DENVER — Walker Stapleton handily took the Republican nomination for governor, dispatching three rivals including one who outspent him with $5 million of his own money— and he cast himself as “David versus Goliath” now that he faces Democrat Jared Polis in the fall.
The term-limited state treasurer declared victory Tuesday night in a hotel ballroom in Denver after being introduced by Bill Owens, the only Republican to have won the governorship here in the past 43 years. Stapleton took nearly 48 percent of the vote, leaving his three opponents to split the remaining 52 percent of ballots. In a speech to supporters, Stapleton tagged his general election opponent, the Boulder congressman, as a governor who would “raise every tax and fee on hardworking Coloradans that he can find.”
“We believe it,” shouted a woman in the crowd.
Running as a “bold progressive” and promising free, universal kindergarten and a 100 percent renewable energy electrical grid by 2040, Polis spent about $11 million of his own money in his successful bid for the Democratic nomination among a strong field of three other candidates including former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, ex-State Sen. Mike Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne.
Flanked by his wife Jenna and three children on a stage at the DoubleTree hotel at the Denver Tech Center, Stapleton, 44, a Bush-family relative with a background in business and real estate promised he would tackle healthcare without raising taxes and would work with community groups, environmentalists and oil-and-gas industry leaders to make Colorado a leader on energy.
“Colorado can have a responsible energy industry and we will,” he said, and he slammed Polis for supporting a bill to repeal President Donald Trump’s recently passed tax overhaul and for Polis’s support of universal healthcare— what Stapleton called a “government takeover.”
In an interview, dressed in a dark suit jacket buttoned at the middle and a red patterned tie, Stapleton did not lay out his own concrete plan for making healthcare more affordable other than to say he believed the federal government would eventually kick block grants back to individual governors to make Medicaid sustainable. “That’s a challenge I am willing to take on,” he said, acknowledging that it’s “not a sound-bite” answer. “What’s going to have to happen is we’re going to have to improve access, affordability— we’re going to have to improve community healthcare centers,” he said.
As the vote totals came in prior to Stapleton’s remarks, supporters filled a ballroom outfitted with a popcorn machine and a bandstand. Former Congressman Bob Beauprez, who ran against current Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2014, was among the crowd.
Asked what Stapleton will have to do to win a general election in Colorado as a Republican, Beauprez said he should deliver a message of limited government. “Colorado, I believe, is still a center-right state,” he said. “We’ve proved that on initiatives over and over again. We don’t like tax increases. We don’t like increased regulation. We don’t like the state infringing on us as individuals.” With an open seat, he said, and not having to take on a popular incumbent like he did in 2014, “I think it’s very much a winnable race.”
Former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican who served from 1999 to 2007, introduced Stapleton. He said the murder rate is up in Denver and said the state needs a law-and-order governor who will appoint “tough judges and a tough parole board” and who “backs the cops.”
While Stapleton’s nomination was expected by much of the GOP political class, he almost didn’t make it on the ballot.
Initially, the second-term state office-holder qualified for the ballot by gathering enough signatures to petition directly onto it. But in March, he asked the Secretary of State to remove his name when he said he uncovered petition fraud by the company he hired to collect the signatures. The possibility of that alleged fraud was first raised by Stapleton’s rival Doug Robinson.
The petition SNAFU was just one stomach-dropping freefall in a roller-coaster Republican primary since it began more than a year ago. The final four-candidate ballot ended up looking much different than when the race first started after the November 2016 presidential election.
In that time, multiple big-name candidates got in and got out— often for different reasons.
High-profile district attorney George Brauchler, for instance, left the governor’s race last November to run for attorney general. His decision came after Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman got in the governor’s race. Brauchler was able to freeze out anyone else from challenging him and officially became the nominee tonight.
Coffman did not last long in the gubernatorial primary. She never hauled in much cash to her campaign and ran a mixed message of trying to woo unaffiliated voters while going through the grassroots meatgrinder of the state assembly where the party’s hardcore base generally lean more far-right conservative. At the assembly she took a harsh swipe at Stapleton in a speech, raising his DUI and petition scandal. When the crowd booed, she implored them to look into his background, saying, “You should think about what we are saying as Republicans if we nominate them to the state’s highest office.”
But Coffman, who some pundits thought could be a formidable candidate in a general election because of her double-x chromosome and background as a defender of LGBTQ rights, face-planted at the April state assembly, earning just 6 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, a governor’s race in Colorado wouldn’t be complete without Tom Tancredo. The controversial former congressman also got into this year’s race. Tancredo’s third gubernatorial primary, however, never took off. He launched his bid after the group VDARE had its conference canceled in Colorado Springs where he was slated to speak and he didn’t feel like Republicans were adequately defending it. His campaign, however, didn’t haul in boatloads of money and so he dropped out saying he feared he might win only to lose in the general election. Asked why he thought he didn’t catch fire this year, Tancredo conceded, it “may be the brand.” His effect on the outcome of the governor’s race, though, was not lost. In April at the party’s state convention Tancredo nominated Stapleton to help suture the candidate of the establishment into the party’s activist grassroots base.
It worked, and Stapleton earned about 43 percent of the vote at the assembly.
On Election Night, Tancredo, who attended Stapleton’s victory party, said all the nominee had to do is ask and he would campaign with him in the general election.
Also making the ballot at the April state assembly was Lopez, who rousted the crowd with a rip-roaring speech in which he likened himself to President Donald Trump on immigration and so-called sanctuary cities, and pitched himself as a “different” Republican candidate who could attract Hispanics and unaffiliated voters. “I did not know who you were until I walked into this room,” said a man from Carbondale and in a Rocky Mountain Gun Owners ball cap and pin who likely summed up a large chunk of those who cast ballots for him that night after hearing his stemwinder.
Making their way onto the Republican ballot for governor by petition was Robinson, a nephew of Mitt Romney, and Mitchell.
In his campaign, Robinson pitched himself as a safer alternative to Stapleton, a candidate Robinson portrayed as damaged goods in a general election because of his DUI and petition SNAFU. Shortly before 8 p.m. on Election Night, Robinson conceded the race. He trailed the pack of four Republicans, winning less than nine percent of the vote. Coming in ahead of him was Lopez with about 13 percent of the vote.
“It’s time for us as Republicans to unite around Walker Stapleton to ensure a conservative future for Colorado,” Robinson said in a statement conceding the race shortly before 8 p.m. “I look forward to supporting him in November and congratulate him on his victory.”
In the final two weeks of the primary, Mitchell mauled Stapleton, calling him a “lying, reckless Bush insider” and a “typical politician” in a barrage of TV and radio ads. A confident Mitchell booked a convention center in Pueblo for his victory party— a nod to his vision for representing parts of the state beyond the Denver metro area. While Donald Trump flipped Pueblo County in 2016 red for this first time since Richard Nixon in 1972, more Democrats went to the ballot box in this midterm off-year election. Hundreds more unaffiliated voters there also chose Democratic ballots over Republican ones. Along Mitchell’s $5 million for ads and campaign promotion, he had spent roughly 18 months campaigning across the state, boasting of more than 600 official events. In the end, Mitchell captured about 30 percent of the vote.
But Stapleton synthesized his conservative Tancredo street cred with endorsements from the party’s mainstream elder statesmen like John Suthers, the former U.S. attorney and attorney general who is now the mayor of Colorado Springs and recently shepherded a local sales tax increase for infrastructure through the local ballot box. And Stapleton racked up endorsements from more than 50 of Colorado’s county commissioners, nearly 20 sheriffs and almost all the state’s GOP district attorneys.
He ran on his record as Colorado’s longest-serving statewide Republican and on a full-throated defense of the state’s oil-and-gas industry. He said the widest-reaching changes he would champion if he became governor would be shrinking Medicaid expansion and retirement entitlements in the pension system and finding a long-term solution to the state’s infrastructure woes. He also put $1 million of his own money into his campaign, while raising about $1.2 million on from others— more than Robinson, Mitchell and Lopez raised from others combined. He also had support from multiple super PACs, including Better Colorado Now, which he helped raise cash from a range of mostly Colorado business interests before he got into the governor’s race. Better Colorado Now and Real Colorado Conservatives, a subsidiary, spent about $1 million to boost his bid.
From the beginning, Stapleton trained most of his fire at Boulder Democratic Congressman Jared Polis, who he expected would become the ultimate nominee in that party’s four-way race, painting him as a boogeyman for oil-and-gas interests who would wipe out the industry if he becomes governor.
“A lot of people are going to wonder how Jared Polis plans for everything that he’s promising, starting with me,” Stapleton said, speaking to reporters at his Election Night party.
This year’s primary was also the first in which the state’s 1.2 million unaffiliated voters could choose a party’s primary in which to participate. Backers of the new law, passed by voters in 2016, hoped a massive injection of the state’s non-party people into the primary voting stream would produce a moderating effect on the candidates. Others said the types of unaffiliated voters who would cats ballots might the kind who are so extreme on the left or right that they believe the parties don’t represent them.
“The impact I think was in the messaging for the candidates— and the expense,” says Peg Cage, who chairs the Republican Party in Boulder County. “One of our candidates spent, I heard, $5 million dollars. In a primary? It’s unheard of.”
By Election Day, more than 10,000 unaffiliated voters chose a Democratic ballot than a Republican one.
But because he was in a four-way primary, though, in his own primary Stapleton had to run to the right.
He made ending so-called sanctuary cities a top priority and he closed out his campaign with a TV ad saying he’ll “stand with Donald Trump to get illegal aliens who commit crimes deported.”
Asked how he would try to appeal to unaffiliated voters in the general election, Stapleton leaned on his two prior statewide victories as state treasurer and his successful primary win through a gauntlet of candidates that once approached a dozen. “I have a demonstrated electoral track record of winning swing counties and I intend to do it again,” he said. “I’ve made the case to independents and I’ve made the case to pragmatic Democrats.”
Trump, who campaigned in other states on behalf of gubernatorial candidates, stayed out of Colorado. His presence, however, cast a long shadow throughout the primary where at virtually every candidate forum and debate the four governor hopefuls were asked if they voted for him, where they agreed or differed with him, if they would campaign with him and how they reckoned with his policies like separating children from their families at the border. Stapleton said he would campaign with Trump, or Tancredo, in the general election if they offered.
In conversations with Republicans over the past year at GOP breakfast forums, business luncheons and Lincoln Day dinners, voters said they had multiple good candidates to choose from and they would make up their minds closer to Election Day. Many said they planned to vote for Stapleton simply because they knew his name.
On the eve of the election, Kaye Ferry, the Republican Party chairwoman in Eagle County, said voters where she lives likely feel the same way in other smaller GOP communities throughout the Western Slope. “People respond to people who show up,” she said. “Greg Lopez, until he showed up for the Lincoln Day Dinner, would never have gotten one vote out here because he had never been here.”