What eventually happens to the political scene's onetime rising stars? Some keep rising; some move on; some crash and burn. And some — like Republican Matt Knoedler — get out of the horse race but stay engaged, a bit older and probably a lot wiser.
Knoedler, who back in the 2000s was part of a fresh crop of up-and-coming Republicans elected to the Colorado state House, has witnessed up close the rollercoaster ride of GOP fortunes since then. The insights he has gleaned have now inspired him and fellow longtime Republican insider Allen Fuller to start a new project that aims to provide a new network for conservatives in Colorado and beyond.
In today's Q&A, Knoedler shares details of that endeavor; his thoughts on the current stars of the state GOP, his obsession with bicycling, and the likelihood of him ever running for another elected office. Oh, and he reveals the party affiliation of the home he grew up in; it's not what you'd think.
Colorado Politics: Back in 2006, Rocky Mountain News (and now Colorado Politics) political writer Lynn Bartels included you among a group of next-gen Colorado Republicans who held great political promise. She dubbed you “rock stars.” Up-and-comers like you, Josh Penry, Rob Witwer and Cory Gardner presented seemingly boundless potential for the GOP. Your individual lives have followed various paths since then — only Gardner, of course, still holds elected office — but the state party’s overall hold on power isn’t what it used to be. Not by a long shot. What happened? Is it irreversible, perhaps given the migration of younger and more liberal voters to the Centennial State?
Matt Knoedler: Ah yes, the “Policy Wonks.” We were a Friedrich Hayek tribute band with one groupie (Thanks, Lynn!). Cory is definitely the Paul McCartney of the bunch. I think I’m Ringo. It was so much fun. We all worked together as legislative aides long before the statehouse. Not many freshmen show up knowing the issues like we did, and we could finish each other’s sentences. I know Josh, Rob and I would still do anything to help Cory.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the GOP’s downward trajectory in the state is not a linear path. We bottomed out in 2008, but clawed our way back to a majority in the Congressional delegation by 2011, we won every statewide office in 2014 except governor, and scratched out occasional majorities in the legislative chambers. We made those gains despite district lines gerrymandered by the Dems, campaign finance rules rigged for Dems, a tidal wave of money from liberal zillionaires, and plenty of unforced errors on our side. Nobody thought we could do that in 2008.
But 2014 was a turning point: Hickenlooper scratched out re-election after going negative and outspending Beauprez 2-1, and that’s also when marijuana became legal. That combination was like hanging a “Safe Space” banner at the state line for young liberals around the country. Is it a “blue rush” or something more sustainable for them? I don’t know. I think conservatives feel very isolated and alone in their community right now, and we need to overcome that first.
- Co-founder and CEO, CaucusRoom
- Senior policy adviser, Squire Patton Boggs, 2005-2019.
- Represented Jefferson County's House District 22 in the Colorado House, 2005-2007.
- Senior policy adviser, Office of Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, 2001-2004.
- Legislative director, office of then-6th Congressional District U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, 1999-2001.
- Earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
CP: Who are today’s Colorado Republican rock stars — those who might be the best fit for voters in 2019? What attributes in general are needed for a successful statewide Republican candidate these days?
Knoedler: If Heidi Ganahl and George Brauchler started a rock band, I’d be in the front row waving a lighter in the air shouting “Free Bird!!” I’d also show up to a conservative beatnik night where Kelly Maher or Michael Fields read Federalist Papers to the beat of a snare drum and saxophone. Because I am a nerd.
What does it take to win statewide? Candidates and campaigns need to regain touch with our best ambassadors — precinct-level activists and neighbors. People will need to see their neighbors championing a GOP candidate before they do it themselves. The Dems are smart to require presidential campaigns to meet small-dollar supporter thresholds. If you give a candidate $5, you are much more likely to tell your friends about that candidate. GOP soft money spending caught up to the Dems in the state Senate last year, but the Dems had thousands more small-dollar donations to their candidates — that means more people invested in them, literally.
All other things being equal, it is noteworthy to me that women GOP statewide candidates vastly outperformed the men in 2014 (Cynthia Coffman) and 2016 (Heidi Ganahl). Susan Beckman was the only GOP legislator to win a Clinton district in 2018. So I keep an eye out to support conservative women who are on the rise around the state. Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese’s efforts to overturn the National Popular Vote bill stands out to me.
CP: You and fellow GOP warrior Allen Fuller have started a new endeavor called CaucusRoom, billed as “a community for conservatives to gather, network, encourage, and mobilize locally.” What does it bring to the table for Republicans that has been missing? What are your longer-term ambitions for the project?
Knoedler: It’s understandable that many conservatives feel alone in their community, given the hostile world of social media and last year’s election results. The first step is to know you aren’t alone, and that there are neighbors and resources nearby who are making a difference. That’s why we built CaucusRoom.com. A caucus is a place for like-minded people to huddle and talk politics, then head out into the world with a plan of action. Why do 80,000 Republican neighbors only talk to each other one evening every other year? We should be talking all the time.
Candidates and causes spend so much effort building lists of supporters. What happens when those campaigns come to an end? Our hope is that by organizing on CaucusRoom.com, a campaign’s legacy will live on after the election because the local supporters are still online with each other. It will be so much faster to mobilize and find supporters if we are all on the same network. We’ve already seen the chatter on CaucusRoom lead to more local donations, more volunteers, and more word-of-mouth support for local candidates.
We like what we see so far, and are looking to expand into other states — and not just caucus states. Few states, if any, have a sustainable digital organizing effort in place on our side of the aisle. The need is obvious.
CP: What do you make of Colorado’s unaffiliated voters, the state’s largest voting bloc by a significant margin and still growing? They are pivotal in any statewide election. What do they want, why won’t they join a party, and how do Republicans win them over?
Knoedler: Unaffiliateds often feel disaffected and want to tune everything out. It’s hard to connect with them through paid advocacy. After the oil and gas industry defeated Prop 112 last year, I asked some oil executives: “What was the best money you spent in the election?” Their answer: It wasn’t money — it was training their employees to talk to their neighbors. Instead of “big Houston Oil Companies,” the industry showed they were real people living among us who care about their community just as much as the other side.
That answer was a big inspiration for CaucusRoom. It’s important for our unaffiliated friends to know that they aren’t entirely surrounded by liberals. The most likely person to change someone’s mind on an issue is a friend. For people who feel ill-equipped to engage in that conversation without losing a friend in the process, they can start by joining CaucusRoom and discover advocacy groups with resources to help.
CP: What got you started in politics in the first place?
My parents were active in Democratic Party politics. Mom was the treasurer of the Boulder County Democrats in the late 1980s. Somewhere between philosophy and economics classes at CU, I started to see things differently, and my first votes were for Wayne Allard and Bob Dole.
After college I saved up enough money for three days in D.C. to find a job, with basically no prospects. I met a guy on the airplane who worked for Rep. Dan Schaefer of Lakewood. I interviewed the next day, got the job the day after that and proposed to my wife. That was a good week.
CP: There’s a truism about former electeds who grow beards — that they’re not interested in seeking another political office. Would you ever give it another shot — with or without a beard?
Knoedler: Nope. A few years ago I finally realized government can’t keep up with the private sector in changing the world. Example: As a legislator, I once proposed a bill to lessen regulations on limo drivers. It was a no-brainer, but the taxi lobby killed it in the Senate. Seven years later, Uber comes along and accomplishes more for free-market transportation reform than any politician or think tank could have imagined. And they made money doing it! Amazing.
Why don’t conservatives think like that more often? So, this year I dropped everything and started this new life. So far, it’s a ton of fun.
CP: Are you still an avid cyclist? How many miles are you able to put in a year?
Knoedler: I am a cycling nut, for sure. I race at the “beer league” level, if there is such a thing in this crazy state. I’m better at crashing than winning. I don’t know my miles, but I average about seven hours a week, year round.
If you want to win a bike race in this state, you have to be healthy, smart, lucky, and then push yourself harder than you ever thought possible... and then go even harder. Anything less than that won’t cut it. Same goes for politics, I think.