Feature

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.

February 2011

“Tom Tancredo is a crazy man,” Dan Maes tells me. “But he’s crazy like a fox.”

I spoke with Maes by phone in November, a few weeks after the gubernatorial election. The Republican businessman was still angry after his loss, and he’d posted a rambling screed on his Facebook page a few days earlier, in which he blamed virtually everyone but himself for his political drubbing.

“Tom made this personal.”

How so?

“This is some black helicopter stuff, but I think he’s racist.”

What?

“I had someone come up to me and say, Tancredo ‘wants to take you down because he thinks you’re Latino.’ ”

Huh?

Maes explains to me that he’s German-Dutch, but his last name looks Latino. “Race became an issue,” he says, “and I thought it was sick.”

I wonder if Maes is joking, but it’s clear that he isn’t. A middle-aged white man claiming he’s the victim of racism from another middle-aged white man suggests a level of paranoia that perhaps only Tancredo could elicit.

“Dan Maes is a joke,” Tancredo says. The two first met in mid-2009, when Maes was considering running for governor. Tancredo was seen as an established conservative who could help lock up votes.

“We met at the Claim Jumper Restaurant in Highlands Ranch,” Maes remembers. “I thought he was very charming and enjoyable to talk to. Tom told me he was supporting [former state Senator] Josh Penry; that he thought Penry was the future of the Republican Party and that he would do anything to make sure Penry got elected. That was pretty much it.”

Not surprisingly, Tancredo remembers the meeting differently.

“We sit down, and I ask Maes why he wants to run for governor,” Tancredo says. “All Maes can say is, ‘I think a businessman needs to be in office.’ So, I’m like, ‘OK, but what else? Name some issues.’ And he just repeats the businessman thing again. Then I bring up immigration, and all he can come up with is, ‘There has to be a way for [undocumented immigrants] to come out of the shadows.’ I ask him what that means, and he has absolutely no idea. It was obvious that he was just saying something he read somewhere because he didn’t know any issues. Right then, I knew that he couldn’t be serious.

“So we’re getting ready to leave, and he asks me if I can support his candidacy. I tell him, ‘Not only can I not support you, I can’t even wish you good luck.’ I went home and told my wife that that was the biggest waste of a lunch that I’d ever had. I figured he’d just disappear.”

Instead it was Penry who dropped out before the year’s end, leading to a two-man race between Maes and former Congressman Scott McInnis. Tancredo eventually threw his support behind McInnis, a moderate. But by the summer, McInnis was plagued by a plagiarism scandal that threw his campaign into disarray. Soon after, Maes faced allegations of misrepresenting his record as a Kansas police officer and his past as a successful, self-styled businessman. Left with two flawed candidates, one of whom would have to battle Hickenlooper, Tancredo talked with Wadhams, the state Republican chairman.

One of the ideas discussed, Tancredo says, was that Tancredo would enter the race as a Republican and peel off conservative votes from Maes, which would allow McInnis to become the favorite. McInnis, already weakened by the plagiarism charge, would then be forced to get out of the race, if only to save face at the Republican big-kid table. The move would clear the way for party bosses to pick a successor who could compete with Hickenlooper. Tancredo later floated a third-party option on the premise that Maes and McInnis would drop out at the mere threat.

Wadhams says that no definitive plans were made. He says he asked Tancredo to wait on any third-party talk until after the Republican primary “to see how things shook out.” But he wasn’t hopeful. “Tom had his own ideas on what was the right thing to do,” Wadhams says. “He’d planned this all out, and he didn’t care who it hurt.”

Sure enough, in late July, Tancredo quit the Republican Party and joined the American Constitution Party, if only because it offered access to the November ballot. Maes went on to win the GOP primary and refused to drop out. Tancredo immediately got to work lining up prominent Republican support: Beauprez was among the first to endorse him. Polls showed Tancredo pulling even with—then passing—Maes.

Maes desperately tried to rally his people, to no avail. Tancredo “came after me for 60 days, strategically and relentlessly to tear me down and destroy me,” Maes says. “Tom made it clear that Dan Maes was not going to be the next governor of Colorado, and he had no intention of being governor, either.” Hickenlooper, of course, went on to a convincing victory.

“He ran a good campaign and did a great job,” Tancredo says of Hickenlooper. “I like him. I do. He’s a nice guy.” Perhaps one of the strangest backstories in an election filled with them is the relationship between Tancredo and Hickenlooper’s wife, journalist Helen Thorpe. The pair toured North Denver together a couple of years ago when she was reporting Just Like Us, a book about immigration. That her husband and Tancredo could later become political opponents likely didn’t cross Thorpe’s or Tancredo’s minds. (Thorpe didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview.)

I asked Maes, a self-described Reagan Republican, whom he had wanted to win the governor’s race. He thought for a moment. “I’m glad Tom lost,” he says, then pauses. “Well, I’m not glad John Hickenlooper won, but I am very glad that the vicious, mean, bitter, old-guard thinking of the Republican Party did not win. This race was no longer about being governor. It was about the future of the Republican Party in Colorado. For patriots to take back their party, this process needed to take place.”

Later, I asked Tancredo whether the hard feelings between him and Maes would dissipate. “I hope that man has a nice, successful life,” Tancredo said, “and that he does get therapy.”

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