On paper, Jared Polis and the thousands of Republicans in Denver this week for the Western Conservative Summit have no shortage of differences.
The summit — a two-day annual gathering billed as the largest of its kind west of the Mississippi — featured attendees in MAGA hats and prominent speakers railing against abortion, gun restrictions, the National Popular Vote movement and generally calling for vigilance against attacks on religious freedom, which many (mostly Christians) on stage described as being under siege.
Polis, who is pro-choice, signed a controversial gun bill into law this year, plus another to enter Colorado into an interstate compact that aims to abolish the Electoral College. He lobbied for and then signed into law a landmark rewrite of oil and gas regulations.
But when he took the stage Friday as the summit’s first-ever elected Democrat speaker, Polis played it so safe that an uninitiated observer might never have detected him as the fish-out-of-water that he was.
“I’m here because when I was inaugurated, I really pledged to build a Colorado for all. And that means everyone,” Polis told a couple thousand people inside a downtown Denver ballroom. “That means people who identify as conservative, as progressive, people who are apathetic altogether and everyone in between.”
He spoke for a little more than 10 minutes, and dedicated at least nine of them to pleasantries, jokes, anecdotes about his staff and children and — in what has lately become a feature of nearly every public speech Polis makes — a reminder of the fact that he successfully pushed for universal, free, full-day kindergarten across Colorado.
Not only did he veer from confrontation, but he also painted a hopeful picture of a unified state and country that, in reality, rarely seems to exist.
For example, he said conservatives and progressives have historically “stood together” against Nazism.
“And now we’ll stand together against attempts to sacrifice our nation’s ideals and who we are as a people,” Polis added.
Never mind that the two major parties can hardly agree on what constitutes modern fascism, much less unite to defeat it.
He repeated a familiar Polis sentiment: that no one group or party has a monopoly on good ideas, and that collaboration and open-mindedness are much more productive than partisanship.
“What truly matters is not the letter next to your name,” he said.
Polis was generally greeted with warmth and gratitude, plus genuine surprise, by many attendees. On stage, on social media and in interviews with The Independent, conservative summit-goers applauded his appearance.
They also stressed that Colorado and the nation are under siege due to some of the very policies Polis supports.
Ben Lindstrom, a student at Colorado Christian University, said he worries sometimes that the longtime swing state may be irreversibly blue now, to the point of squeezing out conservative values.
“I do believe that, a little bit,” he said. “There’s been a lot of controversial bills and actions by Polis that have been pretty alarming. … I don’t feel like we have a government that’s truly fighting for everyone.”
While Democrats control all high chambers of government in Colorado, nearly the exact opposite can be said of Washington, where the White House, Senate and Supreme Court have lately handed Christian conservatives win after win.
But you might not know that if you were judging only from messaging at the summit, which generally centered on ways conservative values and religious freedom are at risk, and on how mainstream American journalism skews and in some cases entirely obscures the movement’s various achievements.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who spoke just before Polis, described efforts his office has taken to promote homeownership, which, he said, “you’ll never hear about in the media.”
“Our future as a nation is within our own hands,” Carson added. “We’re the ones who decide what is going to happen to us, and we’re the ones who decide what our nation is going to look like.”
In the exhibitors’ room countless booths were staffed with people dedicated to making the country, and especially Colorado, look a lot more Christian and a lot more conservative. One offered information on the Polis recall campaign. Several touted anti-abortiton efforts. There were vendors selling Trump re-election memorabilia and volunteers laying groundwork to try to swing Colorado back to the right in 2020.
The messages were in many cases totally at odds with what Polis, socially liberal and environmentally conscious, is pushing as governor.
He wants tighter rules on high-emitting oil and gas producers, and summit-goers want to see that industry continue its boom. He wants the right to reproductive freedom preserved in Colorado, and nearly all of the summit’s speakers Friday condemned modern abortion laws. He quietly backed efforts to tighten gun laws and reform how presidents are elected — two non-starters at the summit.
And so on.
But he remains optimistic — in public, anyway — that everyone can get along.
“Our state of Colorado is big enough for all of us to live our lives,” he said.