If Heidi Ganahl runs for statewide office in next year's election, Colorado voters will probably be hearing a lot about mountaintops. And Karens.
Ganahl, a successful entrepreneur and mountain climber, is also, not incidentally, the only Republican still standing in a state that has been trending Democratic for two decades and turned solid blue in the last two elections.
Those contests, in 2018 and 2020, were when Ganahl bid farewell to fellow Republicans Cynthia Coffman, Wayne Williams, Walker Stapleton and Cory Gardner — Colorado's attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer and U.S. senator, respectively. Coffman and Stapleton lost bids for governor in 2018, while Williams and Gardner lost bids for second terms in 2018 and 2020, respectively.
In 2016, Ganahl was elected to a six-year term as an at-large representative on the nine-member University of Colorado board of regents, marking the last time a Republican won statewide office in Colorado. (There's one other at-large seat, while the others represent each of the state's seven congressional districts.)
Her term expires next year — her seat is also likely going to disappear, to be replaced with a regent from new eighth congressional district — but Ganahl has been looking like a candidate for a marquee office for years and could make her ambitions official in the next month or two.
Until recently, pretty much every Republican operative and insider in the state has been describing Ganahl as the candidate most likely to challenge Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, the wealthy tech entrepreneur who served five terms in Congress before being elected governor in 2018 by 10 points.
After a brief scare last year when, as she put it in a recent speech, Ganahl "had to fight through a brain tumor"— which wasn't cancerous but required surgery — she's sounding again like she has her eye on higher office, though Republican sources say she's told them in the last month that she's considering a run for state treasurer or U.S. Senate instead of governor.
But delivering the keynote at a recent meeting of Jefferson County's Foothills Republicans in a talk titled "What's the future for the Republican Party and Colorado?" she took aim at Polis throughout, not even mentioning any other state politicians.
That's where the mountaintops come in. And the Karens.
The nearly 25-minute speech included nearly 20 references to mountaintops, a favorite Ganahl metaphor for the lofty aspirations that bring people to Colorado and inspire those who live here.
"The people of Colorado have a yearning to go big, pursue their wildest dreams," she said. "We reach for those Colorado mountaintops every day, and, I like to say, a life with no limits."
Her message is one of resilience and aiming high, of getting back on your feet after being knocked back. It's a story embodied in her own life, in Ganahl's telling, including after her first husband died in a small plane crash when she was in her mid-20s.
"That tore me apart and reset my life pretty dramatically. It also taught me how precious life is and how to survive really tough stuff," she said.
Several years later, she founded Camp Bow Wow, a dog day care service and currently the largest and fastest growing pet franchise in the country. After nearly going under in the market crash of 2008, she survived and sold the operation in 2014. Since then, she's formed a foundation and recently started a business with her oldest daughter called SheFactor, to "help young women launch the life they love."
"I've had to climb my own mountaintops, as each one of us has to," she said. "I’ve seen setbacks, losses, struggles. It's what we do; it's what we do as people of Colorado."
Before turning her critique to Colorado's current state of affairs, Ganahl made a case that she might have the answers by pointing to her experience as an entrepreneur and her 2016 statewide win "against all odds."
"There's a recipe for getting things done, and it’s not rocket science — I was going to say brain surgery," she quips. "It's build an agenda, hire exceptional people, listen, execute and lead. But you also need a lot of grit and drive; you need a lot of passion. I’m passionate right now about saving our state, and I know you are too."
She laid out the stakes, alliteratively.
"So whether it’s COVID, collectivism or cancel culture, Colorado is feeling that no-limits way of life, those mountaintops, that freedom, slipping away, right in front of us," she said. "Think of all the freedoms they took away from us, to control our businesses, our kids, our families."
After peppering her remarks with complaints about the price of gasoline, the white-hot real estate market and heavy traffic into the mountains on Interstate 70, Ganahl made a case that tapping the western spirit of rugged individualism is the way for state Republicans to mount a comeback.
"This is Colorado, it’s the edge of the West. You come here for adventure, for pushing your boundaries. You come to build a business, raise a family, climb higher in life," she said. "We don’t live here for low ceilings. We don’t live here for ceilings at all. You live here to reach those mountaintops. You live here to be free. That’s the spirit of our state."
After a dramatic pause, she added: "Jared Polis and the Democrats don’t get that. They don’t understand mountaintops."
Ganahl took direct aim at Polis' decision to authorize a COVID-19 vaccine for his partner, Marlon Reis, by declaring the first gentleman an essential state worker early in the vaccination process.
"He wants everybody to play by the rules except himself," she said. "He used his office to get special privileges. For him, the rules apply just to the rest of us, right?"
After ticking off some of the restrictions imposed by Polis and local officials during the pandemic, Ganahl unveiled a rhetorical device meant to puncture Polis' generally high approval ratings.
"Was he paranoid? No, it was worse than that. Paranoid people only limit themselves, but Polis limited all of us. That's not paranoid, that's Karen-oid," she said. "Polis is the king of Karens."
She paused for a moment to see if her audience grasped her allusion, though it was clear by some puzzled looks that not all did. "Karen," a derogatory term in widespread use for the last couple years, refers to affluent busybodies, always a breath away from asking to speak to your manager.
Ganahl ran with it.
"Karan-oia has wrecked our economy," she said. "The Karens weren't just afraid to live, they’re afraid to let you live too. And the results have been pretty disastrous."
Then Ganahl turned to what she says the Republicans can offer.
"We believe the best way to appreciate the mountaintops is to climb them," she said.
"If you’re concerned about COVID, protect yourself, don't knock everyone else down and call them 'selfish bastards,' like Polis did. And if you want a check, earn it. If you want to go to college, pay for it. If someone says things you find offensive, challenge them with respect, don't ban them and run into a safe space."
Karen made a final appearance as Ganahl neared her conclusion:
"I think it’s time we got back to those mountaintops. I think it’s time we told the Karens, 'If you want a safe space, move to California.' I think it’s time we open all our eyes and hear every voice and tell every person, 'I want to control my own life, not yours.' Because this is Colorado. That's how we roll here.
"Tell the people leading, including me, that we want those mountaintops back, and let’s get back to living a life with no limits. It’s right there, it's right there for the taking. We can do this together."