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.”

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more ridiculous—every time it seemed that there was no way the McInnis campaign could do or say anything more stupid—well, the whole thing just got more bananas. For starters: While Democratic candidate Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper made public his tax filings, McInnis, last April, refused to do the same. Since leaving Congress, McInnis had joined the law firm Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells), a lobbying octopus with its arms in myriad policy issues; his refusal to make his filings public raised suspicions about what, if anything, McInnis was hiding. Then, McInnis campaign spokesman Sean Duffy claimed that his candidate had never served on the board of Republicans for Choice. Except Duffy was wrong. Within days, copies of the group’s masthead were posted online clearly showing McInnis’ name.

In a move hatched, at least in part, to galvanize a right-wing base, McInnis embraced a controversial position on immigration. Known as a moderate conservative on social issues, he became one of the first major GOP politicians nationwide to praise the Arizona law that requires law enforcement officers to stop people they suspect may be in the country illegally. He pledged to push a similar law in Colorado. The strategy flopped. At the GOP state assembly in late May 2010, zealous Republicans at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland celebrated McInnis’ Republican challenger, Dan Maes, and his speech about the “conservative revolution.” Then those zealous Republicans booed McInnis and voted Maes to victory.

On the campaign trail, McInnis played up the tired political song of I’m-a-little-bit-country-and-the-Democrat-is-all-urban-rock-’n’-roll. “There’s just one candidate who’s not from a metropolitan area,” the Glenwood Springs native told a small-town coffee shop crowd last summer. “And that’s me.” Without acknowledging the existence of Maes, McInnis noted that the unchallenged Democrat, Hickenlooper, grew up in Pennsylvania and now made his home in the state’s biggest city. McInnis mentioned how both he and his wife Lori hail from Colorado pioneer families. “Lori just finished up the branding, and they’re headed up to the high country,” he said. His speechifying was chockablock with rugged Western jargon, down-home contractions, rural pedigree and, of course, the little lady. He talked jobs, jobs, jobs­—his campaign’s theme—and natural resources. That seemed to be where he was really going with the aw-shucks stuff: Those city-slicker Dems don’t understand agriculture or natural resources. “You’ve got to have someone who understands water,” McInnis said. “Hickenlooper understands how to bring it to Denver. You think he gives a hoot about water access out here?”

There it was, that word: water. Right when the media was beginning to buzz about a document McInnis had titled “Musings on Water.” The questions drip-dripped onto the campaign until last July, when it became the tsunami of a plagiarism scandal: In 2005 McInnis landed a fellowship with a foundation run by a Pueblo family, millionaire Republican Dr. Malik Hasan and his wife, Seeme. The Hasans wanted McInnis to leverage his congressional experience into two years of writing and speaking on water issues statewide. The Hasans paid McInnis $300,000. He submitted “Musings on Water,” a 150-page document accompanied by a memo assuring that it was his “original” work. Only it wasn’t his original work. Huge portions of the document were identical to 1984 writings by Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs. Then the kicker: McInnis claimed an 82-year-old “research assistant” named Rolly Fischer was to blame, prompting a visibly upset Fischer to give KMGH Channel 7’s John Ferrugia an interview. “Rolly, is Scott McInnis lying to us?” Ferrugia asked him. After a long, painful silence, the elderly man replied, “Yes.”

What in the world were McInnis and his team thinking? Being inside the campaign, or as inside as a member of the press could be inside the McInnis campaign, was to witness a surreal disconnect. Like all political campaigns, this camp had its share of strategists, donors, and spin doctors, yet this machine was particularly controlled. I was able to accompany McInnis on the campaign trail only after weeks of persistent requests. And even then the spokesman, Duffy, said if I went on the road with McInnis I’d need to remain in my own car and follow the candidate’s white Ford Explorer from one place to the next. No one outside the campaign, I was told, was allowed on the “bus.” After a couple of whistle-stops, however, McInnis waved me into the SUV.

Passing fields on the Eastern Plains, he reminisced about growing up the son of a Glenwood Springs shopkeeper. As a boy, he swept the shop’s floors. He got piggy banks on birthdays. He talked about his time as a Glenwood Springs cop. He became animated talking about budget shortfalls and used a paper plate to diagram the state budget. “Forty-four percent of the general-fund budget is mandated spending and voter-protected for K through 12,” he said, scribbling. “What do we squeeze?”

McInnis was the one being squeezed, in the media, over $300,000 worth of plagiarism. As the “Musings on Water” scandal broke, to ask the McInnis team about it was like being in the twilight zone. Josh Penry, the McInnis protégé and former gubernatorial candidate some considered a possible stand-in if the scandal-plagued McInnis bailed, by then had become a McInnis adviser. Penry ignored my calls. In response to e-mailed questions, he sent a terse message saying he thought he’d already answered my questions. Yes, I wrote, but things had changed. To which Penry replied only with: “Something’s changed?”

In the midst of the media coverage of the scandal, David McReynolds, one of McInnis’ campaign finance co-chairs, told me, “I still think he’s the best man for the job.” Wasn’t McReynolds perturbed by the fact that his man had plagiarized the writings of a state Supreme Court justice and was paid $300,000 for it? “It’s very concerning,” McReynolds said. However, McReynolds seemed more concerned about the campaign’s crisis management, or rather lack thereof. “I think it was sloppy, on his part, the way it was handled.”

Communications director Duffy answered the phone mid-disaster with a cheerful, “Hey buddy!” Almost immediately he said, “He’s not getting out. He’s still the guy to beat the mayor.” Duffy insisted that McInnis had told the Hasans that he was using a research assistant, meaning “assistant” Fischer, which was a claim the Hasans disputed. Duffy assured me that McInnis had records showing how much he paid Fischer.

Me: “When can I see those?”

Duffy: “He’s not disclosing those. I asked him [McInnis] to make those public and he said no; that it was ‘private between [him] and Rolly.’ ”

Me: “This must be one of your favorite campaigns?”

Duffy: “You get lemons, and you try to make ’em lemonade.”

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.”

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.