Mitchell is sitting on the outdoor patio of the restaurant, reveling in recent poll numbers that show him rising in the weeks just before ballots go out in the mail. His new ads attacking Stapleton haven’t yet started running on TV.
He says he knows Stapleton has much higher name recognition, but he sees him as just another “insider” in the arc of Republican gubernatorial candidates in recent election cycles that haven’t made the ultimate cut. Republicans, he explains, have a habit here of nominating candidates for governor who go on to lose in the general election. “We saw Bob Beauprez lose twice,” he says of the former GOP congressman who most recently lost to Hickenlooper — although just narrowly — in 2014. He says he trusts the voters will get it right — and this year they will include 1.2 million unaffiliated voters who can participate for the first time in the primaries. “There’s a long history of [ultimately unsuccessful nominees] in Colorado,” Mitchell says.
And then he cannot help himself.
“That’s why I think I’m the only outsider businessman who can win a general election.”