Election 2022 Colorado Governor Polis Ganahl

Colorado gubernatorial candidates Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, and University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl, a Republican, listen to questions during a televised debate on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Denver.

There's still time for an appearance by that staple of modern electoral politics, the October surprise — but just barely.

With weeks of voting set to begin on Oct. 17 when ballots start going out to voters — and partisan allegiances as strong as ever — last-minute revelations with the power to tilt elections have become increasingly rare.

In Colorado and in this year's midterms, the maneuver might have lost its punch.

That doesn't mean there won't be plenty of surprises before ballots are counted, though if late-breaking news moves the needle much in this environment, it would be, well, a surprise.

The phenomenon could be as old as campaigning, but the phrase didn't enter the political lexicon until 1980. That's when Ronald Reagan's campaign manager, William Casey, predicted that beleaguered incumbent Jimmy Carter would pull an October surprise by arranging the return of the Iranian hostages just before November in a bid to upend the election.

It didn't happen — the hostages were freed when Reagan took office after winning in a near-landslide — but ever since, politicos have been on the lookout for October surprises.

Strictly speaking, an October surprise is defined narrowly as a bombshell revelation, timed deliberately to sway the trajectory of a race close to Election Day, when it's too late for the opposition to reverse its course.

The phrase, however, has taken on adjacent meanings and now covers any late, unexpected development that influences the outcome of an election, from the rare campaign-sinking gaffe to natural disasters and global events that reframe the choice before voters.

Colorado's long voting season renders the classic October surprise less potent — if half the voters have already returned their ballots by the time a bombshell drops, chances dim of jolting the electorate in all but the closest of races. Likewise, reveal a surprise too early, and the frantic news cycle could leave it behind and let voters revert to their partisan predilections.

Still, the October surprise persists in the political psyche and in campaign playbooks.

Blame recent presidential elections, which by the 2020 edition boasted as many October surprises as an over-the-top haunted house.

A classic October surprise thwarted John Kerry's momentum in 2004 when Osama bin Laden released a video just days before the election threatening President George W. Bush and warning Americans that "your security is in your own hands," which had the effect of encouraging voters to rally around the president.

Jolt piled upon curveball as the 2016 race for the White House neared its conclusion, and then in 2020 the presidential election effectively said, "Hold my beer"— suggesting that the phenomenon might have become endemic, in national races at least, moving entirely out of surprise territory.

In 2016, October surprises took center state, capping a campaign season full of twists and stunning revelations.

The contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sped from one head-turner to the next in the month before the election, starting with news that Trump might not have paid any federal taxes for 18 years after claiming a $1 billion loss in the mid-1990s. That was soon sidelined by the release of the "Access Hollywood" tape of Trump using explicit language to describe his thoughts about women, followed almost immediately by WikiLeaks releasing hacked emails from Clinton's campaign chairman. Then, as Election Day neared, the FBI director announced that the bureau had reopened its investigation into Clinton's emails, sending voters the other direction.

The run-up to the 2020 election had its own dizzying flurry of surprises in October, including Trump's bout with COVID-19, though perhaps the most impactful was the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18 and the White House's rush to confirm a replacement.

In Colorado elections, October surprises have sometimes turned into October flops.

Running for an open gubernatorial seat against Democrat Bill Ritter in 2006, Republican Bob Beauprez unveiled a surprise attack against Ritter in an October ad accusing the former Denver district attorney of going easy on a criminal. But it was Beauprez who was surprised when it emerged that the his campaign had used information obtained from a confidential federal database, and the Republican went on to lose by a wide margin.

Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner dropped an October surprise in 2020 during the final debate with his Democratic challenger, John Hickenlooper, but it landed with a thud.

During a portion of the debate when the candidates questioned each other, Gardner brought up a charitable fund Hickenlooper had helped establish more than three decades earlier and pointed out the fund had donated money later to some far-left groups.

While Gardner delivered what must have looked like a coup de grâce in debate prep, Hickenlooper and the debate's moderators met his surprise with puzzled looks, suggesting that the attack lacked much sting. After blinking and shaking his head, Hickenlooper reminded Gardner that he hadn't had anything to do with the fund since long before it bestowed the grant Gardner highlighted, and the debate moved on without the surprise leaving a trace.

What's likely to be this election year's biggest single game-changer arrived early, in June — months after what turned out to be an accurate preview — when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision establishing the right to an abortion. Suddenly, what had lookd like a typical midterm, with the party in power bracing for a wave election favoring the opposition, turned into a toss-up by most measures.

A recent development shares some characteristics with the traditional October surprise but doesn't fill the bill.

Ron Hanks, the Republican state lawmaker who lost the GOP U.S. Senate primary to Joe O'Dea, turned heads and set tongues wagging for a day or two last week when he announced he was endorsing the Libertarian nominee, citing O'Dea's positions on abortion and federal spending.

The announcement fell short of full October surprise status because it lacks one crucial element — it wasn't exactly a surprise, coming months after the hard-fought primary, when neither campaign hid its dislike for the other. The only surprise, some pundits concluded, was that Hanks waited so long.

An earlier statement of support for a candidate in a statewide race comes closer to October surprise territory, though it happened in late September so technically doesn't qualify.

In what appears to be the first endorsement of its kind in the state's modern electoral history, former Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican, threw her backing behind the reelection bid of her Democratic successor, Phil Weiser — crossing party lines in an unprecedented move by someone who held the same office.

But the month is young, and Election Day this year falls as far into November as possible, on Nov. 8, giving campaigns ample time to give it their best try and see if Colorado voters can be moved by a late-breaking surprise. Stay tuned.

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