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PRIMARY PREVIEW: Colo. governor's race more positioning than policy

June 12, 2018 Updated: June 12, 2018 at 5:35 pm
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The primary elections for governor won't be decided on issues, because the candidates have few differences. That leaves Coloradans with a primary more about personalities.

The four Democrats and four Republicans on the June 26 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.

Top political pundits and veteran campaign operatives struggled to see much daylight between the candidates, advising partisan voters to focus on who would be best positioned to win the general election Nov. 6.

If that's the case in this moderate state, where unaffiliated voters are the majority, then both sides face a sales job on moderation, based on the positions they've staked out.

Experts we questioned see state Treasurer Walker Stapleton the clear favorite among Republicans. But he looks vulnerable for November, given his campaign missteps - limited debates, interviews that lend themselves to attacks quoting his own words and a verifiably untrue campaign ad that's still on the air.

Victor Mitchell, an entrepreneur and former legislator, has plenty of money and a clear shot at getting votes from those who don't like Stapleton. But he has to divide them 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, which Democrat advances will hinge on how they divide the primary votes, rather than a consensus.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy are the top contenders, but they likely will divide 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 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, whom Democrats have courted more heavily than usual this season.

If Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne pulls a significant percentage of women voters from Kennedy, or the other way around, both women's chances are hurt.

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

Lynne is influential in terms of whom she hurts most, agreed most politicos we surveyed.

"Donna Lynne is everybody's second-favorite candidate," said 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 has yet to be proven, said Kelly Maher, executive director of the conservative Compass Colorado.

"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 it's a big enough issue to define the race.

Teachers unions endorsed Kennedy, but Polis and Johnston have been reformers on charters schools, eying metrics that would measure how well schools and teachers do.

Stapleton challenger

Former state GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams, a historian of Colorado politics, said he's never seen a more liberal left side of the ballot.

Democrats are in lockstep on far-left positions on guns, health care, reproductive rights and President Trump, he said.

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

Stapleton should be cruising to a primary win and positioning himself for the general election, instead of struggling to establish his identity in June, pundits 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 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," said Eric Walker, spokesman for the state Democratic Party. "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 address had its convention canceled in Colorado Springs after the deadly Charlottesville, Va., riot last August. He dropped out saying he thought he could win the primary but not the general election.

Tancredo endorsed Stapleton and introduced him at the state GOP assembly, which is general election baggage that 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

Colorado is a purple state. It hovers in the middle. Candidates who race to the far right or far left in the primary traditionally run a big risk if the vast middle sees them as 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, 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 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.

Silverii said the candidate who can attract the most unaffiliated voters becomes governor.

"At end of the day, unaffiliated voters are up for grabs," he said.

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