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

It’s early afternoon in Holyoke, on Colorado’s Eastern Plains, and the temperature dips below 30 degrees. Tancredo’s walking along the edge of a milo field. At the far end of a stand of plum trees, 30-or-so yards away, Kim Herzfeldt waits with his shotgun. Our hunting guide has set Tancredo up for the perfect kill shot.

Two dogs, Dan and Jack, tunnel through the thicket of dried milo on the left—noses to the ground. After a few minutes, six pheasants dart from cover and fly left to right. “Hens!” Rich Cummings, the guide, shouts. These birds can’t be shot. Tancredo drops his barrel.

A gust of wind nearly blows his orange hat off his head, exposing a shiny bald patch surrounded by a swirl of unkempt gray hair. He pulls his gray hoodie over the cap and wipes snot from his nose.

Then the pheasants explode from the trees. Two. Three. Five. Ten. It’s what folks around here call a silver-platter flush.

“Move up!” Cummings yells.

Tancredo’s agog. “Holy shit!” he yells. “My god! Son of a bitch! Wild birds!”

Pop! Pop! Herzfeldt fires two rounds. A leg drops on a pheasant as it breaks ahead of us. The rooster doesn’t go down.

A few unlucky pheasants are rousted from the trees minutes later. They cut a path low and to the right, just above the stalks, and then quickly gain altitude.

Tancredo whips the gun’s butt to his right shoulder and hunches over his weapon in one seamless motion. He traces one bird’s flight.

Pop! Cummings and I watch as the creature explodes in a cloud of feathers, its left wing outstretched, its right tucked close to its body. It torpedoes to the ground and bounces on the dirt. The dogs go crazy. More pheasants explode from the trees.

Pop! Pop! Herzfeldt downs another one. Tancredo reloads and fires again.

Pop! Pop! He bags another. “Woo-hooo!” Tancredo hoots.

“That was some sweet shooting,” Cummings says later, after caging the dogs in a trailer attached to his Dodge pickup. Six dead pheasants are in the truck bed. Tancredo and I jump into the backseat.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Tancredo says. “Wild birds! Wild fucking birds! I’ll never forget this.”

Judging from Cummings’ goofy smile, neither will he. The guide flops into his driver’s seat and twists his body to face the former congressman.

“I have to say that I’m such a big fan,” he tells Tancredo.

“Why, thank you.”

“I voted for you,” Cummings says. “I will continue to vote for you. What you did in the governor’s race was a huge, huge thing.”

There’s silence, a contemplative moment atop a dirt road among thousands of acres of nothingness. It’s clear that for all the dead birds in the back of the truck, for all the talk about not wanting the governor’s job, what Tancredo would really like to be doing is planning his transition into office.

“Well, I need more people like you,” he finally says. “You know, if I’d just had more people like you….”

An hour later, we’re on the road home and Tancredo checks his phone. As the sun sets in front of us, Tancredo learns he has a message from a radio station in Colorado Springs. They want him to host a nighttime talk show, 10 to midnight. They want to syndicate it. They’ll even set up a studio in the basement of his home. The name of the show, which premiered in January: “Tea Party Radio.”