Secretary of State Scott Gessler says the stakes couldn’t be higher in his bid for a second term as Colorado’s top elections officer. The Republican — he affectionately embraces the nickname “honey badger,” because he says he’s always willing to keep fighting — officially launched his campaign for the 2014 election at a fundraiser in Byers last Thursday.
“If I win this reelection, what it’s going to show is that Coloradans care about election integrity,” Gessler told the roughly 50 supporters who gathered for supper and speeches at the rustic May Farms event center. “We’re going to prove to them that election integrity matters, that it is the foundation of our representative government, and Coloradans are going to support it — that’s what’s at issue.”
In contrast, a combative-sounding Gessler said, the most effective Republican policies and politics won’t matter a whit if liberal opponents secure control of the election process.
“If I lose — if they win — I think what’s going to happen is that every state politician is going to be fearful to stand up for election integrity for the next few decades,” he said. “And this stuff matters. What’s coming down the pike — same-day voter registration, all-mail ballots — what they’re doing is trying to take a very radical agenda and shove it through, and then they’re going to change the election laws and seal their victory so we can’t undo it. That’s what they’re trying to do. That’s what’s at stake here.”
“Perhaps no secretary of state in the country better understands how sacred the right to vote is, and how important it is to safeguard that perhaps most important right we exercise as Americans,” said Colorado GOP chairman Ryan Call at the fundraiser.
Call contended that Gessler’s aggressive moves on election policies — he wound up in a lawsuit with some county clerks over mail ballots and waged a high-profile campaign against non-citizens on the voter rolls last year — have made him a prime target for Democrats but should have come as no surprise, since that’s what he told voters he planned to do.
“He is governing like he promised on the campaign trail,” Call said. “So many politicians get elected and very quickly sort of go away from those promises, because it’s hard to actually do what you say you’re going to do, actually implement the kind of reforms and ambitious agenda to move the state forward. He surprised a lot of people when he actually did what he said he was going to do, and that’s exactly why we need him back there.”
“The Democratic Party has attempted to malign him — because he’s doing his job. That underscores the need for all of us to pull together with our support,” Call said.
Since shortly after taking office, Gessler — who worked for a decade as an election-law attorney before winning office in 2010 — has been a lightning rod of controversy both for his policies and for a string of extracurricular activities that have drawn scorn and legal complaints from political foes. Democrats and liberal interest groups have been relentless attacking the Republican for everything from attempts to tighten access to ballots to an early proposal — since discarded — that Gessler would continue working part-time at his old law firm to supplement his official income. Gessler is the target of a criminal investigation in Denver over accusations he misused his office’s funds and is facing an ethics complaint with a state board over similar charges. He even took heat for participating in a dunking booth to raise money for a county party that faced massive fines his office had reduced.
So far Gessler has just one official opponent, former Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon, D-Denver, who ran for the office in 2006 but lost narrowly to the incumbent, Mike Coffman, who later stepped down to win a seat in Congress. CU Regent Joe Neguse, another Democrat, is also said to be considering the race but hasn’t filed paperwork with the state and didn’t return phone calls from The Colorado Statesman.
According to the most recent campaign finance filings, Gessler’s campaign raised $42,126 through the end of 2012 and spent $29,899, leaving $12,226 cash on hand. The next quarterly filings are due April 15. Gordon reported raising $1,100 and loaning himself $10,000 during the same period. He spent $4,123 and had $6,976 cash on hand. Theirs are the only two active campaign committees for next year’s secretary of state race.
Gessler blasted Gordon at the fundraiser as “an über-über liberal” who sends out “whacky emails” warning that campaign spending threatens to “extinguish our democracy.”
“He’s a very wealthy man, he spends a lot of his own money on his own campaigns and his issues but wants to suppress everyone else’s ability to do that. He’s the guy who wants to criminalize speech,” Gessler said as the crowd chuckled.
Gordon is the founder of the CleanSlateNow.org organization, which urges candidates to reject “special interest” money and backs candidates who swear off PAC contributions. He didn’t respond to requests for comment this week from The Statesman.
Although Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder Pam Anderson’s name has been floated as a possible Republican candidate for the office, the Republican sought to quash the rumors in an interview this week with The Statesman.
“No, I don’t think I’m interested in challenging the incumbent Republican secretary,” she said, adding that she hasn’t given “any serious thought” to a run. While a number of people have encouraged her to run if the seat were to come open, she said, “It’s not something I’d rule out, but it’s not something I’m considering now.” She added that she makes it a firm rule not to endorse or give money to any candidates that might appear on county ballots, including statewide races, so that no one should read anything into it when her name doesn’t appear on a Gessler endorsement list.
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer, on the other hand, firmly endorsed Gessler at the campaign fundraiser, calling the secretary of state “the most important job we’ve got in the state of Colorado.”
“They ensure our candidates have access to the ballot according to the law and these voters have the opportunity to support the candidates that we chose, and the integrity of the ballot is of ultimate importance as well,” Schaffer said. “This is a race where it matters.”
Judy Merkel, Jefferson County co-chair of the Gessler campaign, said she plans to support Gessler “with every ounce of energy that I’ve got” because he’s asking the right questions about voter integrity.
“I am extremely supportive of Scott,” Merkel said. “I know we have a lot of voter fraud going on — as I go through the county voter lists when I worked on the Romney campaign, there are still people who passed away, that I knew personally, from two and three elections ago. Is someone else still voting with their name, that their names keep coming up on these lists that we’re calling to campaign with?” She added that she was appalled at the “rampant electioneering” she observed at Jefferson County polling places last fall and believes Gessler is the official to keep Colorado elections honest.
Former legislative candidate John Sampson, a retired immigration and customs officer, said he stood firmly with Gessler’s efforts to ensure the integrity of the vote, including attempts to purge non-citizens from the rolls. Noting that he’s testified before the legislature on topic, he said, “I’m a very strong proponent for voter ID and integrity of the whole election process. I can’t stress this enough — it’s a nonpartisan issue. It is an American issue, it’s a constitutional rights issue.”
Gessler sounded the alarm over some of the issues he’s championed in office and claimed the fight is far from over.
Saying that election integrity and voter ID issues are “a vulnerability in our system, and I’ve been willing to engage in that debate and fight for that. We haven’t won yet,” he said, noting that proponents of voter-ID laws are likely in the minority in the Democratic-controlled legislature this session.
But he batted aside the easy dichotomies that some election experts propose.
There’s sort of a debate sometimes, where people talk about voter integrity on one side, people talk about voter participation on the other side. I think that’s a false debate. The two go hand in hand, and I think we’ve shown that in Colorado,” he said. “If you look at Colorado, we’ve got better integrity than ever before, and we’ve got better participation than ever before.” He added that he was particularly proud of advances his office has made increasing the military and overseas vote, posting a 65-percent increase in participation since the last presidential election.
As the fundraiser was winding down, Call told The Statesman that Gessler’s reelection bid stands to be one of the key races in the state next year, even as U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and Gov. John Hickenlooper, both Democrats, seek second terms at the top of the ballot.
“Republicans throughout the state understand the importance of this campaign and the importance of the secretary of state’s race,” Call said. “They understand that, while the secretary has been somewhat controversial, he has been controversial because he’s followed through on the commitments and an assertive stance of what he promised to do on the campaign trail. And I think that the Republican Party would be best served in rallying in support of our current secretary of state and getting him across the finish line.”
Call also maintained that it isn’t too early to begin campaigning for a contest that won’t be in front of voters for 18 months.
He said Republicans are ready to move beyond “the notion of simply dialing a campaign effort in the final few months before the election — especially when we recognize the attempts the Democratic Party is going to make in this race in particular to demonize Scott Gessler for the work that he’s doing on voting integrity. We have to be out front proactively, getting the message out that the steps he’s taken in office, the way he’s conducting himself, has been courageous, and it’s been with an eye toward making sure we have clean elections. The Democratic Party seems intent on weakening election integrity. They’re really going to adopt a scorched earth campaign approach.”