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PRIMARY PREVIEW: Governor's race about positioning more than policies

By: joey bunch joey.bunch@coloradopolitics.com -by joey bunch Colorado Politics
June 6, 2018 Updated: June 7, 2018 at 6:58 pm
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In this Nov. 4, 2014 photo, newly-reelected Republican Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton speaks to supporters during the GOP election night gathering, in Denver, Colo. Stapleton is to take the oath of office for a second term on Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

The Republican and Democratic primaries for governor won't be decided on issues, because there are few differences between the candidates. That leaves Coloradans with a primary that's more about personalities, even as the voters this month set the mood for a mid-term election in one of the nation's bellwether purple states.

The four Democrats and four Republicans on the primary ballots agree along party lines, give or take a charter school philosophy on the left or where to squeeze the budget to pay for roads on the right. Otherwise, Democrats are in a heated race to uphold liberal values and Republicans are as conservative as they've ever been in a Colorado gubernatorial race.

More than a dozen of the state's best-known political pundits and veteran campaign operatives struggled to see much daylight between the candidates, advising partisan voters to focus on which primary contender would be best positioned to win the general election.

If that's the case in this moderate state where unaffiliated voters have the largest majority, then both sides have a sales job on moderation to do this summer, based on the positions they've staked out to date.

The experts we questioned see State Treasurer Walker Stapleton the clear favorite among Republicans. His campaign missteps - limited debates, media interviews that lend themselves to attacks using his own words and a verifiably untrue campaign ad that's still on the air - make him look vulnerable for November. Another GOP candidate - Victor Mitchell, a successful entrepreneur and former state legislator - has plenty of money (his own) and a clear shot at being the beneficiary of the votes for those who don't like Stapleton. But he has to divide those votes up with former investment banker (and Mitt Romney's nephew) Doug Robinson and surprise primary qualifier Greg Lopez, who delivered a red-meat conservative speech and took the anti-Stapleton vote in the April state assembly, pushing out Attorney General Cynthia Coffman.

A left divided

Likewise, how Democrats divide up the primary votes four ways will determine who advances, rather than a decisive blow that establishes any one of them as the party's consensus choice.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy are perceived to be the top contenders, in no particular order, but they likely will divide up mainstream Democrats. That might give former state Sen. Michael Johnston an inside track to surge past them, with the help of rural Democrats and unaffiliated voters who are concerned about guns, his top issue, aided by $1 million from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Johnston's super PAC.

Another X factor is women voters, a bloc Democrats have courted more heavily than usual this season.

If Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne pulls a significant percentage of those women voters away from Kennedy, or the other way around, it hurts both of the race's two female candidates.

"If Donna was not in the race, that would be jet fuel for Cary's campaign," said Ian Silverii, the executive director of the liberal advocacy group ProgressNow Colorado.

Lynne is an influential non-frontrunner in terms of who she hurts most, agreed a majority of politicos we surveyed.

"Donna Lynne is everybody's second-favorite candidate," said independent political analyst Eric Sondermann. "In the end, that doesn't help her very much, but it could have a big role in who does win."

But whether women who marched and used hashtags can swing the race is yet to be proven, said Kelly Maher, the executive director of the conservative Compass Colorado and one of the best-informed politicos about both primary tickets.

The winter momentum of the women's voting bloc faded in the spring, she said.

"A contingent of Democrats think it's time for a woman to be governor, but they weren't behind Cary and they were willing to get behind Donna, who turned out to be a nothingburger," Maher said.

Silverii called education a base-splitter for Democrats, but questioned whether a big enough issue to define the race by itself. Kennedy has the endorsement of the teachers unions, but Polis and especially Johnston have been reformers on charters schools, eyeing metrics that would measure how well schools and teachers are doing.

Who challenges Stapleton

Former state Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams, a historian of Colorado politics, has never seen a more liberal left side of the ballot. Republicans have their own problems, he said, but Democrats are in lockstep on far-left positions on guns, health care, reproductive rights and President Trump.

But Republicans, likewise, have surged hard to the right on immigration, promising action against "sanctuary cities" such as Denver, Boulder and Aurora over undocumented immigrants.

Stapleton, however, should be cruising to a primary win and positioning himself for the general election, instead of struggling to establish his identity in June, pundits we interviewed uniformly agreed.

"He not taking advantage of that luxury," Sondermann said. Until last week, his primary opponents hadn't taken a sustained run at knocking off Stapleton as the presumed frontrunner. Mitchell dropped three attack ads alleging Stapleton has been dishonest in his ads, that he serves the GOP elites and failed to disclose conflicts of interest as state treasurer. Democrats loved seeing Mitchell go on the offensive. "So far, the GOP primary has been a race to the right," Eric Walker, the spokesman for the state Democratic Party, stated. "Now it's looking more like a race to the bottom." And then there's the Tom Tancredo factor.

The former congressman and immigration firebrand, got in the race after a group with white nationalist ties that he was supposed to speak to had its convention venue canceled in Colorado Springs after the deadly Charlottesville, Virginia, riot last August. He dropped out because he thought he could win the primary, but couldn't win the general election.

Tancredo endorsed frontrunner Walker Stapleton and introduced him at the state convention, which is general election baggage a GOP frontrunner doesn't need, Wadhams said.

"I'm starting to worry that Bill Owens might be the only Republican governor in my lifetime," Wadhams said.

Independents decide it

Colorado is a purple state, because it hovers in the middle. Candidates who traditionally race to the far right or far left in the primary run a big risk in both the primary and general election, if the vast middle sees them as too out-of-step with most of the state.

If Stapleton is the nominee and continues his campaign on the current trajectory, Republicans have something to worry about at the top of their ticket in November, former state party chairman Wadhams said. Polis will have to fend off charges he's out to sink the oil and gas industry, a major driver of the state's economy.

Kennedy benefits if the teachers' union turns out voters in support of a proposed $1.6 billion tax hike for education, which has yet to make the ballot. And Johnston and Polis have been the loudest in promising a fight with the National Rifle Association, a losing issue for Democrats in recall elections in 2013 before they lost control of the state Senate in 2014.

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