The Elephants in the Room

This month, as Coloradans select the new governor, the GOP is beginning to assess the spectacularly awful Scott McInnis campaign and ask itself: What happened? And what next?

November 2010

In August 2009, long before his big lie was exposed and he threw the old guy under the bus, Scott McInnis called into a local AM radio station for what was supposed to be a friendly interview. McInnis, the five-term Colorado House representative and six-term U.S. representative who had gone to work as a lobbyist, was then still the Republican front-runner in Colorado’s gubernatorial race. Anti-incumbent, anti-Obama sentiment was in the air. Statewide, Republicans were convinced conditions were perfect for reclaiming the governor’s office. And McInnis had emerged as the candidate who would get it done.

The radio show was “Caplis & Silverman.” Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman, both practicing attorneys, are 630 KHOW’s version of Hannity & Colmes. Caplis, the red-blooded conservative, and Silverman, who’s the sort of liberal that a conservative can love, could not have been more welcoming. Caplis greeted McInnis with a “Hey, brother.” Silverman kicked off the interview oh-so breezily, allowing McInnis to criticize Governor Bill Ritter’s “extreme” regulations while lauding his own government experience.

In the softest of ways, Silverman brought up a Denver Post article. After McInnis declined to seek reelection in 2004, the congressman’s staff said he’d redirect whatever campaign funds were in reserve to a cancer-related nonprofit. According to the Post, however, McInnis gave most of the money to GOP candidates to “promote Republican ideals.” Silverman broached the topic so gently that he handed the candidate a possible answer (deflection) embedded in the question: “Is this a tempest in a teapot?” “This is the first time I’ve ever been criticized for giving to charity,” McInnis said. “And I’d be happy to, kind of, match my contributions to the community against either one of you, for example.”

In the studio, Silverman’s eyes widened. In response to the softball question, had McInnis really just attacked the hosts and challenged them to a charity face-off? Caplis caught Silverman’s attention and used his right finger to trace “crazy” circles in the air near his headphones. Silverman continued: “Look, I didn’t mean to make it personal—it’s going to be a story in the paper. But when you say that you give more to charity than me or Dan—as I understand the story, this is $1.3 million that you had in a campaign war chest…It wasn’t exactly your money.”

McInnis fired back, escalating the tension: “What do you want me to do, Craig? Give the money to you or give it to the hospice?” The incredulous hosts looked at each other as the candidate protested: “With all due respect pal—you’re a good lawyer, you’re a good trial lawyer—lead ’em into the trap and shut the door. I ain’t getting in your trap! I’d be happy to have you write a check today, I can give you Catholic Charities’ address. Pitch in, Craig, you’re a community guy!”

Caplis, the Republican, spoke up, pointing out that Silverman was doing McInnis “a favor” by quoting from an article and giving him a chance to respond. “For you to try to say,” Caplis said, “I’m piling on—that’s goofy…It’s beneath you and it’s beneath the office you’re running for.”

For a few days, that radio bit was the talk of Colorado politics. The peanut gallery at ColoradoPols.com predicted McInnis would have trouble living it down. Within months, the McInnis campaign spiraled downward into a string of debacles that Jon Caldara, president of the conservative Colorado think tank the Independence Institute, describes as “a series of images from the Jonestown massacre.”

Terrible campaigns come and go, but McInnis was—is—emblematic of something bigger than any one candidate or election. Instead of uniting a party and delivering a win, McInnis alienated Colorado grassroots Republicans and only further splintered the statewide party. As Caldara, who is a registered Republican, puts it, “This McInnis campaign is evidence that there’s nothing Republicans can’t fuck up.”