Tom Tancredo strolled into the packed conference room in the back of a Wheat Ridge bowling alley on a recent Thursday evening and took a seat. He was the headliner at the monthly North Jeffco Tea Party meeting, but first the group of about 50 activists heard from school board candidates and a young man who wanted to introduce himself to the group because he was considering a run for Congress. There was also a chili supper coming up, and raffle tickets were on sale, with prizes including a quantity of gold.
About an hour or so into the meeting, Tancredo took the stage and talked about his years in the public spotlight and the reasons he’s been considering getting back in the ring with a campaign for governor — after three terms in the Legislature, a stretch working in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, five terms in Congress, a presidential campaign and two gubernatorial bids.
“If you read the newspaper, if you listen to the news — maybe I’m the only one who thinks this way, maybe I’m the only one who cares as much as I do, but I know that’s not true. You’ve got to know there are other people who care just as deeply, and are worried about things just as much,” he said, drawing vigorous nods and broad smiles from a good portion of the audience.
“What do you do under those circumstances? Each of us does what he or she can. That’s all God demands of us. Do everything you can — everything you can.”
It was his second presentation of the day, following an appearance before a group of conservative women in Boulder County at their luncheon, where he’d received an enthusiastic reception. After about 45 minutes, Tancredo passed out slips of paper with a few questions — “Quick Poll,” the heading read — and asked whether he should run for governor in next year’s Republican primary.
“I need to know what you think, because I am trying to gauge the viability of my candidacy,” he said. “I am not here to do what I did in 2007 when I ran for the presidency. That was, indeed, what I call a beau geste — it was something I needed to do, it was my swan song as I was getting ready to leave Congress and I had done everything I possibly could do on an issue that was incredibly important to me.”
He was talking about his hardline position on immigration, a topic identified with Tancredo from the late 1990s through his five terms in Congress, when his was a lonely voice railing about the topic.
Fast-forward a decade, after Donald Trump launched his campaign railing about Mexican immigrants and won the presidency on a promise of building a “great wall” along the southern border — and Tancredo is no longer a voice in the wilderness. Whether he can ride one of the most divisive issues in politics to a statewide win in purple Colorado, however, is a question at the center of his exploratory tour.
Tancredo said he was inspired to consider a run because Republican officials and candidates stayed silent after a Colorado Springs resort canceled a scheduled conference of VDARE, an organization that describes itself as devoted to immigration reform but that critics call a hate group with ties to white nationalists.
“I think I have a possibility of being the candidate who can bring it across the line,” he told the crowd in Wheat Ridge, “but I need your opinion.”
He’s run for governor twice. In 2010, he jumped in the race on the American Constitution Party ticket when surprise GOP nominee Dan Maes, a political neophyte, floundered. Tancredo wound up with more than three times as many votes as Maes, but they both lost to Democrat John Hickenlooper. Four years later, Tancredo ran as a Republican and finished second in the primary, behind U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, who went on to lose to Hickenlooper in November. If he runs a third time, Tancredo tells the crowds, he wants to be sure he can not only win the primary but defeat the Democratic nominee.
But if he gets in the already crowded primary — nearly a dozen Republicans are running or have said they’ll soon decide — Tancredo can count on starting out with a solid share of potential voters, veteran political consultants say, and his chances only increase as more candidates splinter the vote. After decades on the public stage, Tancredo as well known as any Republican in the race, although he acknowledges that’s double-edged.
“On the plus side,” Tancredo said a meeting of the Arapahoe County Tea Party a couple weeks earlier, “I’ve got really good name ID. And on the minus side,” he added, pausing for a beat, “I’ve got really good name ID.”
There’s still some lingering resentment at Tancredo’s third-party run against Maes, when the GOP risked losing its major-party status in Colorado if its gubernatorial nominee hadn’t cleared 10 percent of the vote. In a general election, too, Tancredo’s numerous controversies could threaten to overwhelm next year’s campaign, although after last year’s presidential election many of Tancredo’s greatest hits — he once said Miami “has become a Third World country” — sound almost quaint.
“Frankly, he would be a very formidable opponent if he decides to run,” Republican consultant and former state party chairman Dick Wadhams told Colorado Politics. “I think he would start off with a sizable base of support, and it’s going to be a big field of candidates — probably bigger than what we had in the Senate race a year ago, and when we have that big of a field, anything can happen. He has a very strong apolitical base that will be with him regardless of what happens.”
Wadhams, who managed Republican Bill Owens’ first successful campaign for governor — the only Republican Colorado has elected governor in nearly 50 years, he points out — has plenty of history with Tancredo. Wadhams called Tancredo’s 2010 campaign the GOP’s “worst nightmare” and tried to dissuade his third-party run. (Although Wadhams doesn’t have a dog in the 2018 gubernatorial race “at this moment,” he notes that he’ll be be working with Graham, whose Senate campaign he managed last year, if Graham decides to get in.)
It’s an unpredictable political landscape, Wadhams says. “Another wrinkle to this that didn’t exist a year ago is the Trump phenomenon. There will be a Trump vote in this primary. Throw in the longstanding base of support that Tom Tancredo has among Republican primary voters going back to his days in Congress, and I just have to believe that he’s still got a pretty sizable base of support in the party.”
“Even though he’s lost twice before, a Tancredo candidacy is hard to write off,” said veteran consultant Sean Walsh, who has some experience in a primary that includes Tancredo.
“In a sea of new faces, he’s the only enduring brand,” Walsh told Colorado Politics. “He will need less time and resources than the other candidates to introduce himself to the primary voters. Is that enough to win him a plurality next June? Probably not, but in a six- or seven-way primary he’s definitely a contender.”