By Ernest Luning and Jody Hope Strogoff
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams reflects on the roller-coaster election season just finished in a wide-ranging interview with The Colorado Statesman.
The always-provocative Wadhams pushes back against suggestions the GOP voter-turnout effort cost Ken Buck the U.S. Senate seat, pinpoints the broadcast that cost Scott McInnis the gubernatorial nomination and says Ryan Frazier’s competitive run against Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter was the biggest surprise of an altogether surprising year.
Wadhams — a veteran of Colorado and national politics spanning three decades — discounts the notion primary candidates must run too far to their party’s extremes in order to win primaries, instead saying he’s always believed primary and general election platforms have to be the same. He also doesn’t think much of campaign finance reform, suggesting the current system is only going to get worse until real-time transparency is the only viable solution.
Blasting critics who first accused him of acting like a kingmaker and later faulted him for insufficiently vetting candidates, Wadhams says he’s on the fence but plans to decide in coming weeks whether to seek a third two-year term as chairman of the state GOP. But whether he runs or not, he says prospective candidates shouldn’t underestimate what the job entails.
Wadhams joined Statesman editor and publisher Jody Hope Strogoff and political reporter Ernest Luning for an hour-long interview at The Statesman offices on Nov. 18. His last InnerViews with The Statesman were in January 2010 and February 2009, when the political landscape looked very different than it does today.
Read more than a dozen other interviews with prominent Colorado political figures, archived online at www.coloradostatesman.com/innerview.
Below is a transcript of the conversation with Wadhams. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Colorado Statesman (CS): The last time I saw you was …
Dick Wadhams (DW): Probably election night.
CS: It was election night. Well, morning — after midnight.
DW: I guess it was after midnight, that’s right, you’re right.
CS: And you were pretty confident that Buck was going to pull it out.
DW: Well, that’s what I said. (Laughs) Actually, I was worried, because we knew a big chunk of Denver was out. But I was optimistic there were still enough votes out in other places that would offset it, but it didn’t prove to be true.
CS: Did you go to bed that night or did you …?
DW: Oh, yeah. No, I went to bed about 3, got up at 6. Actually, got up earlier because I remember I was in the office by 6, so I must have got up early.
CS: And were the results clear by then?
DW: Yeah. Yeah, by that time Denver had come in and Buck was behind, which was my fear when I went to sleep, that during that brief time. (Laughs)
CS: What were your feelings? Did you have a pit in your stomach?
DW: Well, I was worried about the Denver votes that were still out, that they would overcome anything, the lead Buck had. And the votes that were still scattered around the state, that were still out.
CS: Listening to some of Ken Buck’s assessments, he kind of — whether it’s fair to say he stuck it to the Republican Party in Colorado — but he wasn’t totally complimentary in terms of getting out the vote and the Victory (operation). And that’s something you’ve always prided yourself on.
DW: Well not only that, but, I don’t know if you saw a memo a couple of weeks ago that I put out. The bottom line, and if you remember what I said in there, if you compare Ken’s votes to (Secretary of State candidate) Scott Gessler and (CU Regent candidate) Steve Bosley, in particular, because nobody knew who those candidates were — neither one of them spent any money. Even Walker Stapleton, I mean, even though he and Cary Kennedy spent some money on television, the treasurer’s race isn’t exactly the kind of race that voters are really tuned into. If you compare the Buck numbers to those three candidates, there’s clearly a fall off.
And so the turnout operation clearly worked. Otherwise, Gessler would not have unseated the Democratic incumbent, nor would Walker Stapleton have unseated what was a very popular, within the Democratic Party, incumbent. And Steve Bosley would not have won a regent’s race. Most people don’t even know they have to vote for a regent until they go in the ballot booth on Election Day. And then, of course, John Suthers won by a big margin.
We would not have won two — Well, we wouldn’t have won a majority in the Colorado House of Representatives, we would not have unseated two Democratic members of Congress — which, by the way, is the first time since 1964 that two members of the same party have been unseated. And I don’t know if Colorado Republicans have ever unseated two Democrats, because in ’64 it was two Republicans, Don Brotzman and J. Edgar Chenoweth. I just don’t know, I frankly don’t know if we have ever done that before in history. I just don’t know, because my personal knowledge base of Colorado politics goes to just about 1960. Before that, I just haven’t read much or am not aware of it. So this might have been the first time in history we’ve ever unseated two Democrats in the same election year for the House of Representatives.
Dems made Buck ‘unacceptable’
So, clearly, our ground operation was effective and worked. But the Bennet campaign embarked on a very smart strategy the last three weeks — in conjunction with massive spending by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Education Association, ASCME, and some other 527s — zooming in on a very specific message to attack Buck on his Personhood support, his abortion stand, which did not include exceptions for rape and incest, and the fact that he had — and they honed in on that rape case that became controversial in the end. By doing that, what they did, they made Ken unacceptable to that narrow slice of the electorate that was still up for grabs. And it is always the demographic group that waits until the last minute to decide who to vote for: unaffiliated women, particularly in the suburbs of Jeffco and Arapahoe.
And so what you had, a situation where it was a smart strategy, but it had nothing to do with Democratic turnout operation. If it had been turnout, Cary Kennedy would have won, Bernie Buescher would have won. But what happened was, is that these unaffiliated women in the suburbs especially — scattered all over the state but mainly concentrated in Jeffco, Arapahoe — said, “Now, I want to vote Republican in just about every other race but in this one I can’t.” And you can see it: Suthers, Stapleton, Gessler, Bosley, all carried Jeffco and Arapahoe. Buck did not. A Republican cannot win statewide if he does not carry Jeffco and Arapahoe, however narrowly. Bill Owens won Jeffco and Arapahoe narrowly, but he won them in 1998 — he would not have been elected governor if he had not carried those counties.
CS: How would you describe Ken Buck’s (take) when he says that about —
DW: You know, I don’t know what Ken really meant.
CS: Is he just in denial or — ?
DW: Maybe it came out wrong. I haven’t talked to Ken directly about it. What I do know is that we had not only an excellent turnout operation, I think it was superior to the Democrats. The proof in that is that Buescher and Kennedy went down. If their turnout operation had been responsible for the Bennet victory, they would have carried right on through with other Democrats statewide, and it would have imperiled Scott Tipton’s ability to win in the 3rd District — Cory (Gardner) won by a fairly large margin. It would have imperiled our ability to win the State House.
So what I do know is that the Democrats employed a very smart strategy at the end, taking advantage of comments and positions that Buck had taken. And given the voters that were still up for grabs, it worked. And it’s unfortunate, because I think many of the ads were reprehensible and deceitful and made Buck into something he is not. But you know what? Unfortunately, Ken gave them a lot of the ammunition to shoot back.
CS: He said some of the things — and kept on saying in the closing weeks —
DW: Yeah, and the Meet the Press debate, what’s so unfortunate about that Meet the Press debate error that he made in response to questions from David Gregory about whether gays are born or it’s a choice or whatever. What he could have said is, “Listen, David Gregory, you’re looking at the only prosecutor in America that has successfully prosecuted a hate crime where a person was killed because of their sexual identity. I’m the only one in America — so that’s what I do know.” He could have turned that — in fact, when Gregory asked the question, I was sitting in my house watching this debate, saying to myself (claps hands): “Perfect opportunity.”
CS: I wondered if he’d bring that up, too — I covered that trial.
[Ed. note: In early 2009, just weeks before he announced his run for the Senate, Weld County District Attorney Buck successfully prosecuted first-degree murder charges against Allen Andrade, who was convicted by a jury of killing Angie Zapata, a transgender woman from Thornton. Buck also obtained a conviction on a hate-crime enhancement against Andrade, who was sentenced to life in prison.]
DW: Oh, did you? Okay, so you know: He was lauded by groups —
CS: Folks you wouldn’t expect, said he’s a stand-up guy.
DW: That’s exactly right. Exactly. And so he turned what could have been a great opportunity into what was the beginning of a steady fall over the next three weeks.
CS: There’s some speculation or commentary that Buck had to go further right than he actually was to win the primary. What’s your thought on that? Jane Norton probably wouldn’t have left 15,000 unaffiliated suburban women votes up for grabs in the last few weeks …
DW: Well, a lot of people feel that way. I guess we’ll never know, because Jane didn’t win the primary. But I do know that I wish Ken had taken a few minutes to decide whether to support the Personhood Amendment, for instance. You will recall two years ago, Archbishop Chaput and Bob Schaffer both opposed Personhood. In fact, there was a huge split within the pro-life community itself. Many pro-life leaders opposed that amendment. If he had taken just a few minutes to sit back and make a phone call to somebody or check it out. And so that was too bad. But I don’t know if he became more conservative than he really is, I can’t answer that question.
CS: Well, isn’t that kind of — when you have a primary, the Democrats tend to move to the left in the primary and then they need to move to the center for the general? And the Republicans, isn’t that kind of, vice versa?
Primary, general platforms have to match
DW: Yeah, but you know, Jody, I have never bought off on that, on the theory that that’s what you have to do to win an election in Colorado, that’s what you have to do to win a primary and then win a general. In fact, I honestly believe to be successful in a Colorado statewide race, the platform you run to win a primary has to be one that can also win the general. And I think that’s why Bill Owens and Wayne Allard were successful. [Ed. note: Wadhams managed winning statewide campaigns for both Owens and Allard.] Because if you look at the rhetoric, if you look at the printed materials, if you look at the messaging, if you look at — if you compare what Wayne Allard was saying in the summer of 1995 to what he was saying on Election Day, 1996, there was no difference.
He was talking about returning power to state and local government, balancing the budget and reducing tax and regulatory burdens on families and small businesses. That’s what he started out the campaign doing, what’s what he ended the campaign doing. Bill Owens, when he ran for governor in ’98, he ran to cut taxes, improve transportation and reform education. He had great agendas behind each one of those points. He won a primary based on that, he won a general election based on that.
So I just don’t buy off — I know many people think the Republicans have to run right and then dive to center and Democrats have to run left and then dive to center. I can’t comment on Democrats, but I will say this: My caution to any Republican candidate for U.S. senator or governor is that you’d better think through your campaign — not from just winning a primary but to winning all the way through. And I think that’s what sets Allard and Owens apart — they were perfectly comfortable with the agenda that they were willing to use to win a Republican nomination and also to win the general election. Because every one of those issues they ran on were mainstream issues, and they were issues that people cared about, and that’s what they ran on and won. So if Ken (sighs) — I can’t comment, I just don’t know. I just never had that kind of a conversation with Ken. But I do know that as a standard, that Republicans who run for statewide office have got to figure out how they craft an agenda that wins both. But they can’t change. You can’t suddenly — you just can’t shift, because it just doesn’t work.
CS: That didn’t happen in (the 2004 Republican U.S. Senate primary) either — Pete Coors didn’t try to outflank Bob Schaffer?
DW: No. I think Pete lost for a lot of reasons, but it wasn’t because of that. Yeah, yeah.
CS: But there’s a different electorate — the Republican primary voters are different than they were in ’96 and ’98?
DW: I don’t think so, I really don’t.
‘Massive mistakes’ sunk Norton
CS: Then how did Ken Buck win this year?
DW: Massive mistakes by the Norton campaign. I think that it was a huge mistake for her to — and I begged her not to — to bypass our caucus-assembly process. I begged her campaign. Her campaign manager, I think, ill served her, I think he —
CS: The first one?
DW: Yeah. Norman Cummings. I think it was apparent to me from the moment he stepped foot in Colorado, he had nothing but contempt for our caucus-assembly process and was looking for reasons to not go through with it. And I think that that ill-served Jane. Jane was a great candidate. I watched Jane all over Colorado last year, this past year. And she worked her tail off, she was articulate on the issues, she was good. And in the meantime I think her campaign was ill-serving her. And I think the ultimate, the final act that did her in was the ill-fated decision to bypass the caucuses. And clearly — she might disagree with me — Jane was a great candidate, I think she was ill-served.
I think Josh Penry did a very good job in getting the campaign back on track and put in a position to potentially win, but he inherited a bad situation. And I know Josh stepped on a lot of toes, and I know his aggressiveness turned a lot of people off, but I will also say I don’t think Josh had any choice but to run a very aggressive campaign to get her back in the game, because she was down and dying.
CS: Do you think if she’d won the primary she would have…?
DW: Jody, I don’t know. Maybe, I mean because she…
CS: What do you think?
DW: But I will tell you this: Just like I have strong feelings about how you don’t run right and then dive to the center, I also believe that if you can’t win a primary, then you can’t win a general. I mean I think there’s that axiom too. And so, we’ll never know — but I don’t know.
CS: Have you talked to her recently at all?
DW: No, I haven’t talked to her since right after the primary. Actually, I have not talked to her at all since the primary.
CS: She seems to really have faded. We haven’t seen her …
DW: Yeah, and that’s not unusual. She endorsed Ken, you know, but… Yeah.
CS: Are you sorry Josh got out of the race (for governor)?
DW: Very much so. I was absolutely neutral in that gubernatorial primary from the very beginning, and I was neutral in every primary. What we did to execute the nomination process was fair, and it was open to any candidate, and that’s the way it should be. But, yes, I was disappointed when he got out.
CS: Why did he get out?
DW: I have no idea. I mean all I — I have no idea. What I do know is that a year ago — well of course, he had pulled out a year ago right now — but 13 months ago he was situated as a very dynamic, articulate, young, new leader in our party.
CS: A “rising star.”
Penry ‘would be governor today’
DW: A rising star. And I will tell you I was very excited by that, because you looked at Josh and you could see the future of our party. And it’s unfortunate whatever reasons prompted him to get out, because I think he would be governor of Colorado today, had he stayed in. I really do. And it’s unfortunate. And I urged him to stay in. And when I heard the rumors that —
CS: Do you think he was forced out?
DW: No, he was not forced out.
CS: By a group?
DW: No, I do not. And if there was a group, I wasn’t a part of it, I’ll tell you that much. If a group — and also, I’ll also say this: If there was a group, which I don’t think there was, but if there was a group, if that’s what it took to get him out of the race then he shouldn’t have been in the race. You’ve got to have nerves of steel in this business. Wayne Allard was told by many people, “You can’t beat Gale Norton, you are a fool. And if you somehow luck your way into a primary win, there’s no way you can win statewide.” I had friends of mine calling up laughing at me when I decided to run Wayne’s campaign in mid-’95. You have to have nerves of steel and you have to be so convinced of the appropriateness of your candidacy and the basis of your candidacy. And if you succumb to the pressure of a few people, I don’t care how powerful they are, then you shouldn’t be in it to begin with.
And so once again, so whether Josh — If it was a small group of people who told him to get out and he did, then you know what, he shouldn’t have been in the race. I don’t think that’s what happened, because I wasn’t part of it. One of the many rumors about my involvement in this election year is that I (laughs) — What’s funny is one rumor says I was part of the group that forced Josh Penry out. The other rumor, of course, mainly propagated by the McInnis campaign, is that I was for Penry all along, and that I was helping Penry. Well, you heard a minute ago that I did have a certain excitement level about Josh’s candidacy, but I did nothing to help him in his campaign. In fact, I bent over backwards to be fair to every candidate in the same way. But you know what? If you can’t withstand the pressure of a group of powerbrokers telling you to get out, then you don’t belong in it.
CS: Do you see a political future down the line for Josh?
DW: Yeah, I think there is. There’s nothing in the short term. 2014 is the next time we have statewide elections on the ballot. Clearly the 3rd District is off the table right now with Scott Tipton winning that, and assuming that he’ll run for re-election, which I assume he will. We don’t see comebacks very often in Colorado politics. In fact, very seldom. You know, in fact, one of the few was Roy Romer — he got killed for U.S. Senate in 1966 and then he came back, became governor. But it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. He’s still young, he’s only 35 or whatever. Disgustingly young (laughs).
CS: Now, Mr. McInnis — did you read the story in The Post?
DW: I did, I did.
[Ed. note: McInnis emerged on Nov. 18 in a lengthy interview with Denver Post business columnist Penny Parker proclaiming his political career was not over and promising to clear up misconceptions surrounding the plagiarism scandal that sunk his campaign.]
CS: What were your thoughts on some of his —
DW: (Sighs and then pauses at length) Hmm… You know, I’ll put it this way: Scott had a tremendous opportunity at his feet. It was a year ago next week, you might remember, that Penry and Tancredo and many others in the group and practically all the legislators —
CS: Their contract —
DW: The Platform for Prosperity, at that place up on I-70 there. I remember I went that day, I went to that event, and I remember thinking, you know, this just might get McInnis and his campaign on track. Solidifying the support from Tancredo and Josh and putting out a document defining his candidacy, which up to that point there was no discernible agenda that he was running on other than that he wanted to be governor. And that Platform for Prosperity, I thought, was a very good document. And I will always wonder if his — and I don’t know whose idea it was to try to blame the 82-year-old researcher. If he hadn’t done that, if he could have withstood…
CS: Rolly Fischer.
[Ed. note: At the height of the plagiarism scandal, McInnis blamed 82-year-old Fischer, a water policy expert hired by McInnis, for failing to footnote lengthy passages cribbed from writings by now-Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs that wound up in essays McInnis submitted to a foundation as part of a $300,000 fellowship.]
Fischer interview sealed McInnis’ fate
DW: Yeah, if he could have withstood the issue and gone on to still win the primary and win the general. Because I think that was the turning point. I think (7News reporter John) Ferrugia’s interview with Rolly Fischer… The initial stories were bad enough in The Denver Post and Channel 7. But Ferrugia’s interview, I think, sealed the fate. Yeah, sealed the fate. And I don’t know, I mean we just will never know, but he had a tremendous opportunity, I know that.
CS: The Democrats, or Democratic-backing (groups) ran ads …
DW: Thank you for mentioning that because that $500,000 in outside spending from Pat Stryker and her buddies had a huge impact on that primary. Because it still looked like he was going to potentially win the primary, but that did him in, yeah.
CS: And then there was the whole scenario where, if he won, maybe he would drop out and another candidate …
CS: No one was really expecting Maes to win at that time.
DW: No, and I don’t know what the conversations were in the McInnis campaign, but I have to think — the rumblings I was getting back at the time is that many of his key supporters were going to urge him not to follow through on the general election campaign if he won the primary. Guess we’ll never know. But I do think that would have afforded us the opportunity to convene our vacancy committee and found a new candidate. I don’t know who that would have been, but I think it would have given us the opportunity. And I still think to this — I’ll always believe, if we’d had a strong candidate with a one-on-one shot with Hickenlooper, we would have won that race.
CS: Tom Tancredo showed that you could emerge, and get a running start with two months to go.
DW: Yeah, yeah, it was there.
CS: Have you talked to Maes since the election?
DW: No, I have not, I have not. No, I have not talked to him, um-um.
CS: What would you say to him?
DW: Frankly I have nothing to say to Dan Maes.
CS: Do you think he has a future in the party?
Maes ‘walked away’ from vacancy option
DW: No, I do not. Maybe he does with some people, but he doesn’t, as far as I’m concerned.
I know on Friday, September 3rd, I believe that Tom Tancredo was ready to withdraw from the race if Maes did. Tom — I was not talking directly to Tom but I was talking to people who were talking to him. I was talking directly to Maes. The morning started out with Dan Maes indicating that he was strongly considering withdrawing from the race if Tancredo did. Tancredo came up to the line, was ready to do it. Dan Maes came up to the line and walked away. And at that point Tancredo walked away. And that was our last shot because that would have been the last day. If they both would have withdrawn that day, it would have allowed us to start the five-day clock for the vacancy committee, we could have appointed a new candidate in time before the ballots were printed. After that, it was too late and after that it was just kind of gone. But it was Maes who walked away from that.
CS: Was that one of the more frustrating aspects of the election for you?
DW: Yes. That day, yes. Because we came that close. And, like I said, the day started out with Maes telling me he was strongly considering it. He never told me he was going to, but he was definitely — he told me he was strongly considering it and he was talking to a lot of people. And sometime early afternoon, Tancredo was at the line, and Maes suddenly sent an e-mail, very defiantly saying that he was listening to the voice of the people and he was going to stay in. And so, I thought, well, that’s over.
CS: With such a short window there, you must have had a good idea you had some strong candidates who would be wiling to do it?
DW: Really didn’t. You know what? I’ve got to tell you, that was the least of my worries because, to me, the challenge was to get them both to withdraw. I also had not had any communication with the 24 members of the vacancy committee, which was the executive committee, other than to tell them — I had walked through with them earlier in August about, listen, if there is a vacancy, this will be the process. And so — but no, I really had not talked to any prospective candidates, had not, really that was the least of my worries. I was so confident that if we got the opportunity we’d find a strong candidate. And a lot would have happened between the time they withdrew to when we would have had the vacancy committee the following Tuesday. But that was the least of my worries, so I don’t know who it would have been.
CS: What would you say was the biggest surprise? Was it Scott Tipton winning that seat? Clearly, a year ago that really wasn’t on the horizon?
DW: It was on my horizon.
CS: It wasn’t on John Salazar’s horizon until a few months ago …
DW: No. Right, right. You know, I always felt, I felt coming into this election year, after watching Salazar stand there and cheerfully vote for the Stimulus Bill and then he was right — he was standing — and probably the moment I realized that Salazar was probably vulnerable was the day after the first health care vote in the House. And there in the photo op was John Salazar proudly standing just behind Nancy Pelosi. And I remember thinking, you know what? If we can move this election from whether we like John Salazar to how John Salazar votes, we can win this thing. Because, if the question was, do we like John Salazar, well, we lose, because everybody likes John Salazar. I like John Salazar — everybody likes John. And he’s a good person and you know, you can’t — wonderful personal attributes, all that stuff. But he honestly was cavalierly voting for this Pelosi/Obama agenda that his district opposed and so I always felt — And that’s why when Scott Tipton called me whenever he started to get to wanting to run and was just asking my opinion, as he was asking many people, if I thought the race was winnable, I told him I thought it was. But nobody thought it — not many people thought it was at that point. But I said, “Scott, because now people are going to be focusing on his votes and not whether they like John.” And I said, “If you can hammer away on the votes…” Even Cap and Trade, which he voted against, remember how he did it? He wouldn’t tell anybody how he was going to vote.
CS: No, he wouldn’t tell anybody.
DW: And he showed up at night and went to the floor and voted. And so even the only right vote that he made, he did it in such a weird way. And so I felt all along that was a potential.
Frazier was biggest surprise
Now probably the biggest surprise probably was the — in terms of election night or in terms of what happened on election night — is how competitive the 7th CD got, you know? Even when Ryan (Frazier) got out of the Senate race and into the 7th, I remember thinking it was a pretty long shot. And I think that their focus on that outsourcing issue was really what did Ryan in at the end. But Ryan ran a great campaign, he ran a great campaign. And he fell short, but I tell you what, it wasn’t because he was — he was an outstanding candidate, and they ran a great campaign, and it just wasn’t there. 7th is tough.
CS: He’s another rising star?
DW: Oh no doubt about it, no doubt. Ryan is still out there, he still could come back and run for something. I don’t know what …
CS: And then you’ve got Scott Gessler.
CS: Now tell me, was that on your — did you really think this is was the year you’d get back those two statewide offices (secretary of state and state treasurer, both won by Republicans)?
DW: Well, I always felt, Jody, that those races are so tied to the broader environment. Like I said earlier, did anybody know who Scott Gessler was? No. Frankly, did anybody know who Bernie Buescher was? Only a miniscule number more. As popular as Cary Kennedy is in her party, does the public really know or care who the State Treasurer is? Not really. I mean does anybody really care… Does anybody know that they vote for the regents until they show up? No. Now, Suthers had a fairly good name ID advantage and level of support. But I think that it shows that overall it was a good Republican environment for candidates to be running in, and that’s why those guys won, backed up by what I think was a very good turnout operation, voter ID and turnout operation, and that’s why they won. I mean when people comment — one of the rhetorical questions I’ve asked people or just generally to the notion that there was the great Democratic turnout operation that resulted in Bennet’s win, I said, “Well why don’t you go ask Cary Kennedy what she thinks about the great Democratic turnout operation?” Because they left her in the dust, if that’s what it was. Not to mention Bernie Buescher. But probably the 7th CD was probably the biggest surprise in how Ryan made that into a real race. And that’s a real tribute to him.
CS: When did you first realize that this was going to be a wave year for Republicans? When (Republican Sen.) Scott Brown won (in Massachusetts in January), or last summer when the health care town halls were going on?
DW: I think last year during —
CS: — when health care finally passed?
Health care vote was turning point
DW: I remember Christmas in the U.S. Senate and just the defiance of Obama and Harry Reid and those Democratic senators on passing health care and they didn’t care anymore. And I think that’s when it really became — I think that was the turning point. I think it had been building. I remember thinking when they signed the Stimulus Bill out here at the Denver Museum of Science and — whatever it’s called — that that Stimulus Bill would be a rock around their neck ultimately, because there’s no way it was going to succeed. And that became a big problem. I mean the fact that you didn’t see one Democrat in Colorado for Congress or U.S. Senate campaigning, “I voted for health care, I voted for the stimulus, I voted for Cap and Trade.” No. It’s like those votes didn’t even exist (laughs).
CS: Do you think the way those were handled was miscalculations on the Democrats’ part, they didn’t message things well enough, didn’t tell a good enough story, or they were just fundamentally rejected by voters?
DW: They’re fundamentally flawed policies. They’re just fundamentally flawed, wrong policies. It had nothing to do with their messaging. My Lord, I mean all the press conferences and speeches that Obama gave on health care —
CS: — it was almost a campaign —
DW: Yeah, exactly. And so, no, they were just wrong. They misread the people in terms of what this expansion of the federal government’s cost, scope and role in our lives. They just misread it. They were just wrong.
CS: During Hickenlooper’s campaign, what were your feelings when people like Mary Smith or when Larry Mizel and Greg Maffei — well-known Republicans — got behind him? I know it wasn’t a surprise, but did that grate on you, or what are your feelings?
DW: You know Jody, well obviously I wasn’t crazy about it but on the other hand, that governor’s race became so out of our control that I just didn’t give it a lot of thought, I really didn’t. I mean after September 3rd the governor’s race became virtually immaterial to me. I mean it just, knowing that — I compliment Tom Tancredo for establishing himself as the challenger to Hickenlooper, but in terms of — I just didn’t give it a lot of thought. I was more interested in the Senate race, those three House seats, majorities in the Legislature, and the governor’s, it just was what it was.
CS: I wonder then, what are you finding is the mood out there specifically in regards to your chairmanship? We hear different things — some people agree with you solidly, other people think you needed to vet the candidates — are you finding a mixture of reaction?
DW: I’m getting a lot of nice comments from people who are calling me up — county chairs, legislators. Mike Coffman left me a very nice message the other day — I haven’t talked to Mike directly yet — but he left me a very nice message urging me to run again and stuff. But I know there’s a lot of gnashing of teeth out there — “Why did Wadhams let this happen and why didn’t he vet the candidates? We need to vet the candidates.”
CS: But on the other hand you’ve got — how can you have a small group of powerbrokers picking? I mean what do they want? You lose either way.
DW: Well, and I’m about to — I kind of let this kind of fester for the last couple of weeks because — and I’m about ready to respond to it in the next few days.
CS: In terms of what?
DW: Well, probably sending a message to our Central Committee and to Republican leaders. I don’t know if you saw Peter Blake’s column today. [Ed. note: Longtime political journalist Peter Blake wrote about Wadhams in a Nov. 18 column on the Face the State political website.]
CS: I saw it, yeah.
DW: A lot of what I’m going to say is in that column. But first of all — let me just put it this way: There is nothing I would have changed about our nomination process in 2010.
CS: This is what you were talking to at the Jefferson County Men’s Club …
DW: Yes, yes. There’s just nothing I would change. Because, as we came into this cycle almost two years ago, knowing we were going to have literally six statewide races, two of which were the governor’s and senator’s races. But we could potentially at least have one competitive seat, if not two or three, that we would have opportunities to win majorities in the Legislature. And that would invite a lot of competition for our nominations, as people could see that they could potentially win. And so I pledged from the very beginning that we would have an open and fair nomination process, open to any candidate who wanted to run and any Republican who wanted to participate. That my job as state chairman was not to decide who ran and certainly not who won. And we did — and the viability of our process can be seen with 25,000 attendees at our caucuses, which we had far more than Democrats at our caucuses. We had a state assembly that for the second cycle in a row ran efficiently, and there was no question about the integrity of the voting process. And Jody, I know you remember a couple of conventions not long ago that people left wondering if the vote was right, or even legal, and it went until 10 o’clock at night or whatever.
CS: Exactly, with security guards around the —
DW: Yeah. I mean yeah, I mean we had efficient assemblies that no one left thinking well, did we get screwed by the voting process? And then we had 407,000 people vote in our primary, which was 68,000 more than the Democrats. Clearly our process — and on top of it, 40 percent of our delegates at least, in my estimation, were new delegates. Were you at the State Assembly when I asked people to stand up who were new? I think my esti- mation of 40 (percent) is probably conservative. Some people thought it was at least half of that assembly stood up. We did have a fair and open process that had vast numbers of new people come in.
Calls for vetting ‘nonsensical’
Those who want us to vet candidates are asking for me or a small group of people to ultimately be the gatekeepers to who could get into the process and run. It’s nonsensical. A year ago I was having the hell beat out of me —
CS: — because they thought you were doing that —
DW: Because they thought I was playing kingmaker and recruiting Jane Norton to run or trying to — this conspiracy theory about Josh Penry — and the fact that neither one of those were true. But you know, “Back off, we don’t want —”
And so here I am a year later, “Well Wadhams, why didn’t you do something about this? Why weren’t you vetting candidates?” I mean, it’s nonsensical. You can’t have it both ways. It’s either one or the other. Either you have a totally open and fair process that anybody can compete in, or you have this vetting process where you screen candidates.
I had a very well intentioned gentleman walk in the other day — I won’t tell you who it was because I don’t want to embarrass him — but he came in, and he’s a very nice man, but he came and said, totally sincere, “Dick, we need to appoint a committee to vet candidates before they can run.” And so I said, “Okay,” I decided to play along. So I said, “Okay, who would be on this committee?”
“Well, I think we need somebody from the Arapahoe Men’s Club and then somebody from the North Jeffco Republican Club,” and he mentioned a couple of others.
And I said, “Okay, well that’s great.” I said, “Well let me ask you this: What about the Baca County Republican Central Committee? I mean those are very fine Republicans in the corner of southeastern Colorado. What about them? Should they not have a voice on this committee?”
“Okay, that would be fine, we can put one of them on.”
“Okay, good, good. Well how about the Moffat County Central Committee up in extreme northwestern Colorado?”
“Well yeah, that would be okay.”
“Well, since we’re going to have those two counties, why not the other 62 counties? Don’t they get somebody on that committee?”
“Well, the committee’s — That’s just getting too big.”
And I said, “That’s precisely the point I’m trying to make.” I said, “Who just…”
CS: Who decides?
DW: “Who decides? And then why should we pick some — Why is the Arapahoe Men’s Club more special than the Pueblo County Republican Central Committee?”
“Well, Dick, well… I don’t know, I guess I need to think about this more.”
And I said, “Okay, well think about that part more, but let me ask you this question: What will be the criteria for our vetting process? Will it be professional, will it be political, will it be moral?”
CS: Years of service to the party?
DW: Exactly. I said, “Just who — what guidelines, what rules are we going to follow?” I said, “And let me throw this at you. My friend Walker Stapleton who by that time had won,” I said, “You know, that DUI came out that he had 20 years ago — should a vetting committee, if they knew that, should they have said, ‘Walker, you cannot run with a DUI because that would be giving an issue to Cary Kennedy,’?” Which she tried to exploit, she failed, but he won.
“Oh no, that was 20 years ago.”
“Well, how about what if it was only 10 years ago? What if it was only five years ago? Do we allow one DUI but if you have two DUIs you can’t run?” [Ed. note: Stapleton was arrested and ultimately pleaded guilty on DUI charges in San Francisco in 1999.]
And his head was spinning. And I said, “I’m not trying to be confrontational with you, but this is the problem with a vetting committee. Who serves on it, what the criteria is.” I said, “You know what the vetting process should be? A rigorous, open and fair nomination process that over almost a year’s time candidates run around the state and they campaign hard and in front of Republican audiences and they are forced to talk about their issue positions, their backgrounds. And over the course of that rigorous nomination process, the vetting that you want occurs.” And I said, “And that is open to hundreds of thousands of Republicans and it is not by some small group of powerful people.” And the guy left. There really is no middle ground, you have one or the other. And I know one thing: If they want a vetting — if they want a state chairman to be the all-powerful vetter of candidates, it ain’t gonna be this one (laughs). They can elect somebody else.
Wadhams undecided on third term
CS: It sounds like you’re interested in running again?
DW: It’s 50/50. Right, at this moment it’s 50/50. I did this two years ago, it took me about a month to decide to run for re-election two years ago.
CS: So early December you’ll be letting us know?
DW: Yeah, probably, that’s probably about — I’m put a fine point on what day, but because — I need the next few weeks. So..not going to to decide in
CS: Do you hear names being tossed around, if you don’t run, Tom Wiens?
DW: I heard that.
CS: Jeff Crank?
CS: What do you think of those two?
DW: Well so, you know, well even if I do run, I think anybody should run for this, because I’m not owed this election and that’s why we have elections every two years. But what I would say is this: Just as candidates came in to see me over the last two years, telling me they wanted to run for everything from county commissioner to U.S. Senator and governor, I would say to them, “That’s great, and you should, because we have an open and fair nomination process,” (laughs) “…and anybody who wants to compete, should. But you need to think through the rigors of a statewide campaign. You need to understand the physical and mental and in many cases financial demands it places on a candidate and his or her family. And you need to really think through that. And you need to think through your vulnerabilities, whatever they are, and what can be exploited by the opposition, because in this day and age it will be if there’s something there.” And so I would warn candidates.
I would also do the same with anybody who wants to run for State Chairman. Nobody has contacted me telling me they want to run and asked me what it’s all about, but I will tell you that the responsibility to raise money is a very huge responsibility and it is a very difficult responsibility, especially with these stupid campaign finance laws that severely restrict how much money we can raise. And I think people also need to understand —
CS: That that’s a major part of the job?
DW: It is. I mean there’s only one person — you get a little help from some people but by and large, there’s only one person — that raises money for the Colorado Republican Party, because there’s only one person who really can go in a major donor’s office and make the case to get a large contribution, and that’s the State Chairman. And so some of these are not comfortable with that. If somebody doesn’t have the credibility with that group of donors, then they, frankly, will wither on the vine and die politically, the party will just die. And it is not easy.
And then on top of it they need to understand the public role of being chairman. It is not uncommon, it’s happened many times, Saturday night at eight o’clock, Channel 9 will call and say, “Could we talk to you on camera about such-and-such issue that we’re doing a story on?” And I drop what I’m doing and I go do it. I mean this job — I’ve made it into a 24/7 job — my predeces- sors were all respected business leaders that did not do this full time and when I ran four years ago, I told Andy McElhaney and those that approached me about it, I would have to do it full time. And I have, but I will tell you that if somebody’s looking to run for this job and to try to do it the way I’ve done it, they’d better expect — it ain’t easy.
GOP chairman not a 9-5 job
CS: Not a 9-5, Monday through Friday job?
DW: It is not, it is not. And the pressure to put on — these last two state assemblies have gone so smooth that I think we might have deluded people into thinking it’s not — you know, you start planning for your state assembly a year out. It takes massive amounts of staff time and energy and constant planning. And the caucus assembly process is a very difficult and challenging process to implement, culminating with that huge state assembly. And we’ve seen they can go off the rails, we’ve seen it. And the last two have been very well done, I will immodestly say.
So I’ll walk through with anybody who wants to chat with me about — if they want to run in my — if a prominent business leader wants to run and go back to that model, which is perfectly appropriate, by the way. Bruce Benson was a great state chairman, as was Don Bain, as was — Bob Martinez got stuck with a bad year, as did Ted Halaby. But I mean that’s a perfectly legitimate model to return to. But if somebody wants to run and be a full-time state chairman like I’ve been for the past two years, they need to understand what they’re asking for. Not to mention having a big target on your back (laughs).
CS: Have you seen (state Democratic Chair) Pat Waak much this cycle?
DW: You know, we’ve been together probably four or five times for various — we were last together in September at a Denver woman’s group that had us both in front of it, but I haven’t seen her since.
CS: Do you think she did a good job?
DW: Yes, I do. I think Pat was a very good state chair and she told me that day she was done, that she wasn’t going to run again. But no, I honor her, and she had a very exciting three terms as state chairman — was it three? Yeah, three — had a national convention in town and I pay tribute to her.
CS: Dick, if you decided not to, would you entertain the possibility of going to work for a presidential campaign again like (South Dakota Sen.) John Thune, your old buddy? Or is it premature to even think about that?
DW: You know, I kind of take this step-by-step. It’s not that I want to do something, I need to first decide if I want to run for state chairman again. And if I decide not to, then I’ll move to the next step, which is what do I do next? And my life has always been in two-year cycles, so —
CS: Are you leaning towards running?
DW: It’s really 50/50.
CS: Is it really?
DW: Yeah, and it was 50/50 two years ago. I mean, well, no, I was probably a little bit more inclined to run. But I didn’t make the final decision until after Thanksgiving two years ago. But in 2010, you know, it could go either way, it could go either way. I mean even though we don’t have any statewide races in 2012, Colorado is going to be one of probably 10 states or less that will decide the presidency. This will be Ground Zero again for the presidential campaign. This time I think we can beat Obama in Colorado, I really do believe that we can beat him. I mean right now, if the election were today, we would carry Colorado.
And I also know — Karl Rove’s column in today’s Wall Street Journal was very well done, cautioning Republicans from thinking that the presidency is just kind of a formality. I mean, it’s going to be tough to dislodge Obama. But this state will be right in the crosshairs again. And then I think that we will have another opportunity to expand our (state) House majority and maybe win back the Senate. I mean I assume they’ll go after Scott Tipton again, I mean I don’t think they’ll let him have a free ride. Cory will be okay, and of course we have re-districting, we have re- apportionment and who knows —
CS: Got a lot of stuff going on.
DW: Yeah, I mean there’s a lot going on.
Outside money nothing new
CS: Is this the worst year that you can recall in terms of outside groups coming in?
DW: You know, probably in terms of sheer money, but I will tell you, in 2002 I remember at one time there were five negative ads with heavy buys behind them being aired against Wayne Allard in October. And so it’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of — I know maybe people think that but I’ll tell you what, the onslaught that Allard had thrown at him in ’02 was pretty heavy. But the sheer amount of money was probably the most ever, that’s for sure.
CS: Do you see it stopping?
DW: No, it’s going to get worse. In fact, these wonderful campaign finance laws are going to continue to drive money out of candidates and political parties and to 527s and 501(c)4s or whatever they are. The bottom line is that every time these do- gooders reform the system, they make it worse and they continue to gut political parties and candidates. And what is definitely happening is that candidates and political parties are losing control of the message — especially candidates, but also political parties. And I know that here will be another round of reform advocates in Congress who will want to try to restrict 527s. It won’t work, it will make the system worse, it will drive more money outside the system, outside the parties and candidates. And I think you both heard my campaign finance reform plan.
CS: Full disclosure?
DW: Any amount of money from any entity any time with full, immediate disclosure and let the people decide. It will be self-enforcing, we won’t have to have the bureaucracy of the Federal Election Commission or the Secretary of State’s office telling us what is bad for us. I mean the bottom —
CS: And you have the technology, with the Internet, to do it.
DW: Exactly, exactly. And you know what, there will be enough public scrutiny of contributions that candidates and parties will have to say, “Do I really want to take this amount of money from this entity?” And it will be self-enforcing. And then the voters will decide on Election Day. That will be part of their decision making process. Because these campaign reformers — and there are plenty of Republicans who voted for McCain-Feingold — they think voters are stupid, that they have to be protected from themselves. That voters are just not smart enough to figure this out, to understand when a candidate or a party is unduly influenced by contributions. And it’s just dumb, it’s just stupid. So I mean the system is going to continue to get worse and worse and worse and worse as long as we have any of these campaign finance laws on the books. My hope is that it becomes so hopelessly lost and that it might have to reach a total breaking point and finally, my campaign finance reform plan (laughs) — and I’m not the only one who talks about this obviously — but it will finally come to fruition.
CS: Some of the reason there was such vast amounts of outside fundraising, it wasn’t just the results of campaign finance reform, some of the groups — Crossroads, Crossroads GPS — were raising money because they felt that RNC wasn’t up to it. Is that particular to this year and this (Republican National Committee) chair?
DW: Yeah, yeah. It would have happened anyway. It would have happened anyway, because the RNC did play — the whole controversy around the RNC did play a role in some major donors deciding not to give the RNC. But the fundamental fact doesn’t change, that it’s just going to happen more and more. It just is.
Steele’s prospects as RNC chairman
CS: Are you still supportive of Michael Steele?
DW: (Sighs heavily.)
CS: It seems like a lot of his supporters are looking at other candidates. The headline this morning was that his support has collapsed.
DW: Yeah, the election (for RNC chairman) is less than two months away, January 15th, to be exact, or January 14th.
I don’t know yet, Jody. I didn’t support (Michael Steele) on the initial ballots two years ago, I supported Saul Anuzis, who’s a very good friend of mine from Michigan.
CS: But you have been supportive of Steele?
DW: I have, and in fact I actually like Michael Steele a lot, and I have no complaints about the RNC in terms of our involvement with them on the Victory operation. Interestingly enough, the political director of the RNC resigned yesterday — you saw that whole thing — Gentry Collins. And Gentry was, frankly, the person I dealt with most on the committee. And I think that was a real blow to Michael Steele yesterday. Big blow, in fact. That letter was damning.
CS: He released the letter to the press?
DW: Yes he did. And right now I don’t think it’s an impossibility for Michael Steele to be re-elected, but I think it’s going to be very difficult for him to be. Although right now there is no clear challenger. My friend Saul has announced again, but there are going to be others. In fact my phone is ringing off the hook with people who are calling who I know are considering it.
CS: Would you consider?
DW: No, no, I’m not interested in the RNC chairmanship at all. That’s one thing I can tell you for sure. That’s a 100-to-nothing statement (laughs).
CS: Is there anything we haven’t asked you yet that you want to comment on? You going to take a vacation?
DW: We went down to Tampa for a few days, just got back this week. So we were just gone for a few days but I don’t take vacations very easily. I get bored very quickly.
I guess the only thing is to reiterate that there is nothing I would change about the nomination process. What went haywire in the governor’s race was a combination of a lot of things — the nomination process worked the way it should have. We can’t guarantee the outcome of the general after a nomination process. We can only nominate — we, meaning hundreds of thousands of Republicans, can only nominate who we think is the best candidate, support that candidate as much as we can, and then hope that candidate rises to the challenge to be able to win the general election. That’s all we can do. My friend Ken Buck was in a position to win that election and, unfortunately, there was enough ammunition the Democrats took and very successfully parlayed into a very narrow victory. And I deeply regret that, I think that Ken Buck would have been a great U.S. Senator, but that’s what happened. But it was not because we didn’t vet in the process (laughs).
Thoughts on GOP presidential field
CS: We would be remiss if we didn’t ask you about the next campaign that’s already almost underway. We’ve been hearing about the presidential aspirants, who might or might not be running — some of them have been through the state. Just yesterday, Sarah Palin let it be known she might run.
DW: It looks like she’s going to run.
CS: Thinking about it so she can beat Obama and so forth.
DW: I think, yeah.
CS: John Thune was through the state, Mitch Daniels …
DW: Yeah. Pawlenty, Romney …
CS: Haley Barbour?
CS: What are your thoughts on that? How are things shaping up? Newt Gingrich?
DW: Newt Gingrich.
CS: Newt Gingrich was here recently too.
DW: I think that it is absolutely wide open. You know, we thought it was wide open two years ago, and it was, but I think this year it’s really wide open. Romney might be a very, very nominal frontrunner but it’s a very shaky frontrunner status. I have no idea how that’ll — I think it’ll be a lot of people.
CS: Is there anyone you like particularly at this point?
DW: You know — this is going to — I really like them all. I really do. There’s not a bad one in the bunch right now that I can see.
CS: Mike Huckabee’s another one that we didn’t mention.
DW: Yeah, Huckabee, yeah. I just really haven’t focused on it, and I just figure there’s going to be a lot of shaking out between — the Iowa State Fair caucus straw poll is in August. And so, let the games begin, we’ll see.
CS: What a crazy year it’s been. When you came in last — it was in February of 2009?
DW: Is that when it was? Okay.
CS: Yeah, 19 months ago. I mean who would have thought that —
DW: I know (laughs).
CS: And Ritter was still in the game then.
DW: Yeah. Well, Ritter was still in the game. Let’s see, (U.S. Sen. Ken) Salazar had already resigned.
CS: Right. Bennet had been in office about a month.
DW: Yeah, right, that’s right, yeah.
CS: And John Suthers had just decided he wasn’t running for the Senate, yeah.
DW: Right, that’s right, that’s right. I forget that John was even thinking about….
CS: Just unrecognizable today from that vantage.
DW: It is amazing, this state is always interesting.
CS: Dick, how’s the solvency of the state party?
DW: We’re not going to end the year with a bunch of money in the bank, but we certainly are not going to have any kind of big debt or anything. I’ve still got a few bills to pay, but when I inherited the party it was $600,000 in debt four years ago (laughs), I mean nothing looks bad, so we’re okay. You never have a lot of money at the end of the year.
DW: You have to start over, so here we go. But that’s why I would warn anybody who wanted to run, whether I run again or not, you’d better figure out how you’re going to raise your money because nobody’s going to do it for you.
CS: Okay. Anything you want to add?
DW: No, that’s all I got.