Littwin’s Official Unofficial This is Really the Last One #CO2018 governor’s primary post-script

By popular demand, the Littwin gov panel has reconvened for a gov primary postscript.

Now that the race is over and Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton are set to face off in the November election, we looked at a seemingly endless list of issues, looking both backward and forward. Not all that surprisingly, there’s something close to unanimity on a wide range of issues from the Littwin all-star panel, which I remind you is 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.

  1. The Polis-Stapleton wins were not exactly surprising. Stapleton led for every week in the Littwin gov rankings, and Polis led for every week but two, after Kennedy’s big win at the assembly.
  2. The negative ad on Polis by the Teachers for Kennedy PAC failed. It was either Hickenlooper’s fault for calling the ad “disappointing” or it was a strategic error by the Kennedy team. Polis counterattacked with far greater resources to the point that the fact of the negative ad outweighed any message it might have conveyed. Panelist Josh Penry blamed Hick for “refusing to let any Democratic candidate mention Polis’ name without calling a press conference to condemn. If Jared Polis funds a Super PAC for John Hickenlooper’s presidential campaign, no one should be surprised.” Panelist Alan Salazar noted that nothing in the race “changed the narrative, so Jared ended strong.”
  3. Neither Polis nor Stapleton is exactly charismatic or warm (at least on screen), but it is generally believed that Polis ran a fairly mistake-free campaign (history lesson here: having money hardly guarantees competence) whereas Stapleton was consistently hammered by GOP guru Dick Wadhams for running a Stumbleton campaign. Wadhams even publicly questioned whether Stapleton was sufficiently prepared to run in the general. Penry says Polis is a slight favorite but discounts the Stumbleton factor. “Maybe if all these same wise guys hadn’t told us that Hillary was a shoe-in,” Penry said, “or maybe if Walker Stapleton hadn’t won two statewide races, someone might put some stock in all that gibberish.”
  4. Michael Johnston finished strong while Cary Kennedy barely held on to second place, far behind Polis. Kennedy has now lost two big races in a row and that’s probably at least one too many. Panelist Cinamon Watson says it’s pretty certain “we haven’t heard the last from Johnston.” The rumor mill has Johnston preparing to gear up for a run in 2020 against Cory Gardner for the U.S. Senate seat. None of the panelists seemed to predict any bright political future for any of the runners-up on the Republican side.
  5. The Trump factor. Trump is deeply unpopular in Colorado. The latest Morning Consult state-by-state poll had Trump deeply underwater at 40-56. Panelist Alan Salazar says Chris Keating of  Keating Research found “a majority 58% of Colorado voters are unfavorable toward Trump including 52% very unfavorable. Also, nearly half (46%) of Colorado voters give Trump an F on his job rating.” Salazar says Stapleton, who tied himself to Trump at every turn in order to win the GOP primary, is running with a Trumpian “leg weight” in the general election.
  6. Stapleton’s Trump campaign problem. Panelist Ian Silverii sums it up pretty succinctly. “In order to keep the MAGA crowd happy, he needs to stay aligned with Trump, but if he’s going to win a general election in Colorado, where Hillary won by 5 points before the laundry list of daily presidency-ending-for-anyone-else scandals, he’s going to need to get away from the president.” We already saw election night Stapleton dodging the question of whether he would want Trump to campaign for him. 
  7. The Boulder liberal factor. Calling someone a “Boulder tax-and-spend liberal” was once a sure-fire strategy for Republicans. Now, maybe not so much. But if Polis wins in November, he will be the most liberal Dem to win a governor’s seat or U.S. Senate seat in at least a generation. This race may tell us whether Democrats have shifted too far left. It’s my view that Republicans began to lose their way in Colorado when they shifted too far right when they politically controlled the state in the early 2000s. It’s also true that Polis is the candidate that Republicans most wanted to face. But as you know by now, Bill Owens is the only Republican to have been elected governor over the last 40 years. Does Stapleton have the talent to change that narrative?
  8. The Polis money factor. I get the feeling sometimes that I’m the only one upset that Polis could spend more than $11 million of his own money to win the Democratic primary. Isn’t there a fairness factor here? Money doesn’t always win (see: Mitchell, Victor), but it doesn’t hurt. Analyst Eric Sondermann predicted that oil and gas would spend $20 million to try to defeat Polis, and that Polis would spend as much or more of his own money in return. But others I’ve talked to from the Republican Party don’t think oil and gas may switch gears, particularly since Polis is the favorite to win the race. I’m told by more than a few people that the oil industry may try to work a compromise with Polis.
  9. The issues. Will Stapleton go all in on “illegal aliens” and “sanctuary cities”? Are those winning issues in Colorado? Wouldn’t we have a Gov. Tancredo if they were? And who wins the cross-party fracking attacks? It’s an interesting question. Will Polis attack TABOR? There’s a strong feeling that TABOR reform is increasingly possible, which doesn’t mean that attacking TABOR doesn’t hold risks. Polis has a long list of things he wants to accomplish — all-day kindergarten, universal healthcare, for two big examples — many of which cost money. Republicans will be sure to mention the costs loud and often. I have the feeling that while Dems will go after Stapleton for all the so-called missed PERA meetings, it didn’t seem to work for Republicans. Republicans will try to say that Polis is buying the election, but I don’t know how that plays for the Citizens United team. Democrats will talk Trump, Trump, Trump, with a side dish of Tancredo. Here’s the best guess, and this is pretty much unanimous: The race will be mean and ugly and expensive and by November, we’ll be very glad to see it go.
  10. The what-if factor. If Ed Perlmutter had stayed in the race, would he have beaten Polis? My guess: yes. This is not a unanimous opinion among the panelists. If George Brauchler stayed in the race, would he have beaten Stapleton? My guess: yes. This is also not a unanimous opinion. But Salazar says given that Brauchler will be running against former CU law dean Paul Weiser for attorney general (that race has yet to be declared, but it would take a miracle for Rep. Joe Salazar to pass Weiser at this point), Brauchler might have wished he were running against Polis instead. 
  11. The unaffiliateds: They came out in bigger numbers than expected. Penry said the big winner in the campaign was democracy in Colorado. As he put it: “Colorado got game.” Since neither race was close, the unaffiliateds didn’t mean much in this primary. But it is a sign for the future. As panelist Watson said, all the work done in the primary will carry over to the general. The unaffiliateds who did vote were more likely to vote Democratic, which seems to be a bad sign for Republicans.
  12. Hick. He has finally conceded that he is going to spend the summer figuring out whether to run for president. He wants to obviously, or maybe just vice-president. But here’s a prediction: He will spend the summer finding out that he’s having trouble raising money and having trouble identifying a base and will come back to Colorado for a 2020 showdown with Gardner, which, in local terms, would be so big it would rival the Trump re-election campaign.
Illustration of Mike Littwin by Mike Keefe


  1. Hickenlooper should explore national politics all he wants to, and I expect he will find he’s “having trouble raising money and having trouble identifying a base.” I can’t recall the last time a “quirkly” persona got very far in a national political race. Nor do I think he has enough “success” in helping Democrats to win to have political chips to cash in for a race. Colorado has one less Democratic Senator and no additional Democratic Representatives in the 8 years of Hickenlooper. The Colorado legislature has not moved dramatically blue due to his presence. He hasn’t tipped the scales toward Democrats in any of the surrounding states.

    He may be a prime candidate to join the Bipartisan Policy Center —

  2. Regarding point 8 — Money. You answered your own question. O&G has made the not-unreasonable assumption that Polis will be the likely winner, and blowing $20 million would be wasted given Polis’ effectively unlimited funds.

    Folks I’ve talked to agree one reason they voted for Polis over Kennedy was knowing that big bucks will be needed to win this race, and Jared has them to burn.

    Until we can get public funding for elections and eliminate unlimited corporate, personal and dark money, that’s just the way it’s going to be.

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