Gossip, 1/22/10

WHERE’S GEORGE?

Not that long ago, former 3rd District Congressman Scott McInnis proudly announced that George Culpepper had been hired to manage the Republican’s campaign for governor.

“Now with the opening of our Denver headquarters and the hiring of our campaign manager, we’re heading into the fall with lots of momentum,” declared McInnis, who generously praised Culpepper’s credentials in September.

After Republican rival state Sen. Josh Penry, of Grand Junction, and incumbent Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter pulled out of the 2010 race, conventional wisdom would conclude that the McInnis campaign momentum paid off.

So, it was quite a surprise to learn that Culpepper left the campaign on Dec. 31, and has been replaced with Nancy Hopper, who also boasts solid GOP credentials.

Hopper issued a press release this week, touting the McInnis campaign’s 4th quarter fundraising — and breaking the $1 million mark in this election cycle.

Whoa! We had not received a press release announcing that Hopper had taken the reins of the GOP gubernatorial campaign. And what happened to George?

We found clues to Culpepper’s whereabouts in Montana — the Flathead Beacon, to be exact. It seems that Culpepper called a reporter in his former stomping ground to report that he’d stepped down as campaign manager for McInnis in order to “form Western Skies, a political strategies organization based in Colorado.”

Culpepper told the Beacon that he continues to support McInnis’s bid for governor.

Depending on who you gossip with, the reasons for Culpepper’s departure vary. One source said that Culpepper, a former lobbyist in Montana, had been hired to steer the McInnis campaign through the caucuses, state assembly and possible primary. With only Evergreen businessman Dan Maes in the Republican race, the source said, the McInnis campaign no longer needed Culpepper.

Others said that Culpepper’s lobbyist experience didn’t translate to campaign management. Yet, in past years, Culpepper had worked as a field coordinator for Pete Coors’ Republican U.S. Senate campaign and served as a legislative aide to state Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs.

Ah — but maybe the ties that bind Culpepper and McInnis are deeper. Culpepper is going to resurrect the Western Skies Coalition, a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization formed in 2007 to promote issues “that make America great: protection of individual freedom; a pro-growth economic agenda; a strong national defense strategy; and the preservation of the environment,” according to the old media release.

Then, the organization’s registered agent was Mike Ciletti, a former Phase Line Strategies principal who is now manager of state Rep. Cory Gardner’s Republican 4th Congressional District campaign. If he wins the primary and goes on to be nominated, Gardner will challenge Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey.

Another key Western Skies player was Sean Tonner, president of Phase Line Strategies.

In 2008, Western Skies raised $382,000 to promote those solid American conservative principles — but some Democrats accused the nonprofit of deception. They argued that the nonprofit produced television ads to promote the Republican campaigns of state Sen. Shawn Mitchell in Senate District 23, and Libby Szabo in Senate District 19. The ads touted the Republican candidates’ support for developing alternative energy — stances that raised Democrats’ eyebrows.

Mitchell won his re-election bid, and Szabo lost to Democrat Sen. Evie Hudak. (Just this week Szabo declared her candidacy for House District 27, currently represented by Democrat Sara Gagliardi.)

According to the Secretary of State Office records, Western Skies was “terminated” on Oct.6, 2008, but it can be reactivated for this election cycle.

Culpepper’s ties to the McInnis campaign refresh memories of Tonner’s ties. In May, McInnis made headlines after leaving a phone message for a potential campaign supporter.

“We’ve got Sean Tonner on board...Sean’s doing our 5, our, ah, 527,” said McInnis.

According to the laws, 527 committees cannot collaborate with campaigns, however, McInnis noted that he was not an official candidate at the time.