By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
KEYSTONE — Republicans vying for their party’s nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter have drawn mixed messages in several straw polls and in a couple of controversial surveys that sampled “likely voters.”
Clearer results might be derived from a straw poll of “do or die” Republicans surveyed during a dinner at last weekend’s state GOP Central Committee meeting.
The 340 Republicans polled after a candidates’ forum and dinner on Friday, Sept. 25, in the Keystone lodge overwhelmingly favored gubernatorial candidate Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction.
Penry captured 269 votes, overwhelming both of his rivals — former Congressman Scott McInnis and Evergreen businessman Dan Maes, who garnered 38 and 29 votes, respectively.
“I want to thank all of the Republican candidates who came here tonight — and had the courage to do that,” said state GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams.
“I am a Republican because I believe in competition — and we ought to embrace competition,” he declared. “It is good for the party to have these discussions and forums. I applaud every candidate who is here tonight.”
Wadhams’ remarks appeared to be aimed at McInnis, who had declined to participate because he felt that a straw poll would be too divisive this early in the race.
During the forum, Penry hammered Ritter for increasing “fees and taxes” and “repealing a decades-old spending limit.” He vowed to improve public school performance, create a rainy day fund during good economic times and improve the efficiency of state government by consolidating departments.
“I like government to make priorities, to make tough choices and to live within its means,” Penry declared.
Maes emphasized his vast business experience — particularly in rescuing financially troubled businesses.
“I’m not a lawyer or a lobbyist, and I’m not a bureaucrat who thinks more taxes and fees are the best solution to our problems in the state of Colorado, like Mr. Ritter does,” asserted Maes.
“I’m not a politician — I’m a Colorado citizen first and foremost,” he said. “There are three legs to my message: It’s our economy. It’s our economy. It’s our economy.”
Perhaps in response to a poll that claimed voters favor dismantling the Taxpayer’s Bills of Rights (TABOR), Wadhams asked each candidate’s opinion of that amendment to the state Constitution.
“I support TABOR! Do you support TABOR?” Penry asked.
“Yeah!” thundered the audience.
Penry said that because of TABOR limits — including its requirement that voters approve tax hikes — Colorado has fared better than other states during this recession.
“Yet, you’re going to hear clamoring and cacophony over the next weeks and months,” said Penry of critics who blame TABOR for the state government’s budget shortfall.
“We don’t have a revenue problem! We’ve got a spending problem!” Penry declared.
Because state revenue has plunged, the Legislative Council’s economists have predicted a budget shortfall of between $320 million and $560 million. Yet, the Governor’s Office recently revised its estimated $320 million shortfall to less than $100 million.
“If elected, I will cut the size of our state government in week one,” promised Maes.
As for TABOR?
“You can pry TABOR from my cold dead hands!” Maes proclaimed.
Wadhams inserted more than a tinge of bias into the wording of questions he asked the candidates to address.
“Bill Ritter’s 2006 Colorado promise campaign appears to have been a fraudulent bait-and-switch game to get elected,” said the state GOP chair.
“Colorado’s weakest governor in decades did not tell Colorado voters that he’d pass the largest property tax increase in history; that he would sign an executive order on a golf course on a Friday afternoon when he thought no one was looking and add state government to union policies; that he would dramatically increase the vehicle registration fee tax, forcing county clerks to add extra security; that he would endanger public safety by putting violent felons back on the street before their sentences were retired,” asserted Wadhams.
“Why are you the best Republican candidate to upset an incumbent Democrat governor for the first time in 48 years?” he asked.
Applause, whistles and uproarious laughter filled the room.
“Bill Ritter is a nice guy who cares about the state of Colorado, but as a governor, he’s been weak and ineffective,” responded Penry. “…He’s legislated Colorado in the wrong direction.”
Penry said the governor erred by unionizing state employees, implementing “uncompromising drilling restrictions” that resulted in a loss of jobs in the oil and gas industry, repealing spending limits and failing to control and cut government spending.
“I will make a clear choice — a clear contrast,” said Penry, who added that if he’s elected, the government would live within its means.
When Maes was asked the same question, he quickly chimed in, “What he said!”
“I’m not afraid to take on challenges. I will take on big-name people,” said Maes. “I will fight for the people in the trenches.”
In closing, Maes described himself as someone who offers a needed change from status quo politicians.
“Have you heard the sound all around our state and our country?” he asked. “The sound is a conservative revolution!”
“…That conservative movement is tired of the same old politics as usual. They not only want fresh faces, they want faces with the talents and skills to get the job done,” said Maes.
“Who is the candidate who both honors the Republican Party and is trusted by the conservative revolution?” he asked.
“I propose to you that I am that candidate,” proclaimed Maes.
Penry also presented himself as a new, untarnished Republican.
“If you want a business-as-usual kind of guy, I’m not your candidate,” said Penry.
“If you want somebody to say the Republicans were not wrong when they ran up the national deficit back in Washington…. I’m not your guy,” he said.
Penry’s message was well-received. Several Republicans said they were impressed by Maes, but view him as an “up and comer” in party politics who’s not quite ready for prime time.
After the gubernatorial poll came a straw poll of Republicans running for the U.S. Senate. A ballot was given to each person who bought a $50 dinner ticket. The straw poll participants wrote the name of their preferred candidate on the ballot — whether or not that individual participated in the forum or was even a declared gubernatorial or U.S. Senate candidate.
In the poll of candidates for governor, three votes were cast for former 6th District Congressman Tom Tancredo, who, to date, is not a candidate, and one went to Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, a 4th District Congressional candidate.
Straw polls are anything but scientific. This survey of GOP activists, however, has significant meaning to any Republican who aims to win the party’s nomination by traveling the caucus-to-assembly route. These folks are local leaders who spur Republicans to caucuses, assemblies and to support candidates.
Caucuses convene on March 16, and the state GOP Assembly will be held May 21-22 at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland.
Several McInnis supporters surmised that his absence on Friday might have hurt his candidacy and helped Penry in the straw poll.
McInnis had instead chosen to speak at a National Rifle Association dinner in Colorado Springs; however, his campaign had informed the state GOP that he would attend the Central Committee meeting on Saturday, Sept. 26.
At the state GOP dinner and forum, McInnis was represented by campaign staffers, including political consultant Mike Hesse, campaign manager George Culpepper, communications director Sean Duffy and deputy communications director Josh Green.
The McInnis campaign had planned on a high profile — but those plans were immediately thwarted by state GOP event rules that restricted the promotion of candidates who didn’t participate in the forum and straw poll.
The McInnis campaign had arranged with the Keystone Lodge personnel to have personal letters from the former congressman placed in the rooms of each state GOP Central Committee member and guest. That was nixed.
Nor was McInnis campaign literature allowed to be placed on the tables with other candidates’ materials, said Culpepper. McInnis signs and banners also were not permitted in the reception hall and ballroom.
“We didn’t know anything about these rules until we got here,” said Culpepper. “This is petty politics!”
The bans were lifted for the Central Committee meeting on Saturday, when McInnis arrived.
The former congressman glad-handed GOP activists in the reception hall for several hours as two of his county campaign chairs — El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark and Arapahoe County Commissioner Susan Beckman — dished his candidacy and green-wrapped, shamrock-shaped chocolates.
In an earlier interview, McInnis had told The Colorado Statesman that Clark and Beckman were among those he was considering for lieutenant governor.
Several hours later, McInnis gave a rallying speech — spiced with personal anecdotes — to the party Central Committee members. However, a third of them already had left.
“If we stay unified, we’ve got a great opportunity to take back the governorship,” declared McInnis.
“It’s about time that the governor says he’s changing his tune on driving jobs out of Colorado,” he said. “We wish he was singing that tune before the jobs left our state.”
Midway through his speech, the microphone went dead, and McInnis joked, “I think Ritter’s got a hold of the mike!”
McInnis seemed undeterred by the straw poll and asserted that “scientific polls” show that he can win a Republican primary and beat Ritter.
This was an apparent reference to a poll conducted by the Virginia-based Tarrance Group for the Colorado Policy Institute that was released a day before the state GOP meeting in Keystone. According to the poll, “likely voters” favored McInnis over Penry, 40-13, and only a third of them would support Ritter. The early poll also showed 47 percent of the respondents to be undecided.
Before pork chops, potatoes and carrots were served, Republicans whet their appetites with speculation about CPI’s connections to both the McInnis campaign and Jane Norton’s Republican U.S. Senate campaign.
Sean Tonner is executive director of CPI, a 527 committee, and Monica Owens, daughter of former Republican Gov. Bill Owens, is a member of the staff. A phone message left by McInnis to a Republican activist in July was circulated on the Internet. In it, McInnis mentioned his campaign connections to Tonner and Monica Owens. That raised ethics questions because FEC regulations forbid candidates and their campaigns to have contact with a 527 committee.
Tonner formerly headed Phaseline Strategies, a consulting firm that employed Cinamon Watson, who is now Norton’s campaign communications director.
CPI maintained that the poll was privately funded and was conducted independently of any political campaign.
The Penry and McInnis campaigns immediately pushed forward to the next leg of the race — each releasing onward-and-upward media releases early in the week.
“I feel like Rocky Balboa after that straw poll,” said Maes, who is still in the ring.