Election 2018News

TRAIL MIX: Primary’s zingers and stingers

Author: Ernest Luning - June 15, 2018 - Updated: June 22, 2018

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Congressional candidate Levi Tillemann gets pepper sprayed in a campaign commercial. (Screen grab, Levi for Colorado via YouTube)

The competition for the most outrageous occurrence on the campaign trail has been fierce in recent days, as politicians careen toward the finish line — at 7 p.m. June 26. That’s when Colorado’s primary election campaign turns, in an instant, into its slimmed-down, more expensive and, truth be told, less jocular successor, the general election campaign.

There was no shortage of jaw-dropping, head-spinning, chin-scratching moments lately, though it’s hard to pin down which will endure and become the stuff of legend, the tall tales told when grizzled campaign veterans gather around the campfire and reminisce.

“Remember that time?” one says. And they all chuckle, nodding. Who could forget?

Was it Walker Stapleton, the Republican frontrunner for governor, who insisted on ignoring the meaning of the word “only” in a snowballing spat with the most aggressive political news crew on Denver television, 9News’ Kyle Clark and Brandon Rittiman?

Stapleton claimed in an ad that he was the only state treasurer to support President Donald Trump’s tax plan, when he clearly had company. By sticking to his guns, he earned the rare designation of a liar in a series of reports from Clark and Rittiman, who eventually took to explaining how the candidate could get away with it.

Or was it the Democratic candidates who bludgeoned each other with their party’s clean campaign promise? Cary Kennedy, Jared Polis and Mike Johnston all wielded the pledge in attacks on each other, charging violations and scoring points.

Or the time John Hickenlooper, the folksy governor who built his brand on a reasoned distaste for negative political ads, found himself starring in what could be the harshest attack ad yet to emerge in the Democratic primary for the office he holds? Soon after he said he was disappointed Kennedy supporters had attacked Polis and Johnston in an ad, Hickenlooper showed up in an ad paid for by Polis supporters appearing to attack Kennedy. A few days later, he turned his frown on Polis.

Or maybe it was that same governor’s other starring role, as the supposed heir to the crown of the secret society that rules the world, conducts the economy like a symphony and keeps the space aliens and their interstellar vessels hidden from the rest of us.

Conspiracy-minded theorists spun fanciful tales of Hickenlooper’s embrace by the Bilderberg Group at its rarified meeting in Italy, even tracking the governor at the airport, but he shrugged it off and said he had just attended to enjoy some good conversation.

For a few days, some circles were abuzz over a purported poll with results that contradicted anything the public had seen.

In a fundraising email, Kennedy’s campaign manager trumpeted a “brand new poll” that showed her in the lead among Democrats, though Polis was ahead by a healthy margin in the only recent poll that had been released.

It turned out the Kennedy campaign was talking about a rumor survey pollster Floyd Ciruli wrote about on his blog. He told Trail Mix he tracked it down after hearing whispers and hints but couldn’t much vouch for it and was amused Kennedy was touting it.

No. The jaw-drop king had to be Levi Tillemann, the Democratic congressional candidate who demonstrated a school safety proposal by pepper-spraying himself in a video (watch below) and then suffered the horrible consequences as the camera kept rolling.

If he’d signed the clean campaign pledge, which he hadn’t, Tillemann might have committed a clear violation by attacking himself in an ad. After critics howled at the stunt and skeptics pooh-poohed his proposal, Tillemann doubled down, celebrating the video’s sudden popularity online.

Then there was a late development, when the Sierra Club came under fire from Johnston for claiming in an ad supporting Polis that the Democratic frontrunner for governor was the only candidate to forswear donations from special interests and corporations. Not true, said Johnston, who made an identical pledge and demanded TV stations pull the ad. Polis refused to budge and berated Johnston for attacking the Sierra Club, perhaps launching another round of clean campaign pledge attacks.

FRIDAY UPDATE: The Sierra Club changed the ad to remove the word “only,” and added the word “boldly.” Jim Alexee, the director of the Colorado Sierra Club, added: “Although we maintain the original ad is accurate.”

(What is it with politicians and simple concepts? “Only” means one of a kind. You’d think it’d be hard to keep a straight face arguing that “only” means something else, like “first or one of the first,” like Stapleton did in a debate. But you’d be wrong, at least in the waning days of the election, when nerves are on edge, sleep is a luxury and words have lost their meaning.)

There’s a reason campaign season turns a little nuts in the week or two before ballots are counted, a campaign maven told Trail Mix, and it’s not hard to grasp. Everyone involved — from candidates to campaign managers, big-time donors to the most dogged canvassers, harried spouses to anxious vendors — is beyond exhausted, the maven explained.

After seemingly endless repetition of the nuts and bolts of campaigning — gripping and grinning and call time and “cutting turf,” as the field people like to say, the die is cast and it’s up to the voters. Everyone’s operating at full throttle on a nearly empty tank, a combination that, unsurprisingly, can yield unexpected outcomes.

And memories. Lots and lots of memories.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.