The Life of the Party
Bob Beauprez came off the ranch to lead the state GOP, won one of the tightest U.S. Congressional races in history, and now he's the Republican frontrunner in the Colorado governor's race. What would JFK say?
In the back seat of the pickup, Beauprez folds his blue suit jacket neatly in his lap like a man who understands the importance of appearance. He's a handsome guy, with a tan, youthful face and the sort of deep-creasing smile that's easy to trust. His height is average, but his lanky frame and broad shoulders, along with the story he tells of himself, makes him seem like a bigger character. "Heck," he says to me as the two of us settle into the red pickup driven by his staffer, "you've heard me talk about myself so much in the last two days, you could have probably given that little speech back there yourself." He laughs loudly, and adds, "And you probably could have done a better job."
Part of Beauprez's charm is his self-deprecating humor. Fact of the matter is, he is a remarkably gifted public speaker. He thinks quickly on his feet and conveys what often appears to be genuine empathy and thoughtfulness. Just a few minutes ago, back on the gazebo, a young man who looked to be in his early 20s emerged from the crowd around Beauprez and raised his hand to be acknowledged. The guy had a Mohawk and an unsettling look in his eye, like he was channeling Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. He wore a black T-shirt with the name of the punk rock band "MISFITS" across the front. "Yes, young man," Beauprez said respectfully. Mr. Mohawk asked, "What sort of plans would you have as governor to take care of the homeless?"
The couple of local reporters on hand looked up from their notebooks. This topic clearly was not on the candidate's list of talking points and could be just the sort of innocuous subject that would trip up the congressman. "Why don't you tell me a little bit about yourself," Beauprez said. Suddenly, the gazebo felt like the set of the Dr. Phil show. Mohawk shared that he's had some "problems" but he's worked through them. Beauprez listened as if he had all the time in the world, and, when Mohawk finished, said, "There are some great shelters nearby." Beauprez even offered the name of a person who runs one of them. "It's important," he said, "that we continue to support programs that help people find opportunities and get back on their feet." Mohawk stepped back, nodding his head, apparently satisfied with the response.
It's Beauprez's compassionate-conservative rhetoric and everyman appeal that makes him such an immensely electable candidate, and he knows it. Last January, at Marc Holtzman's request, Beauprez met with the DU president at his campus office. Holtzman asked Beauprez if he were going to run for governor. Beauprez, who had just been re-elected to his second term in Congress, said he wasn't sure. Holtzman confided that he would run, and although he didn't come right out and ask the congressman for his endorsement, Beauprez sensed, "It was pretty obvious that's what he wanted." Instead, Beauprez says, he offered an opinion. "I said, 'Marc, I grant you're pretty comfortable on 17th Street, and your Rolodex is obviously very impressive, but if you want to be the next governor you've got to be able to walk into the mechanic across the street's garage. You've got to be able to walk into the sale barn in Lamar. You got to be able to meet the potato farmer down in the San Luis Valley."
"You don't think Holtzman can do that?" I ask Beauprez, as we roll along in the pickup to his next campaign stop.
"I think it's a tough sell for Marc."
Beauprez proved that he could not only talk to Colorado's disparate constituencies but also win them over during his first run for public office in Colorado's 7th Congressional District. It was a race that in many ways could foreshadow Beauprez's strategy for the upcoming governor's contest. The 7th District was drawn up in response to the 2000 U.S. Census, immediately taking shape as one of the most demographically diverse districts in the state. It includes parts of Adams, Jefferson, and Arapahoe counties and cities like Bennett, which is home to mostly white, rural folks who tend to vote Republican, and Aurora, a more racially diverse urban subdivision that trends Democrat. The 7th District's registered Republican and Democratic voters were almost evenly divided. In 2002, Beauprez ran against former state Rep. Mike Feeley, a lawyer and sometimes lobbyist.
Colorado was then a battleground state, as the Republican majority in D.C. was, as it is now, in jeopardy. The hot-button issue was Social Security reform. "Privatization" was a volatile buzzword. Each candidate said the entitlement program was overextended yet denied he would support drastic cuts. While the issues got muddied, Beauprez framed the race as a personality face-off between himself as the rancher-developer-small-businessman-regular-and-rugged-Catholic-Coloradan versus Feeley, the fat-cat lawyer-lobbyist. Throughout that campaign Beauprez would say in his folksy way, "I don't think we need to send another lawyer to Washington." Meanwhile, a Republican 527 group mailed out fliers in the district with a picture of a snarling dog next to a picture of a cigar-smoking lobbyist. The mailing's caption suggested that when you combine these two you get Mike Feeley, "a mean-spirited embarrassment to the state of Colorado." Beauprez won by 121 votes.