GOP says guv candidate Hickenlooper riding for a fall

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A year ago, Colorado Democrats were on a “Rocky Mountain high” as they celebrated President Barack Obama’s inauguration — which was not only historic, but also marked a major coup for the people who had landed the Democratic National Convention in Denver, delivered its electoral votes to Obama and captured both U.S. Senate seats, five of seven congressional seats and majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature.

Democrats Gov. Bill Ritter and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper had led the charge in lassoing the convention. No one would have predicted then that Ritter would drop his re-election bid and Hickenlooper would toss his hat into the gubernatorial campaign arena with Western flair — declaring it’s time to “giddy-up!”

The GOP views Ritter’s decision to end his re-election campaign and Hickenlooper’s entry into the governor’s race as signs that the Democratic Party’s reign is ending and that the political pendulum is swinging back in their direction.

Although Democrats view Hickenlooper as a race-winning stallion, Republicans believe that he’s late getting out of the gate and can’t gain traction outside the metro area.

Without Ritter as the top-of-ticket power horse, they predict Democrats won’t deliver winners in legislative and local races.

Hickenlooper is the lone Democratic candidate so far in a race that includes two GOP gubernatorial primary candidates — former 3rd District Congressman Scott McInnis and Evergreen businessman Dan Maes.

Before his announcement on Tuesday, Hickenlooper met with former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. It was rumored that Romanoff might drop his race against fellow Democrat U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and run for governor.

While rumors were still swirling, Colorado GOP Chair Dick Wadhams was gleeful over the governor’s exit from the race and predicted that either Hickenlooper or Romanoff would be a Ritter clone.

“The Democrat governor threw in the towel and surrendered! Democrat-elected officials are falling like flies. Four major Democrats pulled out of their races!” exclaimed Wadhams, reeling off a list of casualties last week.

In addition to Ritter, Democratic U.S. Senators Chris Dodd, of Connecticut, and Byron Dorgan, of North Dakota, had dropped their re-election campaigns, and Michigan Lt. Governor John Cherry had abandoned his race for governor.

McInnis campaign communications director Sean Duffy was jubilant at Ritter’s withdrawal.

“It’s a victory!” he exclaimed. “It’s just earlier than we thought. Now the Democrats will put up the B-team. Our polling numbers are great, and people are very enthusiastic about Scott.”

“Ritter knew he couldn’t win,” said Wadhams, who also cited a poll that showed the governor trailing McInnis.

A couple of weeks before Ritter made his stunning announcement, the McInnis campaign had issued a media release touting the Republican as the frontrunner, leading Democratic incumbent Bill Ritter by eight points in an independent Rasmussen poll of Colorado voters.

Yet, the governor had said his decision had to do with his family — not polls.

A few hours after Hickenlooper announced his candidacy on Jan. 12, the GOP campaign dispatched a press release boasting, “McInnis leads Hickenlooper in latest poll.”

A fresh Rasmussen survey showed Hickenlooper trailing McInnis by three points.

“The results of this independent poll by a highly respected national pollster show that our positive pro-jobs message, centered on creating economic opportunity, has a strong momentum across the state, regardless of who the Democrats decided to run,” said McInnis.

Duffy said Hickenlooper’s candidacy would be a minor bump on the long ride to GOP victory in November.

“We look forward to a good, robust debate,” declared Duffy. “Scott and the mayor have very different visions for Colorado.”

Duffy said he’d prefer to focus on McInnis’ positive qualities than on Hickenlooper’s flaws.

Wadhams, however, produced a quip that sounded like a future sound bite in a Republican ad blitz against the Denver mayor.

“The face may change, but the failed policies remain the same if Denver Mayor John ‘Hickenritter’ runs for governor,” he said. “Hickenlooper is nothing more than a quirky version of Governor Bill Ritter.”

The Republican spin machine was obviously revving into high gear.

Maes, a businessman, offered a different take.

“If I had my choice of Democratic candidates to run against, it would be Mayor Hickenlooper,” said Maes. “His experience and skill set resonate with what my message is — electing a businessman as governor.”

At the media conference announcing his candidacy, Hickenlooper said that after losing his job as a geologist, he had begun to think outside the box. He opened the Wynkoop Brewing Co. in Denver, followed by Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. in Colorado Springs and CooperSmith brewery in Fort Collins. Then he renovated the buildings for the brewpubs and embarked on additional renovation projects in Denver.

“He has business savvy,” Maes observed.

Maes hopes that Hickenlooper will promote his business background — thus creating more interest in his own long-shot campaign. Maes noted that the two have very different values.

“He’s going to offer a tax-and-spend liberal agenda,” said Maes. “We need a conservative in the governorship. I have conservative fiscal, constitutional and social values.”

Ryan Call, legal counsel to the state GOP and chair of the Denver County party, saw the string of events as Democratic dominoes. He opined that perhaps the state Democratic Party’s best shot for governor had been Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, because the former U.S. senator has statewide name recognition and appeals to Democrats, unaffiliated voters and cross-voting Republicans.

Salazar turned down the race and endorsed Hickenlooper.

Like other Republicans, Call discussed Hickenlooper’s assets and challenges. Under the assets column is the Democrat’s business experience and fundraising abilities.

Call said the challenges for Hickenlooper will be to establish statewide name ID, distance himself from Ritter and defend his record as Denver mayor, which included tax and fee increases.

Hickenlooper also will have to unite his own party. Some Democrats are still fuming that Ritter appointed Michael Bennet to replace Salazar in the U.S. Senate instead of Romanoff. And the Dems’ union wing is equally upset that Ritter vetoed pro-union legislation in 2007 and 2009.

The Denver mayor is already starting to hurdle those obstacles. Call noted that Hickenlooper declined to hire David Kenney, who managed Ritter’s re-election campaign and engineered campaign victories for tax increases passed by Denver voters.

The decision was particularly surprising because Kenney’s consulting firm, The Kenney Group, had contributed $3,000 to Hickenlooper’s mayoral campaign in 2007. The group also had been a contractor on the campaign.

Fundraising will top Hickenlooper’s to-do list. State election laws won’t allow the Democrat to transfer money from his mayoral campaign, and Ritter can’t deposit his remaining campaign funds into Hickenlooper’s campaign coffers. Hickenlooper’s 2007 campaign contributor list reads like a “who’s who” of heavy hitters — including such prominent Republicans as former Bahrain Ambassador Sam Zakhem and his attorney son, John Zakhem; Sarco & Company CEO Sue Anschutz Rodgers; and developer and former GOP gubernatorial candidate Steve Schuck and high-rolling investor Gary Loo, both of Colorado Springs.

The enviable list also includes Denver developer John Madden, Larry Mizel, attorney Jim Lyons, Aspect Energy Chairman Alex Cranberg, Monfort Company execs Charlie Monfort and Dick Monfort, Anschutz Investment Company managing director Steve Cohen, Anschutz Corporation President Cannon Harvey, Barry Hischfeld, Robinson Dairy execs Edward and Dick Robinson, and more.

But it would seem that, despite Hickenlooper’s covetable Rolodex of potential contributors, the candidate faces a rocky uphill path.

After the Democrats turned the state “blue,” their momentum plummeted with the economy. Massive deficit spending, a controversial federal health care package and increased troops in Afghanistan may not be the “change” that drew some independent and Republican cross-voters to vote for Obama and Democratic candidates.

Colorado has weathered the recession better than other states, but the
Legislature has slashed funds for community grants, removed tax credits and implemented fees to balance the budget. This year will be equally daunting, but a breeze compared to 2011, when there may not be any federal money to stimulate the economy.

When it was reported that Obama had offered to campaign for Hickenlooper, it wasn’t just sweet music to Republicans’ ears — it was a John Phillips Sousa march.

“We’d like to see the president back in Colorado campaigning for John Hickenlooper,” said Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs. “We think it’s a great idea! It’ll be a referendum on Obama.”

NBC and The Wall Street Journal reported that a recent poll shows Obama’s disapproval in the Western region is 53 percent compared to 46 percent nationally.

So it may be a very good thing for Hickenlooper that McInnis’ communications director wants to stay on a positive track and avoid the pitfalls of negative campaigning.

“People don’t want to see Rock’em-Sock’em Robots in this election,” said Duffy.

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com