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

That brings us back to the Colorado GOP leadership, which knew and was comfortable with McInnis. After all, he had the old-school record, he’d paid his dues, and he could raise the money from the establishment of longtime insiders who liked him well enough. And McInnis enjoys the spotlight. Former 5th District Rep. Joel Hefley says McInnis was known to arrive hours early to the State of the Union address to shake the president’s hand and was someone who would give frequent after-hours speeches on the House floor for no one but the C-SPAN cameras. Once, Hefley says, he and McInnis rode on Air Force One to Colorado Springs with President George W. Bush; a presidential aide instructed the congressmen to exit through the back of the plane while Bush walked out the front. “We glance up,” Hefley says, “and sure enough, there’s Scott coming down the front steps right behind Bush.”

“The establishment favors the people they know,” says a GOP insider who played a role in the McInnis campaign. “That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best candidate to win a general election. People like Anschutz, Owens, Armstrong, Brown—they’re all great guys but they back the people they know, which doesn’t necessarily give us the best candidates.” By way of recent examples, see Bob Beauprez, Pete Coors, Bob Schaffer—all aging white guys saying the same old things.

“If the GOP takes anything away from this debacle,” says former McInnis staffer Tyler Q. Houlton, “it’s that we need to have a better field. If we’re serious about beating Democrats, then we need to have some good, fresh faces.” Houlton now works for a young Republican politician, Ryan Frazier, who might fit the bill. “He’s in his early 30s,” Houlton says. “He’s not tied to the establishment.” Houlton also cites state Representative Cory Gardner as a comer. “Those are the kind of guys we need to lead the party—we’ve got to appeal to new voters and not depend on the old wing of the party—get rid of some of the baggage that comes with long careers in politics.”

The Independence Institute’s Caldara has been hoping that after McInnis, Republican funders will “finally get that infrastructure is more important than personality. Politicians always disappoint, always. Ideas don’t. Republican donors need to start tithing their investments toward the movement, not individuals. The mantra of ‘We need to win this year’ needs to change to ‘We need to put together a movement to win in the next 10 years.’ How much proof do we need in this state to change the way we raise money and strategize?”

John Andrews knows a thing or two about the Republican Party and elections. The former Colorado State Senate president once ran for governor himself. He, too, believes that the McInnis campaign was a referendum on the Colorado GOP. “That campaign’s weaknesses aren’t just him as one guy,” Andrews told me after the August primary. “They typify a certain kind of person who has succeeded politically for quite some time, and the American people are saying we’ve had it with that kind of people—we want something different, even if it’s someone who comes with a thin resume and rookie mistakes.”

As we talked in late summer, Andrews thought it was best to wait until after the November election to attempt to “draw lessons,” but he was of the mind that: “Contrary to those who say the Maes nomination shows a systemic failure, I’ll make a preliminary verdict that maybe the Maes nomination shows the system worked. This is an illustration of how marvelously open and bottom-up American politics is, despite the fixing and deal-making that’s been around forever. I’m endorsing Maes, but I don’t know how viable a candidate he is. But I think the fact of his nomination ought to send shock waves of self-examination through the Republican Party, and I hope it does. Maes says his candidacy aims to introduce the conservative revolution to the Republican institution. If more Republican leaders/players had seen that coming sooner, then some of the folks might have ended up in the governor’s race and ended up the nominee.”

After the McInnis implosion, state GOP party chair, Wadhams, too, maintained that the primary was proof that “our process has worked very well.” By way of evidence of the GOP’s success at the primary and, in turn, proof of the party’s well-oiled machinations, Wadhams cited the Republican primary victors in other races, like Ken Buck, Cory Gardner, and Ryan Frazier. “All these candidates survived strong nomination processes and now they’re poised to win.”

Wadhams didn’t see any need for “hand-wringing that somehow the party didn’t [have] the right candidates. It’s too easy for people to think there’s some cabal out there that dictates who runs and who doesn’t—that’s not true.” Irritated by such questions or “second-guessing,” he said, “There’s nothing the party should be taking away. The party had a very competitive, open nomination process...The party didn’t encourage or discourage anyone from running.”

Days after the primary, Wadhams, like Andrews, said he intended to support Maes. After all, he’d won the primary fair and square. A few weeks later, though, both Andrews and Wadhams withdrew their support. They, along with some of the other bold-faced Republicans whom Maes had won over, bailed in the wake of reports that long ago, as a police officer, Maes leaked information about an ongoing investigation—an allegation Maes has denied.

One of the things McInnis did well on the campaign trail was tell stories. One of his favorites was about how he got into law school. While a Glenwood Springs cop, he’d applied to St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio and was wait-listed due to a less-than-stellar grade on what he described as the “English” portion of the LSAT. To hear McInnis tell it: He took all the money he had and bought a plane ticket to San Antonio. He figured out where the dean’s office was located and one night McInnis laid his sleeping bag by the entrance. “Next morning,” McInnis said, “the dean whose picture I’d memorized...came in, and I begged him just to give me an interview. I played it up good.” It would appear that underperforming, playing it up good, and brownnosing the old guard is no longer a workable strategy—not for McInnis or the GOP, or, for that matter, any politician.