Daniel Cole has gone from precocious political operative in the Pikes Peak Region to all-around point man in Colorado Republican circles in a fairly short time.
His still-boyish looks and relative youth at 35 belie the mileage he has racked up along the way, sharpening his street savvy and building his cred as a ubiquitous and influential go-to for the state GOP's inner sanctum.
But don't expect his face to turn up all that often in the news media despite his prominence among pols and the relationships he has cultivated with the state's political press. Cole reserves the limelight for those to whom he lends a voice and some sage advice from off-stage. Stage right, of course.
The Colorado Springs political consultant — he also advises a growing stable of government, political and corporate clients — recently moved from serving the state party as its communications chief to running the GOP's Senate Majority Fund. The group raises big bucks and masterminds messaging with the aim, since last November's "blue tide" election, of retaking the state Senate.
Cole is a rising star at a sobering time for Colorado Republicans in the wake of a trouncing that arguably has left their party at something of a crossroads. We ask him the inevitable where-do-you-go-from-here question, and we pick his brain about the overall state of Colorado politics.
Read on for Cole's nuanced insights into those and other matters — from the chances of a GOP comeback in the next election (hint: "The pendulum swings"), to the gender gap that divides his party from the one across the aisle.
Colorado Politics: Before we get to what you’re up to now, let’s first cut to the chase with your reading of Colorado’s political temperature at the moment and its implications for the future. Republicans were shellacked last November by every measure, an outcome that has been analyzed ad infinitum. So, where do the state’s Republicans go from here? To the extent the election was a game-changer, what has to be the new Republican ground game in a purple state that, at the moment, is looking blue?
Daniel Cole: He didn’t coin it, but it was President Barack Obama who popularized the word you used, “shellacked,” in somber remarks the day after the 2010 midterms. The Democrats had lost 63 House seats in the worst congressional drubbing since 1938. Yet Obama went on to win re-election in 2012, and today Nancy Pelosi is once again speaker of the House.
My point is that yes, Colorado Republicans got steamrolled in 2018, and yes, we emphatically need to get our act together, but the 2018 election didn’t signal a permanent change in Colorado’s status. The pendulum swings.
The Republican Party will bounce back in Colorado because, despite last November, ultimately we represent the values of Colorado’s people and these elected Democrats don’t. We stand for better jobs, better schools, better roads, better health care. Coloradans didn’t vote for a de facto oil and gas ban, national popular vote or family leave tax incompetently disguised as a fee, but that’s what this new legislature is giving them. It’s only a matter of time until voters say, “This isn’t why we elected you, Democrats. You know what? You’re fired.”
As for our ground game, I’ll compliment Democrats’ intelligence by assuming they would pay more attention if Republicans revealed our strategy in the newspaper — than Republicans did when Jared Polis, quoted in "The Blueprint," explained how he was taking over Colorado.
- Newly appointed director of the GOP's Senate Majority Fund, an independent expenditure committee that raises funds and shapes strategy for Republican state Senate candidates.
- Communications director for the state Republican Party, 2017-19.
- Executive director, El Paso County Republican Party, 2013-16.
- Campaign manager for Citizens for Cost-Effective Government, 2008-09.
- English and Journalism teacher with Colorado Springs Early Colleges, 2011-13.
- Holds a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Kansas.
CP: You worked closely with former state party Chair Jeff Hays to make the party relevant in a state where both major parties have been eclipsed by an evolving political environment. Owing in part to campaign-finance laws that have put the brakes on party influence as well as on candidates’ own fund-raising efforts, what role will the state GOP play as an apparatus in helping stage a comeback?
Cole: Jeff Hays was a superb chairman. He did everything humanly possible to hold up the ceiling as it caved in. I think Congressman Ken Buck will be another strong chairman, hopefully in a more favorable environment. Creating that more favorable environment is now part of my mission at the Senate Majority Fund.
The campaign finance regime in Colorado does hamstring parties and guide money into independent expenditure committees and 501(c)4s, but the party proper still has an important role to play. It serves as the Republican face in the media and in that way shapes public perception. It deploys a large, maybe even huge, number of volunteers to knock doors and make phone calls.
One metric of the party’s importance is that despite Colorado’s suffocatingly low contribution caps, it continues to raise substantial sums. No one should discount the parties when analyzing the state’s political scene.
CP: You recently moved on from your post with the state party to take charge of the Senate Majority Fund — one of those shadow organizations that arguably pull a lot of the strings, write the checks and call the shots for both major parties nowadays. Where do you plan to take the majority fund in hopes of reorienting the state’s current political climate?
Cole: Let me correct a common misconception. The Senate Majority Fund is not a “shadow organization.” As an independent expenditure committee, we report every contribution and expenditure to the Colorado secretary of state. We’re completely transparent. Now if you want to say we call all the shots, that’s not true, but it doesn’t hurt my reputation.
To the substance of your question — we’re renovating the operation in major ways. I’ve been laying out plans in private meetings with stakeholders.
A message to stakeholders — if we haven’t talked yet, it’s probably because I haven't tracked down your number. Let’s get together and win back Colorado.
CP: Colorado long has had a large unaffiliated voting bloc, and its growth has been surging at the expense of Democrats and Republicans alike. To what do you attribute that growth? To the extent that growth is inevitable and unstoppable, is Job No. 1 for Republicans now to win unaffiliated hearts and minds at election time rather than to necessarily convert the bloc to card-carrying GOP members? If so, how will Republicans appeal to unaffiliateds?
Cole: As a society, we’re more polarized than we’ve been in recent years. I don’t want to say “than ever,” because in the early Republic, everyone, including the press, was in a corner, without even a pretense of impartiality. That said, we are especially polarized today, and that dynamic makes the parties unattractive to people in the middle.
It’s Rhetoric 101 to know your audience. We can persuade unaffiliated voters only after we understand them, and we can understand them only after we listen to them. It’s not a matter of changing our principles, but presenting them in a way that speaks to the hearts and minds of the people we’re trying to reach.
Of course we’d always prefer a Republican registration to an unaffiliated registration, but at the end of the cycle, it’s how people vote, not how they’re registered, that counts. We have to meet them where they are.
CP: Post-election polling has shown President Trump is, to say the least, a tough sell with Colorado unaffiateds and may be a stumbling block for down-ballot GOP candidates seeking unaffiliated votes. Yet the president commands loyalty among rank-and-file Republicans. Is that going to change by next year’s presidential election? How does a Colorado Republican run for office in that climate? Does he or she simply run away from the president, or do you think the climate will change?
Cole: A theory Tyler Sandberg aired in another publication the other day holds that because President Trump wasn’t on the ballot in 2016, people who disapproved of him and wanted to send a message had to vote against Republicans who were on the ballot. It was disapproval by proxy. That dynamic will change in 2020, when voters will have an opportunity to express their feelings on Trump directly, whether positive or negative, and be able to judge other Republican candidates on their merits instead of by association.
It’s a cliche, and a cliche for a reason, that a day is an eternity in politics. That means we have 580 eternities between now and the 2020 election. Anything can happen.
CP: What is behind the gender gap dividing the GOP and Democrats? What do Republicans have to do to win over more women, and by the same token why do you think Democrats face a deficit in winning the votes of men in many elections?
Cole: There is a lot of academic literature on this subject. The gender gap stretches back decades, but Republicans should especially note a couple of recent factors.
The first is that many fewer Republican than Democratic women run for office. Of the 435 members of Congress in the U.S. House, 102 are women, and of those only 13 are Republican. That’s a gross disparity, and it doesn’t represent the political leanings of American women as a whole, 41 percent of whom voted for Trump in 2016.
To me, the discrepancy between the large number of Republican women voters and the small number of Republican women candidates suggests that we in the party need to communicate to Republican women who might like to run for office that we would welcome their candidacies; that if they step up, they’ll receive as much institutional support as men; that in the Republican Party, we believe in judging candidates by the content of their character and the quality of their ideas, not the color of their skin or their sex.
I also think we need to respond more effectively, sometimes more forcefully, to the Democrats’ recurring narrative that Republicans are anti-women. Romney’s comment about “binders full of women” was inartful, but how ridiculous that Democrats portrayed his commitment to considering women for job opportunities as evidence of misogyny, and how pathetic of the Republicans that we let them get away with it. We should have laughed them off the stage. That’s what Trump would have done, and he would have won points in the process.
As for the male gender deficit that Democrats face, that’s for us Republicans to know and them never to find out.
CP: Colorado Springs is not only your current home but also your hometown. How has it shaped your own political views, and what inspired you to take up a career in politics in the first place?
Cole: Colorado Springs is home to a lot of heavyweights — thinkers and organizers, electeds and activists, entrepreneurs and executives — who have influenced me over the years. The two Steves — Durham and Schuck — have been invaluable mentors.
I have a broad range of serious passions and interests, but politics is in my DNA. There are Democratic state reps on my dad’s side, and on my mom’s; my grandfather Michael Bernstein was an early godfather, or maybe a midwife, of the American conservative movement. He was at different times the House and the Senate Minority counsel on labor; moreover, he was a strategist, a tactician, and a communicator.
Among other memorabilia, I have hanging in my home office a letter from Barry Goldwater where he claims my grandfather was the first to say, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” and that JFK ripped it off from him. No one in my family believes that’s true, but Barry Goldwater believed it.
Imagine being so eloquent that people are convinced the leader of the free world must have stolen his best lines from you. That was my grandfather.