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Election Preview 2018 | Governor’s race comes down to money, message and momentum

Author: Joey Bunch - October 16, 2018 - Updated: October 26, 2018

Colorado gubernatorial candidates Walker Stapleton (left) and Jared Polis debated at the Penrose House in Colorado Springs on Oct. 13. (Mark Harden / Colorado Politics)

Walker Stapleton needs to be the perfect Republican candidate with the perfect message to stem a predicted blue wave that could put Democrat Jared Polis in the governor’s office, Colorado political experts say.

And time is running short, with Coloradans getting their ballots starting Oct. 15 and Election Day on Nov. 6.

With in-state polling against him and the national mood unfavorable, seasoned observers say Stapleton, the state treasurer, needs to punch hard and move fast to overcome the huge money advantage that Polis, the Boulder congressman and tech millionaire, has brought to the fight.

Beyond this year’s headwinds, Colorado is a state that’s elected only one Republican governor — two-termer Bill Owens — since John Love was elected to a third term in 1970.

Stapleton, so far, appears to have failed to get traction on his conservative message on gun rights and immigration policy against Polis’ heavy spending and liberal proposals, as enthusiasm builds on the left to elect Colorado’s — and the nation’s — first openly gay governor.

> RELATED: Poll finds Polis leading Stapleton by 7 points in Colorado governor’s race

Internal polls for months, and the first public poll released in October, all show Polis with a comfortable edge over Stapleton in a state where President Donald Trump lost to Hillary Clinton two years ago by 5 points.

In the primary, at least, Stapleton enthusiastically embraced Trump and said the president would be welcome to campaign with him in Colorado, but Trump has yet to show up in the state to campaign. However, Trump did endorse Stapleton in a tweet Oct. 10, several weeks after former President Barack Obama endorsed Polis. A Republican-led poll in June indicated nearly 7 in 10 Coloradans had a negative view of the president, and 57 percent disliked the Republican Party.

Experts on the left and right agree Polis would bring a progressive and potentially pricey mandate to the governor’s office. He has promised to pursue universal health care, set the state on a swift course toward getting all its electrical power from renewable energy, and figure out a way to provide all-day preschool and kindergarten, as well as other expectations from the liberal wish list he would be expected to deliver.

Stapleton, meanwhile, has been sounding the alarm over the prospects of a Polis administration nearly as much as he has been discussing his own proposals, repeatedly labeling his opponent as “radical and extreme” in debates.

Republican political strategist and former state party chairman Dick Wadhams said Stapleton has to articulate a clear conservative message and show that his way of running the state — especially on taxing and spending issues — is better than Polis.

“He hasn’t done that,” Wadhams said.

Money changes everything

Polis came into this race as Colorado Democratic royalty, one of the four wealthy liberals in the state who invested big in grassroots progressive politics in the early 2000s. Shortly after he got in the governor’s race, the then-presumed frontrunner, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, dropped out of the primary.

Entering October, Polis had put nearly $20 million of his own wealth  for his campaign, while Stapleton, himself from a wealthy family, raised a little more than $3 million, including more $1.2 million he’s given his own campaign. For perspective, Polis’ campaign is spending more on TV ads across Colorado in October than Stapleton has raised in total.

> RELATED: COVER STORY |Profile: Entrepreneur Jared Polis seeks to make a difference 

“There is no way [Stapleton] can match what Mr. Polis can put into this race, if he feels he needs it,” said pollster Floyd Ciruli, director of the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Denver. “His record is clear that he’s willing to spend the money.”

And then there’s momentum. Usually in mid-term elections in Colorado, it’s Republicans who have the highest spirits.

Not so much this year. With Colorado’s unaffiliated voters for the first time allowed to take part in the primary of their choice this year, about 119,000 more people voted in the Democratic primary than in the Republican matchup. Sixty-six percent more unaffiliateds voted Democratic than Republican in the primary.

If women voters turn out strong, then it’s curtains for Stapleton, if polls are to be believed. In the primary, women returned far more Democratic ballots than Republican — 363,000 to 251,000.

Greg Welchert, a Democratic strategist, sat on a panel of political experts at the University of Denver on Oct. 2. He said Democrats most feared they would have to run against Cynthia Coffman, the Republican attorney general. He didn’t think Coffman would be leading Polis, but she wouldn’t be trailing by 7 to 9 points.

Welchert said Polis won the nomination at a critical point, when Teachers for Kennedy — a group that backed one of his primary opponents, former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy — ran an attack ad against him, even though the candidates had signed a clean campaign pledge. When Kennedy didn’t push back on  the attack by her supporters, she looked weak and indecisive, Welchert said.

Teachers have since made amends with Polis, as he promises universal full-day kindergarten and pre-school.

Stapleton’s education plan involves more school choice and less money for administration, steering more money directly into classrooms. As state treasurer, Stapleton clashed with teachers over their support and benefits in the state pension plan. Last spring, as teachers rallied at the Capitol, Stapleton joked they might throw a Molotov cocktail at him.

The energy governor

On the same ticket as the governor’s race, Proposition 112 would expand setbacks from occupied structures for new oil and gas drilling on private lands to 2,500 feet, up from 500 feet for homes and 1,000 feet for schools — virtually banning industry operations, a major source of jobs and tax revenue in Colorado, on non-federal lands.

> RELATED: COVER STORY | Profile: Walker Stapleton says solutions depend on balanced books

In 2014, Polis supported a 2,000-foot setback, but this year says he opposes Proposition 112, insisting there’s a more responsible way to manage the industry than at the ballot. That’s kept Polis in the uneasy good graces of the oil and gas industry that, save a few donations so far from executives to Stapleton, has stayed on the sideline in the governor’s race.

Polis had informal meetings with oil and gas industry executives, but no firm promises were made, Colorado Politics reported in September.

Industry operatives, however, routinely pan his pledge to move the state to all renewable energy by 2040. Polis said the transition would be a ground-up approach and evolve rapidly as technology innovates, an inevitability that Colorado should encourage and lead, he said.

Stapleton said he supports adoption of renewable energy at a more measured pace, dictated by the market, not government. He predicts the worst, warning Polis could kill off an industry that puts $32 billion annually into the state’s economy and supports more than 230,000 Colorado jobs.

Similarly on transportation, Polis promises more transit and alternative transportation, with a hard lean toward zero-emissions vehicles and charging stations.

“I think Jared clearly has a vision for what our economy and our environment are going to look like 20 years from now,” said Scott Wasserman,  a former deputy chief of staff to Gov. John Hickenlooper who is president of the left-leaning Bell Policy Center in Denver.

“Does anybody’s vision of Colorado in 20 years have us driving around with gasoline engines and wider and wider roads? I don’t think so. It’s going to have to be some mix of public transit and smart roads,” Wasserman said.

Stapleton, meanwhile, says the state should bring its roads and bridges up to speed before spending tax dollars on “under-used” public transit or features like dedicated bike lanes, which he dismisses as expensive luxuries when highways are crumbling.

> RELATED: COVER STORY | Heavy traffic across Colorado: Transportation dollars at stake in election

Stapleton charges that Polis is promising programs that will cost the state as much as $100 billion outright, as well as decimate key industries and lead to economic ruin. Polis counters that Stapleton is trying to scare voters by attributing proposals to the Democrat that Polis hasn’t advanced. Besides, the Polis campaign points out, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in the state constitution prevents a Colorado governor from raising taxes without voter approval.

Stapleton points to a study that found a $45 billion price tag to achieve the 100-percent renewable energy standard Polis has proposed, but Polis says that number is based on flawed assumptions that don’t have anything to do with his proposal.

Instead, Polis says, the market is already demanding a faster shift to renewable sources, with new wind and solar production already costs less than coal electricity generated by coal. He’s proposed cutting regulations and streamlining the permitting process for renewable energy projects, among other elements of a plan that doesn’t include any additional costs to the state.

A skeptical Stapleton points to industry studies that find a diminishing return as the share of electricity generated by wind and solar increase — the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow around the clock — but Polis predicts innovations, such as distributed battery technology enabled by bipartisan legislation passed earlier this year, will erase those objections over the next two decades.

Ernest Luning of Colorado Politics contributed.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.