Republican Walker Stapleton and Democrat Jared Polis, two sitting office-holders with high name recognition and lots of campaign cash, dominated their opponents and claimed victories in their parties’ primary races for governor less than an hour after the polls closed Tuesday.
In all-but-final tallies June 28, Stapleton had received 47.7 percent of the Republican vote versus 52.3 percent for the other three GOP candidates combined; he was 17.6 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, Victor Mitchell.
And Polis had garnered 44.4 percent of the Democratic vote versus 55.6 percent for his trio of rivals; he was 19.7 points in front of No. 2 candidate Cary Kennedy.
Just minutes after he was declared the Democratic nominee, a jubilant Polis made his way through the packed ballroom at the Renaissance Boulder Flatiron Hotel as Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are A-Changin’” played over loudspeakers.
“I will stand up with our inclusive Colorado voice and show that, here in Colorado, we will have a bold way forward,” Polis told the crowd as his partner, Marlon Reis, stood at his side.
“You all have answered the call to fight back against the divisive Trump agenda and stand up for the values that have and will make Colorado great,” he continued, adding that the campaign against Stapleton will involve “a coalition of Democrats, independent voters, of moderate Republicans and rational Republicans.”
Introducing Polis, campaign chair Lisa Kaufmann said: “For those of us who’ve had the pleasure of working with him, we would walk across hot coals for him, because we know he would do the same for us.”
Trailing Polis and Kennedy in the Democratic primary were former state Sen. Mike Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne.
Stapleton wasted no time taking the fight to Polis in his victory speech at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Denver Tech Center in Greenwood Village. He said Polis’ clean energy plan would destroy Colorado’s oil and gas industry and seek to raise taxes on Coloradans.
“The stakes could not be higher for my children and yours,” he told the crowd.
He added, “Elections are about choices. They are about the direction we want to see Colorado head in the future. Tonight we celebrate the first step and we will offer Colorado a hopeful economic vision for all of our children.”
Stapleton had the backing of mainstream Republicans. He was introduced for his victory speech by the last Republican governor, Bill Owens, who held the seat for two terms until 2007.
“It’s been too long, way too long, since we’ve had a Republican governor, do you agree?” Owens said to cheers. “We need a governor who’s going to cut taxes and lessen regulations, and one who will give us more options and choices for our children’s educations.”
The last Republican nominee from four years ago, Bob Beauprez, also was at the Stapleton party Tuesday night.
“It’s going to be a close race (in November), we know that,” Beauprez said. “He’s not running against a popular incumbent, or any incumbent, and we now Colorado is a center-right state. The Democrats, especially Jared Polis, are way off to the left of the rest of state.
“If Walker can penetrate that big bubble in the center, and I think he can, we can elect a Republican governor in November.”
Speaking with reporters, Stapleton talked about Polis’ wealth and financial advantage against Democrats in his primary.
“I need to raise enough money,” Stapleton said of the road ahead. “Jared Polis is raising unprecedented amounts of money to buy this election …It’s a David versus Goliath race and I’m ready to be David.”
Stapleton dispatched Mitchell as well as Doug Robinson and Greg Lopez.
At about 7:30, Robinson had already conceded via Twitter:
A former Colorado House Republican leader, Mark Waller, now an El Paso County commissioner, was an early arrival at Stapleton’s primary night party.
“I think he’s the right guy with the right message,” Waller said of Stapleton. “He’s got the right chops. He’s a good conservative who can win in No ember. He can beat Jared Polis.”
Meanwhile, Colorado Democratic Party Chair Morgan Carroll congratulated Polis on his win, calling him “an independent leader who has spent his life creating jobs and serving the families of our state. Jared has put forward an inspiring vision for expanding opportunity for families in every corner of Colorado. As a successful entrepreneur and a bold champion for hardworking Coloradans, Jared is ideally suited to ensure our state’s economy continues to grow and that it works for everyone, not just those at the top. With so much at stake in this upcoming election, I ask voters across Colorado to join me in helping to make Jared Polis our next governor.”
Delivering her concession speech alongside her husband and daughter at Denver La Rumba nightclub, Kennedy called for action.
“I know we’re disappointed but we have a lot of work to do,” she said. “Together, we need to make sure that Walker Stapleton does not become the next governor of Colorado.”
To applause, she added, “We need to grow our democratic majority in the statehouse and take back the state Senate, the attorney general’s office, the secretary of state’s office.”
Jefferson County Democrat Bonnie Baldini, a Polis volunteer, told Colorado Politics she spent most of the day phoning voters at the campaign’s Lakewood office, as she’s done regularly for months, motivated by what she termed the “devastating” actions of the Trump administration.
“I just started getting involved this year because of the state of affairs in Washington,” Baldini said. “I’m battling it any way I can. Not for me,” she added with a smile. “I’m 75 — I won’t be around here long enough to see the results — but for my grandchildren. I think we need to move fast on climate, and on everything else.”
She said she saved a message Polis recently left on her voice mail thanking her for volunteering.
“There’s just something about Jared. He calls all his volunteers. He’s just very approachable, so smart, truly a man for the people. He reminds me a lot of Barack Obama. You just look at him and you know, he’s got your interests at heart.”
The race for Colorado governor has been going on for more than a year, and the primary election that ends Tuesday finally clears up who will lead their tickets from here to November.
The eight primary candidates — four Republicans and four Democrats — represented the largest Colorado primary since World War II, who collectively have poured more than $25 million into the governor’s race, the most in state history, counting general election spending.
Democrats fielded candidates with views much to the left of their current titular party leader, John Hickenlooper, the moderate, business-minded former Denver mayor who might have a place on a national ticket in his future.
Candidates didn’t give their party’s loyalists — or the unaffiliated voters allowed in the primary for the first time — a lot to policy differences to base their vote on, beyond personality and governing nuance.
Republicans stood together on their allegiance to President Donald Trump, guns, tax issues and immigration policy. Democrats stood shoulder-to-shoulder on opposing Trump, a new tax for transportation, renewable energy, lowering health-care costs and immigrant rights.
Some of the state’s toughest problems barely made an appearance in debates and campaign advertising, including transportation funding, the opioid addiction crisis, long-term water policy, the state’s agriculture industry that stands to be pummeled by Trump’s tariffs, and other economic challenges facing rural Colorado.
The sharpest elbows of the campaign season were thrown the last few weeks between Democrats over education policy and the negative advertising it created. Kennedy was supported by the teacher’s union, the Colorado Education Association, which asserted that Johnston and Polis support taking money out from traditional (read: unionized) public schools.
Many in Colorado’s Democratic base still see charter schools as a half-step toward vouchers, allowing the money families pay in taxes to follow their child to whichever kind of school they choose. A former state school board member, Polis is an avowed supporter of school choice and the millionaire businessman personally founded two charter schools, New America Schools and the Academy for Urban Learning.
Johnston’s roots in education run deep, too, but his ideas about education reform also frighten the union that likes things essentially the way they are, except for demanding more money for schools.
Besides being a former state senator from Denver, Johnston is a former teacher and principal and in 2013 cobbled together enough bipartisan support to pass legislation that allows undocumented residents to receive in-state tuition rates to attend college in Colorado. Chalkbeat Colorado called Johnston the “architect of the state’s most sweeping education reforms,” including evaluating teachers based on their performance.
He was also one of the leaders to pass a $1 billion tax increase in 2013, which was opposed with fanfare by Stapleton. But Amendment 66 failed almost 2 to 1.
Early in the race, all the Democrats boasted of signing the party’s Clean Campaign Pledge, which included discouraging their supporters from engaging in such tactics. Kennedy and Polis exchanged complaints to the state party, but the incident turned into a fountain of ads, insults and whisper campaigns in the final two weeks of the session.
“We almost got through a positive race,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said a Capitol press conference on June 13, when asked about the negative tone his party’s candidates had embraced. “And I think that would have said a lot about Colorado.”
Republicans have brawled mostly over truth and Trump.
Stapleton has been laying the groundwork to become governor for pretty much the entire 7 1/2 years he’s been state treasurer. He amassed well-known supporters such as Denver Broncos legend John Elway and an A-list of corporate tycoons to support his candidacy. Yet his campaign has been marred by stumbles.
He was a late entry to the state assembly to get on the ballot, after saying his campaign said they didn’t trust the company it hired to collect his signatures. He told Colorado Public Radio he might have been asleep when the legislature passed a vitally important state pension bill. That fed a years-long narrative that he wasn’t engaged in being state treasurer, as much as exploiting the post to build his political persona.
Then there was his dishonest ad. Stapleton claimed to the the “only” state treasurer to support Trump’s tax plan. In fact there were dozens. Despite being hammered by his opponents and the media, Team Stapleton continued to run the ad.
Loyalty to Trump — despite his shortage of overall popularity in the state — has been a bone the political dogs on the right haven’t been able to let go of so far. Stapleton is a cousin to the presidential Bush family, which has no love for the current president. Yet Stapleton has sung Trump’s praises and used him in political advertising. He said in Colorado Politics-cosponsored debate in Colorado Springs that he’d be pleased to invite Trump to campaign in Colorado with him.
Mitchell has said he didn’t vote for Trump for president, instead opting for independent Evan McMullin. Yet, in recent ads Mitchell has courted Trump voters, noting his views on guns are the same as the presidents.
All the candidates have embraced Trump’s views on punishing sanctuary cities, so-called because local officials don’t actively help other agencies enforce federal immigration laws. In Colorado, Denver, Boulder and Aurora are most often cited.
Mitchell’s strength was the millions of dollars from his own pocket that he put into his campaign. That allowed him to build up his name recognition in TV ads and online.
He told Colorado Politics last year the campaign money from his own pocket is “a down payment on Colorado’s future.”
Playing the role of an outsider, Mitchell’s camp played up his credentials as a successful entrepreneur and played down his decision in 2008 not to run for a second term when he was a state legislator. That year, Mitchell was an advocate for presidential candidate Mitt Romney, then worked for John McCain after Romney dropped out.
Romney’s nephew, Robinson, has worked behind the scenes in Colorado politics for years, including leading his uncle’s statewide presidential effort in 2012, but he’s been slow to gain traction. Romney has not campaigned with his nephew, and, like Stapleton, Robinson has not spoken about his extended family’s feud with the sitting president. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is busy running for U.S. Senate in Utah.
A former Democrat, Lopez was elected the mayor of Parker in 1992 and, like Mitchell, chose not to seek a second term. The son of migrant field workers from Texas, he switched to the Republican Party in 1994 after taking office as mayor. He later served as board chairman for the Denver Hispanic Chamber .
Lopez gave a red-meat Republican speech at the GOP state assembly in April and made the primary ballot by bumping out Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. Candidates at the assembly need 30 percent of the delegates to make the ballot; Lopez received 33 percent. Coffman received just 5 percent.
Since spring of last year, as the field of candidates grew crowded, a few dropped out. George Brauchler exited the governor’s race to become the only Republican to run for attorney general, as Coffman left the post after one term to mount her ill-fated run for governor.
On the Democratic site, Ed Perlmutter temporarily vacated his safe U.S. House seat to run for governor, then switched back four months later, after a handful of promising young Democrats — state Rep. Brittany Pettersen and Sens. Dominick Moreno and Andy Kerr — had signaled interest in the seat.
Andrea Guzman, an intern for The Gazette of Colorado Springs, contributed to this story.