Tom Tancredo has been an underdog before. From his first election to the Colorado statehouse in 1976, to squeaking though a five-man Republican Congressional primary in 1998 to his long-shot run for president in 2008, he’s battled conventional wisdom.
And in fleeing the GOP to run as the American Constitution party candidate for Colorado governor, Tancredo sees an opportunity to ride a tidal wave of voter discontent to one of the biggest upsets in Colorado political history.
Despite not joining the race until July, recent polls have the former five-term congressman continuing to gain ground on the Democratic front-runner John Hickenlooper, and with twice the support of GOP nominee Dan Maes.
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Tancredo’s surge in support mirrors a boost in fund-raising and a recent wave of endorsements from prominent Republicans who have abandoned Maes.
A Denver Post poll released Monday showed Hickenlooper leading the race with 46 percent of the vote to Tancredo’s 34 percent and Maes’ 15. A Rasmussen Poll out this week had Tancredo only 8 points back of the Democrat.
But with just one month until election day, can the 64-year-old former teacher Tancredo continue to close the gap?
Political observer and Colorado College professor Robert Loevy says despite the polls, the three-way dynamic of the race hurts Tancredo, with he and Maes splitting the conservative vote.
“The question is how deep is the (expected) GOP sweep and anti-Obama movement,” Loevy said. “It appears be getting stronger, but I still see Tancredo’s chances as very slim.”
Tancredo is buoyed by the fact that despite the Denver mayor’s huge financial advantage and opponent-free primary, Hickenlooper has not topped 50 percent in any polls.
“He’s not popular outside of Denver,” said Tancredo, who calls Hickenlooper a “left-wing activist.”
During a campaign swing through Colorado Springs last week, Tancredo says he must win 65 percent of the state’s GOP vote, nearly half of independents and at least single digits among Democrats to pull the upset.
He pledged to spend $1 million in the race and hopes outside political groups join the battle with negative ads against Hickenlooper, whose fund-raising is nearing $3 million.
Tancredo admits that this year’s raucous political environment is helping his campaign.
He credits national uncertainty over the economy and a growing anti-incumbent mood with giving him a tailwind.
“Obama could be the best thing that ever happened to us,” he says of the president, who is battling lower approval ratings.
And with voter discontent at its highest level in years and a weak GOP gubernatorial candidate, Tancredo sees an opening for a third-party surprise.
But his best chance to win the race has not materialized – a head-to-head matchup with Hickenlooper. Despite a continued GOP drumbeat to drop out, Maes remains in the race after defeating Scott McInnis in the Republican primary and still is pulling enough support to allow Hickenlooper to win the race with only a plurality of the November vote.
Maes said Wednesday he is in the race to stay and doesn’t believe the polls.
“I don’t know if it even matters,” he said. “Our names are on the ballot. And Republicans are going to vote Republican.”
Loevy said Tancredo’s real chance to be governor would have been to get in the race earlier and wrestle the GOP nomination for himself.
But Tancredo is undaunted.
Calling his opponents “unacceptable and fatally flawed,” Tancredo said he has the leadership skills to turn the state’s economy around.
He calls his failed presidential run an example of that, taking on the hot-button issue of illegal immigration and forcing it into the mainstream of that year’s presidential race.
Tancredo supporter state Calhan Republican Rep. Marsha Looper also cites Tancredo’s governmental experience over that of Maes.
“He (Maes) doesn’t understand the big picture when it comes to governing,” she said Wednesday. “Tom knows what it takes to keep the state open for business.”
Looper called Tancredo the “true conservative” in the race. “His chances of winning are good.”
Tancredo’s gubernatorial bid is focused on taxes, the state budget and energy policy.
Tancredo supports anti-tax ballot measures Amendment 60 and Proposition 101, but has backed away from Amendment 61, which would limit state borrowing.
Hickenlooper opposes all three measures, while Maes backs only Amendment 60, which would cut property taxes for school funding.
Tancredo pledges to save $400 million a year by forcing changes to PERA, the state education retirement program that he says “sucks money out of the general fund.” He backs a seven-year freeze on cost-of-living increases and changes in benefits in order to reach the savings.
He says state Medicaid spending that has doubled in 10 years also must be considered for belt-tightening.
Tancredo sees the state’s oil and gas and mining industries and key to the state’s economic rebound. He calls Hickenlooper and current Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter “radical environmentalists” who have overregulated the industries and pushed more eco-friendly agendas.
“There are very few jobs in green industry,” he said Friday, but more chances for employment in mining, oil and gas.
Tancredo also supports legalizing marijuana and taxing it heavily to bring in revenue.
Hickenlooper supports current medical marijuana laws, while Maes wants tighter controls on the industry.
The next battle in the campaign may not be over issues, but who can take part in remaining debates.
Tancredo is hitting Maes hard over the GOP nominee’s previous stance that a candidate polling under 20 percent shouldn’t be able to take part in debates.
Just a few weeks ago that was Tancredo. Now it’s Maes.