We believe in honesty here at the Littwin gov panel headquarters. So, as we present our final pre-primary rankings, we readily concede that the panel’s closing lineup is not very different from its opening lineup on Week 1, which came three months ago. Which tells you a number of things.
- Nothing much has happened in either race.
- Losing Tom Tancredo and George Brauchler from the GOP primary brought the temperature way down, which, in part, explains No. 1.
- The decimation of The Denver Post and other newspapers meant much less on-the-ground coverage, meaning many fewer stories were broken, meaning I can’t think of one story that was even close to being race-altering.
- Even in the era of Donald Trump railroading the GOP and Bernie standing up to the Dem establishment, the divide between the two parties is far greater, and far more passionate, than any divide within them.
- Our panelists were pretty smart (or, if we’re wrong Tuesday, maybe not so smart at all).
I’ve identified five major issues in the race — money; who got in and, mostly, who got out; the unaffiliateds who can, for the first time, vote in primaries; signature snafus; oh yeah, and money.
Let’s start with money, money, money: the alpha and omega of this race and of most races. Panelist Cinamon Watson provides the accompanying music. This one is like no other in Colorado history. The candidates have spent a startling, record-shattering $25 million of their own money in a primary race. Nearly half of that comes from Jared Polis, who has limitless funds. He has provided cover for Republican Vic Mitchell, who has spent $5 million of his own, which, in this race, feels like low-stakes poker.
Panelist Alan Salazar asks the reasonable question: “Taking nothing away from Jared, one wonders if Mike Johnston, Cary Kennedy or Donna Lynne had spent $11 million on their races (from whatever source) whether we would have a different person as the front runner?”
It’s an unknowable, of course, but it’s not an unguessable, and it leaves Democrats, who like to say they are for campaign finance reform, with a problem. Panelist Ian Silverii, of ProgressNow, thinks that while it’s good Polis wouldn’t be beholden to donors, he worries about living in what he calls an oligarchy. He says it’s very confusing for him personally. “If Jared, who I agree with on basically everything, can essentially buy this seat, what’s to prevent 49 people with whom I completely disagree from buying the governor’s mansions in the other states?”
Meanwhile, Mike Johnston’s supporting PAC received three $1 million checks — two from Mike Bloomberg — and nearly $6 million in all, much of it out-of-state ed-reform money. I keep vainly waiting for the definitive story on what the ed reformers believe Johnston would do for them as governor.
GOP front-runner Walker Stapleton had to toss in half a million of his own money, presumably because he’s worried about Mitchell’s TV ad spending and not because he just had an extra half-million sitting around.
Kennedy and Johnston are the only candidates who haven’t spent any of their money. As Johnston likes to say on the trail:”I gave a speech once and somebody asked me if I was going to self-finance,” he said. “My wife was in the crowd and she laughed out loud.”
The other big story is the unaffiliateds and what impact they might have in this race. Panelist Josh Penry says that the first 100,000 or so are probably liberals and conservatives who prefer not to identify with a party.
But, Penry says, “as these independent numbers swell past 100,000, now you’re definitely getting a different breed. You’re likely seeing more and more of these archetypical swing suburban Moms and Little League Dads voting in the primary, too. These people aren’t ideological; they vote the person … If (Polis) throws another million in before Saturday, you’ll know he agrees.”
So the question is whether the money will matter more in Tuesday’s primary or will it be the unaffiliated voters? “The answer,” Penry says, “appears to be, yes.”
With that, onto the rankings. Since they’re the final rankings, they’ll be a little expanded. Apparently, there’s still a lot to say.
1. Jared Polis. His Democratic contenders never did much of a job in hitting Polis on his check-writing advantage. With Johnston’s big haul from ed-reform people, he wasn’t in position to do so. Cary Kennedy — her supporting PAC anyway — made one big stab at going negative on education, and the consensus is it didn’t work. Polis was clearly ready for the attack. Donna Lynne tried briefly in a debate, but took shots at everyone. So, Polis has spent ungodly amounts of his own money, and, if anyone objects, it will have to be the voters. Panelist Salazar makes an excellent point about the Kennedy PAC going negative, saying: “When the guy you go after has the financial throw weight to bury you with an avalanche of ads — including one quoting Hick no less — and there is no counterpunch with equal weight, you might think twice about the kind of attack you launch.” Panelist Watson had another take on Polis’ money. “After writing his campaign a whopper of a check, I was shocked to hear Polis call for publicly financed campaigns in the Channel 7 debate.”
2. Cary Kennedy. Everyone agrees she has run a very good campaign. She won the caucuses and the assembly and even briefly made it to the top of the Littwin rankings. She’s not a great speaker, but she has improved tremendously since her state treasurer campaigns. Her debate performances, though, were fairly flat while Johnston was clearly the best of the pack. Polis improved steadily over the campaign. If Kennedy can’t catch Polis, people will point to the fact that, in the end, she didn’t have the money to compete. But Hickenlooper’s news conference on negative ads didn’t help either. Silverii thinks that if Kennedy loses, she should run for U.S. Senate in 2020 against Cary Gardner. But I’d say that if you lose two straight statewide races, that’s a tough streak to overcome.
3. Mike Johnston. Penry had him at No. 2 and gaining and agrees with Johnston that he’s the Democrat in the field that Republicans most fear. “I think if this election had 10 days and 2 more debates that Mike Johnston would catch Jared Polis,” Penry says. “As it is, he certainly seems to be closing fast. Those last several million dollars that Polis put into the race were, I would wager, as much about holding off Johnston as they were about Kennedy.” Johnston and his supporting PAC are all over the airwaves, but some Johnston supporters wonder if made a mistake in letting Polis and Kennedy dominate the news for so long.
4. Donna Lynne. No one ever writes anything about Lynne without mentioning how smart and competent she is. But as Silverii points out, when she runs a Hick-like, I’m-not-a-politician campaign, it just shows she’s really not a politician. I think she would make somebody a great lieutenant governor. Oh, wait.
1. Walker Stapleton. When Tom Tancredo dropped out of the race, he was leading in the polls. When George Brauchler dropped out of the race, it left Cynthia Coffman as the only non-Stapleton contender with name recognition. When Coffman imploded at the GOP assembly, it left Stapleton alone at the top. You can’t say he’s run a great campaign, which is why people are calling him Walker Stumbleton. You know the list of stumbles. Vic Mitchell has been spending money going negative on Stapleton and, as panelist Silverii points out, “the only question is will Vic Mitchell slightly, heavily or mortally wound Walker Stapleton for the general while trying to win this primary.” I’d vote vote slightly, but that’s a whole other race.
2. Victor Mitchell. Mitchell is the counter-argument to Polis. He’s spending lots of money (although only half of what Polis is spending), but it may not get him to the top. As panelist Salazar says, “Like Jared, it seems that spending a lot of money can get you name ID and create a race even when you start out with only two dogs listening to what you have to say.” I’ll remember Mitchell for hitting Stapleton as being anti-Trump because he’s related to the Bushes when, in fact, Mitchell was the one who didn’t vote for Trump. It is everything I love about politics in one ad.
3. Greg Lopez. On the Dem side, there is some thought that it might still be a three-way race with Johnston closing. On the Republican side, nobody thinks that way. Lopez gets the vote from those who like to hear a candidate insist that some cities in America are under Shariah law. Not that he can name one (because there isn’t one). But the candidate who goes there — particularly if he’s a nice guy who seems very much like he could get a gig on talk radio — always gets some votes on the Republican side.
4. Doug Robinson. It says a lot if you began the race as a legitimate contender and finish last. Panelist Salazar says maybe Robinson should have tried a tattoo. Robinson began the race as Mitt Romney’s nephew and ended it the same way. We predicted long ago that had to change for Robinson to contend. Maybe it’s not surprising that he’s in last place since he is the moderate in the field, who, Silverii notes, “stood with #MeToo surviviors by calling for Randy Baumgardner’s and Steve Lebsock’s ouster and said putting kids in cages is un-American.” Penry thinks Robinson will go far — as a hit on the Republican cocktail circuit. Penry calls him smart and credible and says he “could’ve won if he’d have spent $5 million of his money.”
So this is it — for now. I want to very much thank my great gov panel for so reliably doing this — gratis, I might add — week in, week out and while being so reliably on the mark. The panel will return (or at least I will) for the general election, probably sometime in early September.
Panelists: Big-shot GOP strategist Josh Penry, principal at EIS; long-time Dem strategist and Hancock chief of staff Alan Salazar; ProgressNow progressive Ian Silverii; GOP strategist, and always good quote, Cinamon Watson, principal at Blueprint Strategies— and, of course, me.