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

Or you get lemons and it’s a disaster. Consider what McInnis wrought: Dan Maes, a candidate best known for saying Denver’s bike-share program represented the encroachment of socialism and who supposedly didn’t have a chance, won—won!—the Republican primary. In the wake of Maes’ victory, former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, the polarizing right-wing Republican of the American Constitutional Party, jumps into the race. Tancredo, who secures the support of Dog the Bounty Hunter, only further atomizes the party. The Republican Party in Colorado gets so messy that moneyed and influential Republican power brokers such as Greg Maffei, the president and CEO of Liberty Media Corporation; Larry Mizel, the chairman and CEO of M.D.C. Holdings Inc.; and Fred Hamilton, a retired businessman and philanthropist, join together and publicly endorse the Democratic candidate. The three bold-faced Republicans even get together and throw a “bipartisan” fund-raiser luncheon for John Hickenlooper.

“A lot of people saw troubling signs,” a former McInnis campaign staffer would tell me a few weeks after the primary. “Such as [McInnis’] propensity to be a little fast and loose with details—a propensity for long-windedness that papered over a lack of understanding for details. A lot of people would say, ‘Look, we’ve got to make some mid-course corrections here.’ Supporters would come and say, ‘It doesn’t seem there’s a command of the facts.’ Supporters would talk about an unevenness in public comments and excessive defensiveness.” The “Caplis & Silverman” show, the staffer said, “was the least of the problems. It was more that you got a feeling that there wasn’t a full package. A feeling of: Is he ready to be governor?”

So how and why did the GOP end up in this McInnis mess, with such a candidate in the first place? “The problem here is really a confluence of issues,” former Denver County GOP chairperson Mary Smith says. One of those issues, so goes a consensus among Republican politicians and strategists, was a failure of the party’s leadership to organize; and that when GOP honchos finally did start drawing up plays and players, their plan was stale and wrong because the kingmakers are such a tight-knit and aging group. “Scott McInnis had a great record as a state representative,” says David Kopel, who serves as Caldara’s research director at the Independence Institute. “Overall, he did a solid job in Congress, but here the voters had an official choice made for them by a few insiders.”

You won’t find a roster of official Colorado GOP insiders. As Caldara says, “I can’t give you their names and Social Security numbers.” However, among informed Republicans there is agreement that people of influence include billionaire businessman Philip Anschutz; former Governor Bill Owens; former U.S. Senators Wayne Allard, Bill Armstrong, and Hank Brown; and M.D.C.’s Mizel. “The systemic problem began much earlier [than the primary election],” Smith says, with a Governor Owens “who didn’t encourage or prepare a bench of prepared candidates behind him.” (Owens, who declined to comment for this story, was on the guest list for the Hickenlooper fund-raising lunch. And Mary Smith, who is the co-founder of the conservative-leaning website Whosaidyousaid.com, now supports Hickenlooper.)

Interestingly, Dick Wadhams, who has been the GOP’s state party chair since 2007, has little influence on such matters. “Wadhams was probably not part of that [group],” says Kopel. “He was surprised when Josh Penry dropped out. That shows you’re really deep into the back room when the state party chairman doesn’t even know what’s going on.” There’s no probably about it. Wadhams himself says, “I’m not a kingmaker.”

The other reason for the McInnis candidacy was money. Current campaign finance laws limit the individual donation amount to $1,050 for each gubernatorial election. This, say Republicans, favors union-savvy Dems and incumbents—it’s easier for a proven winner to solicit financial support—and thereby severely limits the number of possible Republican candidates who can find and raise enough money. Take Penry. Perceived as a fresh face in the Colorado Republican Party, Penry, the former State Senate minority leader, entered the primary early. He polled well and galvanized support, and suddenly, he dropped out.

Unlike McInnis, Penry is not a millionaire, and he dropped out largely because of cash problems. There was talk of big players planning a 527 group to support McInnis, which is to say a politically active committee whose expenditures are unrestricted by finance limits. On top of that, Penry and his family were facing financial challenges, says Assistant State Senate Minority Leader Greg Brophy, a Penry supporter. He had “a family to feed and they were going backward,” Brophy says. “They thought they had enough cash, but they had some emergencies come up and had to pull out of their stash to live on. He had to go back to work.”

Penry’s cash-flow troubles paired with the threat of a 527, in Brophy’s opinion, exemplify a systemic flaw. “The one thing that needs to be fixed is our campaign finance laws,” Brophy told me after the primary. “So a candidate can actually raise the money he or she needs by themselves and not have to rely on outside groups to fund half the effort.” When Penry dropped out, Brophy supported McInnis. “He was a six-term congressman,” Brophy says. “You have to take a candidate like that seriously.”