Republican Jack Graham will make a decision on whether he will run for governor by the end of the summer.
In an interview with Colorado Politics, Graham – the former Colorado State University athletic director and 2016 U.S. Senate candidate – said regulatory reform, education, transportation and health care, would staples of his campaign.
“I’m giving it serious consideration, and a lot of factors go into getting to ‘yes’ or getting to ‘no.’ Not just personal but for the state of Colorado,” Graham said. “It’s hard to stand on the sidelines when you see what’s going on.”
Graham would add moderation to a Republican primary that has been slower to grow compared to Democrats, but which is also expected to become a crowded field.
Already announced in the race for Republicans is Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, former state Rep. Victor Mitchell and former investment banker and Mitt Romney’s nephew Doug Robinson, among others.
A total of seven Republicans have filed paperwork to run in the race. State Treasurer Walker Stapleton is expected to announce a run for governor, and observers are watching to see if DaVita Healthcare Partners chief executive Kent Thiry and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman jump in.
Lessons from U.S. Senate run
Graham, 65, said he is a much more experienced candidate after his failed but impressive U.S. Senate run last year. In a five-man race, Graham finished second after a long, strange competition that saw ultra-conservative El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn emerge as the winner.
Glenn found himself in several embattled situations as he tried to navigate the choppy political current created by Donald Trump. Some observers though Graham, who was often accused of being a “Republican in Name Only,” or “RINO,” during the primary, would have had a better chance at defeating Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet.
Graham finished ahead of former Rep. Jon Keyser, who was at first thought to be the “darling” of the Republican Party. Graham also finished ahead of Colorado Springs businessman Robert Blaha, who had run for Congress before, and former Aurora councilman Ryan Frazier, who had better name recognition.
“Jack came from literally no where,” explained former Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams, who managed Graham’s U.S. Senate campaign and is consulting on his potential gubernatorial run.
Wadhams remembers that after Graham’s first speaking forum, Graham apologized to him for what he thought was a mediocre performance as a political neophyte. But Wadhams said he was impressed, despite Graham’s second-guessing.
“Not only did he finish what I thought was a very respectable second, but I think that after the primary there were a lot of people… who said if Jack had won, he would have defeated Michael Bennet,” Wadhams said.
Sitting inside the Denver political power restaurant Racines on a recent Thursday afternoon, Graham forks down a salad while recalling some unpleasant moments from the U.S. Senate race.
“I was pretty shy, if not intimidated, by the very conservative wing of the Republican Party,” said Graham, who had switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican just a year ahead of the primary.
On the campaign trail, Graham was assailed by conservatives for supporting a woman’s right to an abortion, gay marriage, and “sensible” gun control. It was not the message the activist wing of the party was looking for, and yet Graham still finished second.
He also avoided having to go to court to defend petition signatures gathered to make the ballot, as three other candidates were forced to do.
“I always thought Jack was tailor-made for an executive approach,” Wadhams said. “I thought he would have been a great senator, and he’d be playing a big role right now, but you can’t look at his background as a businessman and as athletic director of CSU and not see it.”
Graham said he has no intention of moving more to the right to survive a gubernatorial primary.
“I would make it abundantly clear that I do believe in a woman’s right to choose, I do believe in marriage equality, I do believe in rational gun control… I won’t back down from those conversations,” Graham said. “I’m disappointed in myself that I wasn’t more clear about that when I was running for the U.S. Senate.”
Surviving a primary
If Graham is to run with a moderate Republican message, then he faces an uphill battle. It’s still unknown just what impact unaffiliated voters will have on the race, now that they can vote in primary elections.
“I do think there’s a potential opportunity for Graham in a multi-candidate race,” said political analyst Eric Sondermann. “He got his name out there somewhat, so that probably benefits him… He got a taste for how the game is played.”
But Sondermann said it would still be tough for Graham, who would likely face the same pushback from the conservative wing of the party.
Graham also would be juggling a campaign with a new business that he is launching with his wife, Ginger. The couple is opening Ginger and Baker, a pie shop and restaurant in a 120-year-old mill feed supply building in Fort Collins. His wife is handling most of the operations.
Graham said he would likely petition onto the battle, rather than go the caucus route at the state convention. Once considered taboo not to caucus onto the ballot, more and more candidates are finding acceptance by collecting petition signatures.
“It’s a narrow constituency who shows up to the caucus,” Wadhams said. “There was a stigma, I don’t think that’s around anymore.”
Graham said he will make a decision on whether he is going to run for governor by September.
“This kind of a decision can’t be permitted to drag out forever,” he said.
“I have to believe that if I’m going to enter the competition, that I have a reasonable opportunity to win. I’m not going to pick a fight that I’m not going to win.”