Jared Polis wins Colorado Democratic primary for governor

Jared Polis greets supporters after winning the Democratic primary in June. (Photo by Evan Semón)

Jared Polis has won Colorado’s Democratic primary for governor.

Polis, 43, is a five-term congressman from Boulder who, if elected in November’s general election, would be the first openly gay governor in the nation.

At an election party inside a ballroom at the Renaissance Boulder Flatiron Hotel in Broomfield, a beaming Polis addressed supporters around 8 p.m., shortly after claiming victory.

“Together,” he said, “we can prove that in our America, in our Colorado, anything is possible. Let’s get to work.”

Polis – whose candidacy led an erstwhile favorite, Congressman Ed Perlmutter, to exit the race in July – spent about $11.5 million of his own money in this primary.

He won vastly more support from primary voters than his Democratic opponents on Tuesday, holding 44.6 percent of the vote, with former state Treasurer Kennedy at 25 percent and former state Sen. Johnston 23 percent and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne in a distant fourth place, with 7.3 percent. That’s with 96 percent of precincts reporting as of 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Polis spoke with all three of his opponents by phone after returns were posted Tuesday night. He said in an interview Tuesday evening that he’s excited to work with Kennedy, Lynne and Johnston in the future, but when asked whether he’d consider any of them as his lieutenant governor, he said, “Tonight, we’re just excited to win the Democratic nomination.”

Polis Wins

In comments to his supporters, Polis touted Colorado as a national leader.

“Just take a look at the awesomeness of Colorado and our unwavering spirit that Coloradans have that make this hands-down the best state in the United States of America,” he said.

Polis will now will face Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton in November. Stapleton won 48.2 percent of the vote, vastly far out-performing his Republican opponents.

Stapleton, long the presumed winner on the GOP side, has been name-checking Polis for weeks, warning that Coloradans “can’t afford” Polis’s promised policies, including Medicare for all, a complete statewide transition to renewable energy by 2040, and free universal pre-K and kindergarten.

Addressing his supporters, Polis returned some of that fire on Tuesday night.

“From whether health care is a human right to whether immigrant children deserve human decency and human rights to even the basic question about whether or not honesty is important, Walker Stapleton comes out on the wrong side,” Polis said, “and the people of Colorado know that.”

Polis, who would also become Colorado’s first Jewish governor, was most seriously challenged this cycle by Kennedy.

Kennedy, 50, dominated Polis in both an unofficial straw poll on caucus night in March and at the statewide assembly in April. She lost her treasurer’s seat to Stapleton in 2010. In addition to the Democratic base, she drew the support of teachers unions and PACs that back female candidates. For much of the race, she set the agenda, zeroing in on education reform as the line that separated her from the other candidates. Kennedy was an unapologetic skeptic of reform efforts, and made public education funding the centerpiece of her campaign.

The tone at Kennedy’s gathering this evening was one of frustration and sadness.

“I’m devastated that she lost. I thought she was by far the best candidate in terms of qualification and passion and love for Colorado,” said Deborah Horst, a supporter from Centennial. “That being said, I will support Jared without a question.

“I feel like it came down to money, and I hate it. I hate that politics has become that. But it is what it is.”

Kennedy urged her supporters to rally behind Polis: “Together we need to make sure that Walker Stapleton does not become the next governor of Colorado,” she said to cheers from the crowd. “We need to grow our Democratic majority in the statehouse and take back the state Senate.”

Johnston is a former teacher, principal and state senator. Though he was seen as a rising star in Colorado politics, and in spite big-time financial backing from education reformers nationally, his campaign never took off in the way Kennedy’s did early on, and Polis’s has of late. His close third behind Kennedy marked a stronger showing than many analysts expected.

“We’re really proud of having closed the race strong,” Johnston’s spokeswoman, Grace Hanover, said late Tuesday. “We’ve been feeling this momentum on the doors and from our supporters over the past weeks, which picked up the pace and picked up our hopes. … You always hope you pull it out all the way but we felt good about how we performed.”

Hanover added that Polis “has Mike’s respect and he has his support. Mike is going to be the first one signing up to knock doors for him and make sure we win in November.”

Lynne said she didn’t seek to become governor when Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed her his lieutenant in 2016, but then ended up running, anyway. She billed herself as the adult in the room, condemning Polis, Kennedy and Johnston for “bickering” at debates.

“As a woman, as someone who believes in the institution of government, I wanted to fight the fight,” Lynne said as her election party wound down tonight. “I guess, in the end, money really matters.”

Fueling the most expensive governor’s race in history, Polis pumped some $11 million of his own money into his contest, while accepting $100 maximum contributions from others that totaled more than $223,000. Asked how much money he was prepared to spend on the next leg of this campaign, he declined to directly answer.

“We’re focused on a grassroots campaign,” he said instead. “We have over 4,000 individual donors. We’ve had over 250 community meet-and- greets across the state.

“We’re focused on making sure we get our positive, optimistic vision for Colorado’s future out there.”

Lynne, 64, put $260,000 of her own cash into the contest, and Kennedy loaned her campaign $100,000.

Both Kennedy and Johnston raised about $2 million through June 13, while Lynne raised more than $923,000 from others.

But super PACs played a significant role in the contest. Those groups may take unlimited contributions and spend unlimited amounts as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates.

Frontier Fairness raised nearly $6 million in support of Johnston, with half that coming from two donors. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $2 million and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman gave $1 million.

Teachers unions and PACs supporting Democratic women candidates fueled Teachers for Kennedy, which aired ads and sent mailers taking aim at Polis and Johnston based on past education policies.

Even Polis got super PAC support from Bold Colorado, funded primarily by the Gay & Lesbian Fund. That group aired negative ads about Kennedy. And the national Sierra Club spent about $600,000 on TV ads and mailers.

Lynne was the only Democrat without super PAC support.

At the hotel in Broomfield, Declan Talley of Littleton said he found Polis’s big margin of victory Tuesday “pretty surprising.”

But, looking ahead, Talley added, “I don’t have any issue with his electability. He’s the most electable candidate out of this field because he’s providing plans and actual answers to the questions people are asking. If he can take his message from the primaries to the general audience, it’s going to play very well. Unaffiliated voters love Jared.”

Sandra Fish contributed to this story.

Photos of Jared Polis by Evan Semón. Photo of Cary Kennedy by Phil Cherner.