Down But Not Out
John Hickenlooper walloped Tom Tancredo in last year’s gubernatorial race, but Tancredo in turn delivered a convincing knock-out to Republican upstart Dan Maes. With his surprising showing behind him, will the ever voluble, relentlessly divisive Tancredo come back for more? You bet.
Even if Tom Tancredo, the former five-term Republican congressman from Colorado’s 6th District, hadn’t lost one of the more bizarre gubernatorial races in recent memory, chances are you would have an opinion of the wild-eyed border-security advocate, theoretical proponent of bombing Muslim holy sites, and all-around bipartisan pisser-offer. Just before launching his own scorched-earth campaign against the state’s Republican Party this past summer, Tancredo, who’s 65, wrote a newspaper column in which he laid out the case for President Barack Obama’s impeachment, calling the president “an enemy of our Constitution, and…a danger to our safety, our security and our personal freedoms.” In case the point wasn’t clear, Tancredo added: “Mr. Obama is a more serious threat to America than al Qaeda.”
That’s Tancredo for you: The man whose Italian last name means “thought-counsel” could just as easily mean “right-wing nut job” to millions of Americans. He’s the guy who called Miami a “Third World country,” in part because of its flood of immigrants, and who said the Catholic Church accepted illegal immigration as a way to boost church numbers. “He speaks what he believes,” Herzfeldt tells me. “He’s a very honest man.”
It’s a personality trait that’s gotten Tancredo into trouble often. On certain campaign stops, Tancredo’s security detail made him wear a bulletproof vest. Once, Tancredo wanted to adjust the vest, but his handlers worried that it would be too visible. A would-be assassin would go for a head shot.
Tancredo survived the campaign, but history one day may say that former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s 260,773-vote beat-down of Tancredo signaled the end of the conservative’s political career. But the numbers only tell part of the story. For Tancredo, there’s no defeat; there are only the 650,000-plus people who cast their ballots for him—not for Hickenlooper or for Republican Dan Maes, a political train wreck who garnered fewer than 200,000 votes and essentially decimated the state GOP. “What Tom did—jumping into a race three months before an election, raising the money and support—that’s nothing short of incredible,” says Bob Beauprez, Tancredo’s friend and a former Republican congressman who lost a bid to become the state’s governor in 2006. “Tom didn’t lose the election as much as he ran out of time.”
In a matter of months last year, Tancredo dumped the GOP, registered as a member of the marginal American Constitution Party, entered the race for governor, and performed more than respectably (despite the results of some polls, Tancredo never seriously threatened Hickenlooper). That he threw his former party into disarray and angered more than a few people along the way is just a happy by-product for him. “Tom is a purely selfish person,” says state Republican chairman Dick Wadhams, who publicly battled Tancredo during the election. “He thinks of no one but himself.”
It’s a point that’s difficult to argue. Tancredo has made such a political sideshow of his opinions—making himself famous while raging against the “cult of multiculturalism” and illegal immigration—that he once bragged to his wife, Jackie, about killing a coyote in Texas. Jackie immediately thought her husband had blown away not an animal, but a “coyote,” a person who helps smuggle illegal immigrants across the border. In other words, even his wife sometimes thinks he’s bat-shit crazy. “Tom is going to do what he’s going to do,” Jackie says. “He’s an interesting man to live with.”
But for every voter and pundit to whom Tancredo is a caricature—an extremist who never conjured up a provocative sound bite he didn’t like—the election showed off a Tancredo most people hadn’t seen, or didn’t believe existed. Here was a man who’d split from religion as a child and discovered faith as an adult and wasn’t afraid to talk about the emptiness he’d experienced before finding God. Here was a man who would tout his proudest legislative achievement: authoring the Sudan Peace Act, a sweeping federal law that forced two warring factions to the negotiating table.
It didn’t hurt that at a time when dissatisfaction with the Obama administration and Democrats was at a high point, Tancredo could boast legitimate small-tax, small-government bona fides. “He was able to run a serious statewide campaign and basically articulate on a range of issues and spend at least part of the time not talking about illegal immigration,” Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli told the Washington Times after the election. “At the moment, I believe he is the most easily nominated Republican in the state.”
Driving up I-76 on our hunting trip, Tancredo flipped through his BlackBerry and found a message sent to him by a former campaign supporter. The note quoted a story from the Times: “Despite the loss, Mr. Tancredo’s ability to pull together a viable third-party challenge at the last minute has given him credibility as a statewide candidate beyond anything he ever enjoyed as a five-term Republican congressman or the nation’s leading border-security advocate,” he reads aloud. The story brings up a thorny issue for a guy who claims he never wanted to run for governor (“I was trying to make a point”) but now very much sounds like he’s disappointed he didn’t get the job. “So here I am, with greater credibility for a statewide office, but the problem is what the hell statewide office can I possibly run for anymore?” he asks. The 2014 governor’s race seems almost too far away, and, even then, he complains, “Four years from now, with our luck, the economy will be good…and Hickenlooper will get all the credit.”
Maybe, though, it won’t be in elected office where Tancredo makes his biggest impact. Tancredo has already founded the Rocky Mountain Foundation, a conservative advocacy group that pushes for education and tax reform, and he has a host of other ideas in the works. Just weeks before our hunting trip, he laid out his plans over breakfast. With others’ money he would create a “shadow Republican Party” to counter the Colorado Democracy Alliance, which directed cash and resources to left-of-center candidates in past state races. The need to balance Democratic money is an obvious one, at least to Tancredo. “I’m proof,” he says, “that parties have become almost irrelevant.”