Although he was among the many Republican office seekers swept aside by the blue tide last November, George Brauchler at least had a pretty impressive job to go back to — as district attorney in Colorado's 18th Judicial District.
Brauchler lost the 2018 attorney general's race to Democrat Phil Weiser, but Brauchler won't have trouble keeping busy as prosecutor in chief for the state's largest judicial district, covering metro Denver's sprawling Arapahoe County and three others.
A veteran of the U.S. Army as well as the Colorado courtroom, Brauchler is an in-the-trenches Republican who matter-of-factly lays out in this week's Q&A what he thinks went wrong for his party last fall. Among the factors he cites — no doubt dismaying some fellow Republicans: a president who "...is not as popular here as he is in other parts of the United States."
Brauchler counters some of the conventional wisdom on legal recreational marijuana, notably, the notion it has mitigated the drug war's burden on law enforcement. Just the opposite, he says. He also challenges opponents of capital punishment to let the state's voters resolve the perennial debate over the death penalty once and for all. And he reflects on his pivotal role prosecuting one of the most heinous crimes in U.S. history.
Colorado Politics: As a high-profile prosecutor, you were an ideal candidate for the law-and-order vote and a natural contender for attorney general on last November’s ballot. You came into the race as the tough-on-crime D.A. who put away the Aurora theater mass -murderer. Only months before the election, the media were reporting violent crime had risen 25 percent since 2013. That also boded well for a lawman’s prospects, yet you fell 6 points short on Election Day. Was it only 2018’s “blue wave” — or has the crime fight itself lost some luster as a political issue?
George Brauchler: I respect and honor the will of Colorado’s voters. Make no mistake, losing sucks, but it is always the risk of participating in political Thunderdome: an election. Two or more candidates enter; one leaves.
It is important for a candidate and a party to assess why they lost, or even won, an election. Here, I agree with the assessment of many that this election was far less about voting FOR someone on the ballot than it was an election about voting AGAINST someone not on the ballot.
I do not believe the election was a referendum on law and order or even any individual candidate on the ballot below the top line: governor. There are three things that worked against all Republicans on the ballot in November 2018.
First, the president is not as popular here as he is in other parts of the United States. Some Republicans bristle at the suggestion that POTUS had a negative impact on the mid-term election, but it is undeniable that he lost this state by five points in 2016 and he polls lower here than elsewhere. Remember the political ads run during the general election? Almost all of them were anti-Trump far more than they were pro-any other message or candidate.
The disdain for our president by some was manifested in a significant increase in turnout by many voters who do not typically vote party line — and that is what happened here.
The best example is Arapahoe [County] Sheriff Dave Walcher. Sheriff Walcher lost because he was a Republican on a ballot that featured a Democrat alternative. Few went down ballot and assessed that one of the best and most progressive sheriffs in this part of the United States with decades of law enforcement experience needed to be replaced. And yet, that’s what happened.
This was a protest vote against the party of the president. The Republican jersey was not a popular one in Colorado. As it is, our party is in third place in Colorado with only 29 percent of its registered voters. Those are challenging numbers even without a president who is the wrong kind of red in our state.
Second, we need to give credit where credit is due. Republicans got out-organized and out-executed. As we headed into the final days of the campaign, I heard that our party had knocked on 500,000 doors. That is terrific. Then I heard Gov. Polis’ campaign had knocked on 1 million. That is impressive and on a scale we have never seen here. No party should expect good results when they get doubled-up on face-to-face contacts with voters.
Being a jillionaire pays big dividends in a political contribution environment meticulously cultivated to give self-funders a significant advantage over the little people. Gov. Polis invested his millions more in people than in mailers and TV ads and that made a huge difference. When the top of the ticket creates an overwhelmingly successful tide, it raises all down-ballot boats.
Third, we got outspent by significant candidate fundraising. Some will point to the large expenditures of out-of-state third parties, but that is misleading. It is also a disappointing and unacceptable result of the contribution laws in our state. Here’s how the money spends depending upon its source: The rate charged by TV stations … more for non-candidates than candidates. Thus, a candidate who raises $1 million in hard dollars can buy as much air time as a third party that spends $3 million in soft dollars.
Our campaign raised more than any other AG candidate before this last election, $750,000. And then there’s the current AG, who raised nearly $3 million. It doesn’t matter that such a huge amount contained more out-of-state money than nearly all prior AG candidates combined; it spends like dollars raised right here in Colorado. Add up those three factors, and victory becomes extremely challenging to achieve.
Candidly, if the shoe were on the other foot, I would tout that the election was a mandate for huge change based upon whatever policies managed to squeeze in between anti-Trump ads. Nonetheless, these factors are real and they had a significant impact on the outcome of the election.
Here’s the “good” news — and that is a relative term: No Republican running for a state office has ever received more votes than our campaign did. We received tens of thousands more votes than other Republicans on the same ballot running for other state offices. Some have tried to find the silver lining in the numbers and asked if that isn’t some consolation to me. I have responded with Ricky Bobby’s apropos aphorism, “If you’re not first, you’re last.”
- Republican 18th Judicial District attorney since 2013.
- Was Republican Party nominee in Colorado attorney general's race, 2018.
- Colonel, Colorado Army National Guard.
- Adjunct professor, University of Denver's Sturm College of Law.
- Served as regional defense counsel with the U.S. Army Reserve, 2011-2015.
- Was chief of military justice at the U.S. Army's Fort Carson in Colorado Springs and was deployed to Tikrit, Iraq to serve as chief of military justice for Task Force Ironhorse and U.S. Division-North, 2010-2011.
- Former litigation partner, Denver office of Feldmann, Nagel & Associates, LLC, 2008-2010.
- Holds a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was a cadet in the Army ROTC program. Earned his J.D. from the University of Colorado School of Law.
CP: Let’s talk about the blue wave. Has it permanently changed the landscape of perennially purple Colorado, or was it just another swing of the pendulum — albeit a big one? What do you make of Colorado’s fastest-growing and largest voting bloc, unaffiliateds? How do you believe Republicans should enlist the support of U’s on crime or other issues?
Brauchler: “Wave” does not do what happened justice. It was a tsunami. I remain optimistic that the Colorado I grew up in and the one that has kept us from becoming like those coastal states that value big government more than big liberty is still there. For the reasons stated above, Democrats over-performed this cycle and Republicans under-performed. Maybe that remains the new normal, but I doubt it.
Taking a look at the ballot from November, the majority of voters visited their wrath on any candidate who was identified as a Republican. And yet, for ballot initiatives that bear no party affiliation, voters acted like they typically do. They voted down measures to grow the government insatiable appetite for their hard-earned money, they defended one of the most important industries in Colorado from radical regulation, and they voted to minimize the political impact of redistricting. That’s traditional Colorado.
The issue of unaffiliated voters is critical to the future of politics, not just in Colorado, but nationally. Here, we have seen a surge in voters who have no interest in wearing either party’s jersey. Democrats only represent 31 percent of our registered voters. Unaffiliateds make up 40 percent and that number is only going to increase as each party has seen an increasing number of defections over the past decade.
Admittedly, our state’s laws favor a two-party system. As one example, why are taxpayers on the hook for funding inter-party primary elections? As we continue to move toward a system that supports voters more than parties, such as opening party primary voting to unaffiliateds, we will see the percentage of Colorado’s unaffiliated voters grow.
Likewise, millennial voters and younger, by more than 50 percent, prefer to be unaffiliated. That trend will not change in the future. My 16-year-old daughter will join the ranks of the unaffiliated voters when she turns 18. Who can blame her? Both parties have lost the initiative in convincing younger voters that they have the answers to the problems that ail our community.
Winning those voters in the future will require more than pointing out how the other party is bad, although that message sure won out last November.
I am also confident that the narrative for younger voters in the future will revolve around an analysis of WHAT is right (in their estimation) far more than WHO is right. Democrats and Republicans make it easy to view them as invested in the WHO is right game. For the record, Republicans are right. Kidding. Sort of.
CP: A bill to repeal the death penalty gathered steam in this year’s legislative session — then fizzled amid reports even some majority Democrats opposed it. Yet, when you sought the death penalty in the Aurora theater shootings, the jury opted for life in prison. If a jury won’t agree to capital punishment even in a case like that, does it matter much if it remains on the books? No one has been executed in Colorado since 1997. Does it still serve a purpose for prosecutors? You have been among those calling for a popular vote on the issue. How do you think it would fare on the statewide ballot?
Brauchler: Let’s be clear: The jury in the Aurora theater shootings did not opt for life in prison for the sane mass murderer. The law forced that outcome. In Colorado, a death sentence must be the product of a unanimous jury vote. That means that one juror who ends deliberations by stating that they would never vote for death in this case will cause a life sentence to be imposed, despite the vote of the remaining 11 jurors. That is what happened in our case. The jury did not decide against death. One juror did.
Another fact that most Coloradans do not know is that our state has the toughest death penalty statute in America. For instance, if we had the same standard in the cases of the Boston marathon bomber, the mass murder of a church in Charleston, or even the mass murder at Fort Hood, the Aurora theater killer would be on death row right now.
But we do not have that standard. Our standard creates a one-of-a-kind sentencing phase after the jurors find unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt that the murders were aggravated and that the aggravation outweighs all mitigation. That phase asks the jurors to abandon the objective application of facts to the law and rely, instead, on the subjective.
They are instructed 10 times in various instructions from the court that this is a matter of “reasoned moral judgment” and that it may be one of the most important decisions they will ever make. It was in that phase, and only that phase, that one juror said they would never vote for death. I would like to see us reform the law to be commensurate with the standard in other states or even the federal government.
Before we do that, we should send the issue of repeal to Colorado voters. The anti-death penalty folks are scared of doing this for a very good reason: No state’s voters have repealed the death penalty. None. In 2016, when Californians were offered the chance to repeal the death penalty or speed up appeals such that the sentence would be carried out more quickly, California — the state we have ceded our presidential vote and emission standards to — voted to retain the death penalty AND speed up the appellate process. Colorado deserves to vote on this important legal and moral issue.
As for me, as much as I am convinced that Colorado would vote to maintain this rarely used tool for justice for mass murderers, child and cop killers, and assassins of witnesses to other murders, I will happily abide by their will as expressed through the ballot. Why isn’t that good enough for the repeal lobby?
CP: What was the most frustrating aspect of the entire Aurora theater saga for you?
Brauchler: There are a few things that stick out from that trial.
First, I am obviously disappointed in the sentence, but more than that, I am frustrated by those who suggest that the juror who ended deliberations was deceptive during jury selection questioning. I trust our system and our jurors. If the outcome had been different — had that same juror voted for death — I would have expected the community to embrace that outcome as proper and as justice. My position does not change even in the face of an outcome with which I disagree. I will not give scandal to our justice system and presume juror misconduct. There is no evidence of it.
Second, one of the positive developments since this high-profile case came to an end is the development of the No Notoriety movement, an attempt to convince the news media to report the identity of the mass murderer once — and then never again.
It is a movement driven by Tom and Caren Teves, the parents of Aurora theater murder victim Alex Teves. It is gathering momentum across the United States and internationally, including New Zealand, the site of the most recent mass murder.
I am proud of our local media. At the time of our trial, they saw the importance of de-emphasizing the perpetrator of evil and focusing on the victims and the facts of the case. The national media did not. To this day, they continue to sensationalize mass murderers, providing future would-be killers the additional incentive of timeless notoriety for their evil acts.
The most memorable and emotional memories of the trial for me are the victims. None stand out quite as vividly as 6-year old Veronica Moser Sullivan, shot four times with an assault rifle by that monster as she sat next to her then-pregnant mother in Theater 9.
At the time of the trial, my youngest son was 5 years old and routinely crawled into bed with my wife and me at night. I slept poorly during the months-long trial, worse than I slept while deployed to Iraq. On the days we took testimony from the coroner on the autopsies and Ashley Moser, Veronica’s now-paralyzed mother who miscarried her baby as a result of being shot, I would lie awake in bed all night, staring at the ceiling, with a little guy snuggled up next to me. How can a parent go on living after losing a child in such a horrific manner? And yet the parents of those victims all live on, some stronger than others, but each forever changed by having their child blasted out of their lives forever. I have immense respect for their strength.
CP: Has Colorado’s groundbreaking experience with legalized recreational marijuana so far been a net gain or loss for the state’s justice system? Less manpower and resources are devoted to arresting and incarcerating those involved in the pot trade; then again, some attribute rising crime to legal pot use. What’s your experience in the 18th Judicial District?
Brauchler: ... I have only been working in the criminal justice system for 25 years, but I have never seen the size, complexity and volume of black market marijuana trafficking operations and associated violent crime as I have seen since we legalized recreational marijuana.
For instance, since Colorado voted to pass Amendment 64, our jurisdiction counts 15 murder cases arising from the illegal transaction of marijuana. That number does not include the lesser violent and serious felonies of: attempted murder, aggravated robbery, first-degree assault, burglary, and so on. Prior to Amendment 64’s passage, we did not see that level of violent crime associated with marijuana.
As well, several years ago, I started a narcotics unit to tackle the growing heroin, opioid, and ongoing methamphetamine issues in our community. We estimated that no more than 20-25% of the unit’s workload would be related to black market marijuana. That was a significant underestimation. The unit spends more than 50% of its time and resources addressing the significant “drug trafficking operations,” which have set up shop throughout our jurisdiction with the purpose of defeating our state’s marijuana laws, cultivating commercial-sized amounts of marijuana, and exporting them throughout the United States. Again, law enforcement never saw this number, volume, and complexity of illegal cultivation grows prior to regulation of recreational marijuana.
The workload has increased so much, we have had to apply for grant money generated from marijuana taxes to hire another full-time marijuana prosecutor and investigator. Those are tax dollars that could be going to education, rehabilitation, prevention, or whatever else was promised during the pro-64 campaign. Instead, we are fighting an increasing and uphill battle to keep our part of Colorado from turning into the Wild West of weed.
CP: The election notwithstanding, you remain the top law enforcement official in the state’s most populous judicial district. You are still in your political prime. Can we expect another run for higher office?
Brauchler: I have spent my adult life in service to my country and my state, both in and out of uniform. From Colorado’s courtrooms to Iraq’s deserts, I have been blessed to have the opportunity to fight for some our biggest values, like liberty, justice, the rule of law and the American way. I have spent a career confronting issues bigger than dollars and glory, such as public safety, right and wrong, good and evil, life and death. My drive to serve has only intensified since having a family, including an entrepreneurial wife and four, amazing public-school-attending kids. That remains my primary motivation, but that is not my only motivation.
Many do not know that I ran unsuccessfully for the position I currently hold back in 2008. I primaried the incumbent, my predecessor, when most said “you can’t win” and “you’ll lose so badly we’ll never hear from you again.” The nay-sayers were partly right. But I am competitive and a fighter.
When I returned from Iraq and decided to run again, many of the same voices were there listing all the reasons why I wouldn’t win... I took what I learned from my prior loss and out-worked the field. My team outpaced three other Republican candidates and the best-funded, best-qualified Democrat nominee in the history of the jurisdiction. Over the next four years, I made the job look so miserable, nobody wanted it in 2016, and I ran unopposed.
I am not done serving America and Colorado. I got knocked down in November, but I did not get knocked out. As I watch our state government lurch leftward and abandon traditional roles of government and cheapen the rule of law, I am even more inspired to fight for the only home I have ever known.
Then again, if the NFL asks me to be the next commissioner…
CP: Tell us something about yourself that isn’t widely known among the public — that might even surprise us.
Brauchler: ... I have no hobbies — I have not had time for them in nearly forever. ... My mother (God rest her soul) and wife are each identical twins. The person I am most mistaken for is Anderson Cooper, which is an insult to Anderson Cooper. I never lost a trial as a criminal defense attorney.
I started doing fill-in host work on radio after winning a competition on 630 KHOW back in 2006-ish. In the championship round, I defeated a radio palm-reader. No joke. I still wonder if she would have seen that coming if I had let her read my palm.
I never wanted to be an attorney. I thought it sounded boring and I wanted no more classroom time. In my senior year at CU-Boulder, as an economics student and Army ROTC scholarship cadet, I initially chose to be branched armor — that is tanks and cavalry. I wanted to be in combat, but I didn’t want to have to walk to get there. Some senior officers and my attorney mother talked me into taking the LSAT and applying to law school. Career-wise, I am still not convinced I made the right choice. ...