Tyler Sandberg wasn't among the GOP candidates and officeholders swept aside by the blue tide last fall — but the wave arguably hit him as hard. He was, after all, among those running their campaigns.
In today's Q&A, the veteran political consultant offers some blunt and telling insights about what happened, as well as some encouraging words to fellow Republicans about their prospects next time around.
If Sandberg's name doesn't sound familiar, you're probably not deeply involved in state politics — and you're certainly not on Twitter, where he is a pugnacious presence who regularly dukes it out with Colorado's energized center-left.
He also has shifted gears a bit of late. In the new year he took up a new calling, as vice president of a GOP-oriented education-reform group he had helped start, Ready Colorado.
It's a role that takes him beyond the starkly partisan grudge match that long has been his focus. As he tells us, he now is building coalitions "with a lot of smart Democrats and left-leaning organizations" that share Ready's dedication to popular innovations like charter schools and other reforms not universally embraced in Democratic ranks.
Of course, the battle of ideas, and parties, goes on, and Sandberg weighs in with what he believes will be a key opportunity for the GOP to win back unaffiliated voters.
He also offers a principled defense of oft-maligned independent expenditure committees. And — we had to ask — he tells us if he'd ever want to see his own name on the ballot.
Colorado Politics: The consensus seems to be that there were two closely related factors behind the drubbing Colorado Republicans endured last November: Donald Trump — and the unaffiliated voters with whom he was so unpopular. There’s little that can be done about the Republican in the White House in Washington, but what about the unaffiliateds here at home — the state’s No. 1 voting bloc? Are those who make the plays on the right side of Colorado’s political divide revising their ground game to reach these politically untethered, increasingly young and rapidly proliferating independent voters? If it proves elusive to bring them into the GOP fold, can Republicans at least get them to vote for their candidates?
Tyler Sandberg: There’s no doubt that the 2018 election was a referendum on the president. One need not look further than the Arapahoe [County] sheriff’s race, where the Democrat who won was rejected when he applied to be a sheriff’s deputy only a few years prior. Voters were not assessing races based on the candidates, but were sending a signal of their displeasure with Donald Trump up and down the ballot. A smart Republican put it well — it wasn’t a wave election, but a punishment election. Voters were punishing all Republicans for the president’s behavior, just as they did in the 1974 election post-Watergate.
The key for Republicans to win elections in Colorado, as it’s always been but is increasingly so, is persuading the growing bloc of unaffiliated voters. If you look at voter registration trends, new voters are registering as unaffiliated more than they are either Republicans or Democrats combined.
What Republicans need to do in 2020 is give those unaffiliated voters a reason to split their tickets. Despite the recent bravado from Trump’s campaign manager saying he thinks Trump can win Colorado, the chance of that happening is less than zero.
The Democrats in the legislature this session did more to help Republicans than the GOP could ever do for itself. Their reckless overreach gives unaffiliated voters that are opposed to Trump a very clear reason to split their tickets and support Republicans down ballot.
While voters elected Democrats in every swing race, they also rejected multiple billion-dollar tax hikes and voted down an anti-oil and gas measure. I think the Democrats completely misread their mandate and have abused it to a degree that it gives Republicans an opening in 2020.
- Vice president of right-leaning education-reform advocacy group Ready Colorado.
- Ran Republican former U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman's 2018 and 2014 re-election campaigns; served as Coffman's deputy chief of staff in 2015.
- Senior project manager with GOP power consultant EIS Solutions, 2015-2019, during which he ran wide-ranging campaigns and independent expenditure committees.
- Political director for Republican former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton's U.S. Senate bid in 2010.
- Once interned for the late Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
CP: Advocates of campaign finance reform heap scorn on the independent expenditure committees that set the pace and drive the debate in so many modern political races. You’ve run a number of them and by all indicators had a real impact on some of the races you’ve played in. Critics say the committees distort the record of candidates and funnel “dark” money from political donors. But do they serve a useful purpose — not just for their stakeholders, obviously, but also for voters? Broadly speaking, are all such independent committees inevitable, given campaign finance laws?
Sandberg: Colorado has the second-lowest campaign finance limits in the country for legislative races, which has undoubtably driven the growth in independent expenditures. In some of the top state Senate races, the outside groups spent more than 20 times what the candidates raised, combined.
What’s interesting is despite the crocodile tears many Democrats in Colorado shed about money in politics, they invented the game. Years before the Citizens United case, Colorado Democrats built a massive soft money operation, from partisan “ethics watch” groups to fake newspapers designed to smear Republicans for the sole purpose of including those smears in mailers.
I mean, just look at how many political folks are employed on the Democratic side — for every Republican employed by a nonprofit or consulting firm there is easily 10 to 15 Democratic staffers. That accounts for a massive amount of soft money spending, not including money spent on actual candidate races and ballot measures.
Do the outside groups serve a purpose? Absolutely. Look at Gov. Polis, who spent $23 million of his own money on his race. His opponent was limited to accepting donations at a maximum of $1,150. The only way to level the playing field against wealthy, self-funding candidates is independent expenditure, or Super PAC, spending.
I don’t believe we’ll ever see big money go away in politics, for the simple reason that there’s even bigger money in government. The economic impact of policies and regulations, and the government spending itself, dwarfs what is spent on elections. Whether for ideological or financial reasons, there will always be people who want to influence elections — and the money of those interests will always find a way into elections, no matter what. If that wasn’t true, then McCain-Feingold would have been a whopping success.
CP: You ran the 2014 re-election campaign of former five-term Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman against prominent Democratic former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, and won. You also ran last year’s re-election bid by Coffman, and lost to a political newcomer and virtual unknown, Jason Crow. Coffman’s perseverance and seeming invincibility on the campaign trail, even following redistricting, had made him an epic force in state GOP politics. What has changed? Was there more to his loss than just the ballyhooed blue tide? Is a fundamental evolution underway in the once-solidly-Republican 6th CD — as perhaps statewide? In hindsight, would you have done anything differently in the 2018 effort?
Sandberg: The lines of the 6th Congressional District were drawn by Democrats for the explicit purpose of defeating Mike Coffman. Prior to redistricting, the old 6th district was won by [John] McCain by 8 points in 2008. After redistricting, the newly constituted district would have been won by [Barack] Obama by 8 points in 2008. That’s a massive shift in the electorate that occurred overnight.
The fact that Coffman held on in 2012, 2014 and 2016 is a testament to his unparalleled work ethic and dedicated service to his constituents. In 2016, for example, Michael Bennet won the district by 10 points and Hillary Clinton won it by 9 points, but Coffman managed to romp to victory by 9 points as well. Voters clearly demonstrated their appreciation for his representation and work on their behalf.
That all changed in 2018. Not because Coffman changed — he actually became more independent after Trump was elected — but because voters wanted to punish Donald Trump. They wanted a Democratic House to provide a check on the president. There was nothing that Coffman could have done to change that.
When I look back at the 2018 race in hindsight, there are definitely a couple of things I would have done differently. However, even in races that I’ve won I look back and think about how I could have done better at different points. But nothing would have changed the outcome of the election in 2018. All across the district Republicans were routed. Voters spoke clearly and Republicans didn’t stand a chance.
Does it reflect a change in the CD6 and statewide electorate? No doubt. The state is moving leftward with the massive influx of new residents, the majority of whom have come from California. But I do not believe that 2018 represents the new normal. All across the metro area we saw massive swings against Republican candidates anywhere from 12-20 points compared to the 2016 elections. That was a major swing of the pendulum, but that pendulum will start to swing back soon enough.
I can’t thank the Democrats in the legislature enough for helping on that — their reckless agenda and massive overreach this session is already helping push that pendulum back in the other direction. We’re still a small-government state. Voters still continually reject massive income and sales taxes on the statewide ballot. They continue to express a distrust of government spending and government intrusion in their lives — even if our state’s elected officials don’t always respect that.
CP: When you came aboard Ready Colorado this year, you moved to an organization that for a change seems less about run-and-gun partisan politics and more about issue-specific policy. Yet, it still has a distinctly rightward tilt. How is Ready different from your previous endeavors, and by the same token, how is it different from other education-advocacy groups in the state?
Sandberg: I have loved the opportunity to work at an issue-driven organization. Education reform provides an opportunity to transform neighborhoods and completely alter the trajectory of entire communities. We are failing too many of our kids in this state with a sub-par K-12 education that the forces of the status quo have a stranglehold over. Challenging that failing status quo and helping drive innovation and educational opportunity for every kid, no matter where they live or what their parents do for a living, is incredibly rewarding work.
I’ve also particularly enjoyed the bipartisan nature of it. Unlike in many other states, education reform has a very strong bipartisan foundation in Colorado. The biggest accomplishments in the space have occurred when Republicans stick together and join with gutsy Democrats willing to take on the teachers union to do what’s right for kids. For much of my career I’ve operated in a more strictly partisan space, whereas with education reform I get to work with a lot of smart Democrats and left-leaning organizations. That’s been both professionally and personally rewarding.
Ready Colorado is unique in that it’s essentially the only conservative education reform advocacy group in the state. A recent study found that an overwhelming majority of political donations from staffers at education reform organizations go to Democrats. Historically Republicans were reliable supporters of education reform. However, a couple years ago that long-standing center-right coalition began to backslide, which presaged the creation of Ready Colorado.
We’re unique among many education reform organizations in that we have a strongly political — and yes, center-right — orientation. We understand that public policy is not created in a vacuum, but is shaped in the crucible of politics and elections. That’s why we expend a good deal of effort engaging in lobbying and electoral advocacy, from ballot measures to legislative races. And it’s paid off incredibly well. In 2017, Ready helped pass the first-in-the-nation law that required school districts to share their local tax dollars equally with charter schools. In 2019, we actually accomplished more of our agenda at the Capitol than the state’s leading teachers union, even though according to the Colorado Sun they spent more money on the 2018 elections than any other organization with a lobbyist at the Capitol.
Our goal is to create a pipeline of center-right leaders who will make education a top priority and carry the mantle of education reform in every office they hold. It’s been incredibly successful in our four short years.
CP: Republicans generally are credited with having introduced school choice and assorted other education reforms to the policy roundtable. Yet, a key segment of the Democratic Party — up to and including the last two Democratic presidents — has championed and advanced some of those reforms, including charter schools. Now, in a turnabout, another faction of Democrats that includes teacher unions is pushing back. Are the reforms in jeopardy as a result, particularly in a state like Colorado, where Democrats currently hold the levers of power? What is Ready’s strategy in response to the turmoil over this issue within Democratic ranks?
Sandberg: The progress of education reform is at serious risk all across the country, but Colorado stands out as a state where the bipartisan education reform coalition has proved resilient. When a freshman representative who took office via a vacancy committee tried to take away millions in funding from state-authorized charter schools this year, the bill was defeated 12-1 in the House Education Committee. We also have a Democratic governor who has lived the education reform movement personally, founding a number of charter schools himself. Due to that expertise and experience, Gov. Polis has a very different perspective than many Democratic politicians.
The teachers union and other opponents of reform have pushed back furiously, spending over $3 million on the 2018 legislative elections alone. But despite that tidal wave of spending, their bad ideas and opposition to positive, student-centered policies has not gained traction. That’s not only a testament to the resiliency of Colorado’s education reform coalition, but also an indictment of the union’s agenda.
CP: You spent time building democracy — in East Timor. What motivated you to make that effort in such a remote reach of the globe, and do you think your efforts made a difference in developing the political culture there?
Sandberg: One of my earliest jobs in politics was working on democracy building efforts in East Timor and Malaysia. I was blessed by the opportunity to work with what my boss at the time called the “Thomas Jeffersons” of burgeoning democracies. I was inspired to work there by family that had been working in East Timor for a number of years and my time interning for U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
East Timor is an incredible country with an amazingly kind, compassionate and hopeful people. After they voted for independence in a UN-backed election in 1999, and the horrific atrocities committed by Indonesian forces in the aftermath, they needed to build the democratic infrastructure necessary to survive as the world’s newest country.
I had the opportunity to be an international election observer for the presidential election in 2007, and despite the fact that at that time the majority of the people were illiterate, the election went off without a hitch. In fact, it was far better run than some caucuses have been in Colorado.
Later that year, for the parliamentary elections, I helped run a nationwide “training of the trainers” program for representatives for all 15 political parties on how to run Election Day poll-watching programs. It had a powerful impact, as the government in power lost the election, but they recognized the validity of the results because they had trained poll watchers at all voting locations and peacefully handed over power. The peaceful transfer of power from the first democratically elected government is a pivotal moment in new democracies, so it felt really good to play an infinitesimal role in helping that happen.
CP: You have honed your skill set thus far as a message shaper and image maker for other politicos. You’ve proven that you know how to get candidates elected. Would you ever use your skills on your own behalf — and run for office yourself?
Sandberg: Never. I greatly respect people who run for office and commit themselves to public service, but the near total lack of privacy that public life affords is not something I aspire to. I much prefer to impact public policy from the role of an advocate and adviser. Besides, my Twitter account probably precludes me from ever being a candidate.