Hickenlooper positively wins run for governor in not-so-close statewide race

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

In the end, it wasn’t even close. Despite late polls showing a tightening race, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, the Democrat, won election Tuesday as Colorado’s next governor with just over 50 percent of the vote, outdistancing his nearest rival, American Constitution Party nominee Tom Tancredo, by nearly a quarter million votes and 14 percentage points. And despite predictions, GOP nominee Dan Maes — all but abandoned by his party in favor of Tancredo, a former Republican congressman — barely cleared the 10 percent hurdle required by state law to keep the Republicans from losing major party designation.

John Hickenlooper declares victory in his gubernatorial bid, joined by wife Helen Thorpe, at left, son Teddy, and running mate Joe Garcia.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Governor-elect John Hickenlooper, D-Denver, gives a hug to his wife, Helen Thorpe, after taking the stage on Tuesday night to give his victory speech.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman
Lieutenant Governor-elect Joe Garcia gets ready to take the podium.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman
Sen. Mark Udall raises his arm in the air as he addresses Democrats on Election Night in downtown Denver.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman
Gov. Bill Ritter during a TV interview at the Democrats’ watch party on Tuesday night.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman
Hickenlooper leaves the stage after giving his victory speech on Tuesday night.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

News organizations called the race for Hickenlooper about an hour after polls closed, based on his double-digit lead in early returns. His lead held through the night as vote counts trickled in, eventually settling at 51 percent to Tancredo’s 37 percent. Maes, urged repeatedly to quit the race by GOP officials after he upset former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis in the August primary, trailed at 11 percent. It was an almost quiet end to a contest that went off in more directions than Hickenlooper’s trademark cowlick.

“What we’re doing is really some- thing historic tonight. In the midst of a political storm that’s engulfed so many campaigns, we’ve remained calm and true to our values,” Hickenlooper told hundreds of supporters celebrating at the Pinnacle Club at the Grand Hyatt Denver Downtown, where his campaign gathered as soon as polls closed at 7 p.m.

Saying he was “humbled and honored” by support for his campaign, the brewmaster-turned-mayor said he felt like he had shaken 500 hands already that night, and that was only a small fraction of the people in the room.

At about 9:30 p.m. Hickenlooper took the stage at the Democrats’ election night bash in the ballroom at the City Center Marriott, a few blocks away.

On a night when Republicans had already swept Democrats from control of the House of Representatives — and would do the same in the lower house of the Colorado General Assembly — and other statewide races were either too close to call or were falling to the GOP, Hickenlooper’s triumphant arrival gave the crowd something to cheer about.

Still, when he took to the stage — flanked by his wife, Helen Thorpe, and their son, 8-year-old Teddy, who charmed watchers throughout his father’s speech, along with his running mate Joe Garcia and his family, and dozens of supporters — Hickenlooper shunned partisan rhetoric.

“The problems we face are too big for partisan politics,” he said. “Too many in Colorado are out of work or at risk of losing their job, and struggling to care for their families. Tonight, the political campaign may be over, but the business of putting Colorado back together is just beginning.”

Almost immediately, he embraced his former rivals.

“To Dan Maes and Tom Tancredo, I have learned from both of you how much you love Colorado, and I admire the tenacity of your supporters,” Hickenlooper said. “Starting tonight, we set aside our differences and work together to rebuild hope in this state and get this economy back on track.”

It was just one of many conciliatory, optimistic notes Hickenlooper would sound.

“In the midst of hard times, the toughest we’ve seen since the Great Depression, Coloradans still look up,” he said.

Later, after pledging to “make Colorado a regional — no, a national center for innovation in every field from agriculture to energy to technology,” Hickenlooper capped his message of economic renewal with a line that drew sustained applause: “The global recession didn’t start here, but we intend to make sure we end it here.”

Early in his campaign, Hickenlooper pledged to run a positive campaign, often comparing his decision to automakers who don’t run ads against each other because they don’t want to denigrate potential customers. The first ad Hickenlooper released portrayed him so distraught over attack ads that he needed to take a shower while wearing a suit.

“I especially appreciate your commitment to keeping this a clean campaign,” he told backers — including some who had urged his campaign to go negative against Tancredo when polls showed him within striking distance. “You have made history tonight by showing you can win by a message of what you want to do, not who you’re against,” Hickenlooper said.

“I may have had to take a few showers with my clothes on,” he said, “but I’m proud to say we won the support of Colorado without one single negative ad.”

Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak underlined the point after Hickenlooper spoke.

“It was a great night,” she reflected. “Watching the governor’s race — it was a clean race, everybody thought they were going to go after this governor’s race, and they were going to show us a thing or two, and we had a terrific race.”

On stage at the Marriott, Hickenlooper acknowledged outgoing Gov. Bill Ritter, who declined in January to seek a second term, for expanding health care coverage for children and making the state a center of the new energy economy. Casting his gaze over the crowd to point out the governor, Hickenlooper glanced to his side and saw Ritter on stage a few feet away. After stepping over to hug Ritter, Hickenlooper quipped, “I was looking for him out there, and he was right there beside me.” Pausing with a slight chuckle, Hickenlooper added, “That’s a lesson for everyone.”

Later, in the middle of a passage about state government doing “more with less,” Thorpe handed Hicken- looper a cup of water and he took a olng sip. “There it is,” Hickenlooper said, his thirst quenched. “As I learned all over the state, you can do more with less, except with water — you need a certain amount of water,” he added with a smile as the crowd erupted in laughter.

About an hour earlier, at a brewpub in Colorado Springs, Maes took the stage to deliver what watchers expected would be his concession speech. Instead, he told the small crowd of die-hard supporters, “You know what, we fought — we never quit. We never quit.” Then he thanked a supporter who handed him a plaque with quotations from the Psalms and George Washington.

Tancredo, for his part, called Hickenlooper to concede at about 9 p.m. from the Aurora Stampede, where hundreds of his supporters gathered to celebrate. Standing alongside his wife,

Jackie, his running mate, former state Rep. Pat Miller, and their extended families, Tancredo declared, “It has been a wonderful ride.”

Over protests from the crowd, he continued: “I apologize to you for not being able to carry it to the finish line,” he said, and then added, “Every step we took was the right step. We did what we believed was right.”

Looking relaxed at the end of his brief, whirlwind campaign, an almost mellow-sounding Tancredo took the long view.

“Pundits will be talking about this for a long time, I’m sure, trying to figure out exactly what happened,” he said. “We will be talking about it ourselves for a while because, certainly, we expected a bit of a different outcome, but it is what it is.”

Still, he assured his supporters, “The loss of a race does not mean the loss of a cause.” Before bringing his grandchildren to the microphone for a moment in the spotlight, Tancredo concluded, “You have given us the ride of a lifetime, an experience beyond anything we could have imagined.”

The governor’s race was filled with surprises, upsets and reversals, beginning in January when Ritter announced he wouldn’t seek a second term. After a scramble among Democrats to take his place on the ticket, Hickenlooper quickly emerged as the candidate. On the Republican side, McInnis looked primed to make a race of it after his chief rival, then-Sen. Minority Leader Josh Penry, dropped out last fall. But Tea Party activists threw in with obscure Evergreen businessman Dan Maes, giving him a close second-place finish at March precinct caucuses and then a win — and top line on the primary ballot — at the May state assembly.

After a plagiarism scandal rocked the McInnis campaign in July, Tancredo stepped in and urged both Maes and McInnis to drop out after the primary and let a GOP vacancy committee name a suitable candidate, but Maes went on to win the primary and refused to quit. Tancredo switched to a third party and launched a campaign aimed as much at Maes — who was by then regularly reading damaging stories about his campaign finances, his business background and questions about his firing from a Kansas police force in the 1980s — as it was at Hickenlooper.

GOP officials and Tea Party activists alike abandoned Maes, whose poll numbers sunk to single digits. (According to Colorado law, major party status is conferred on parties whose nominees clear 10 percent of the gubernatorial vote.) Tancredo raised $1.1 million in short order and turned his fire on Hickenlooper, in a series of ads the Democrat termed “mean-spirited.” One featured the father of a toddler killed in a car crash by an illegal immigrant, who blamed Hickenlooper for running a “sanctuary city,” a charge rejected by the Hickenlooper campaign.

But by the time votes were counted, more Denver voters had backed an extraterrestrial commission than had voted for Maes, and even a last-minute robocall from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin couldn’t bring Tancredo within shouting distance of the Governor’s Mansion.

Maes carried only two counties — neighboring Four Corners jurisdictions Montezuma and Dolores counties, where he beat Hickenlooper by a few dozen votes.

The Denver mayor did best in Denver, taking 74 percent of its voters, followed closely by San Miguel County, where he was the choice of 72 percent. Tancredo did best in Elbert County, with 63 percent of the vote. His next best showing was in Washington County, where he tallied 60 percent of the vote.

Of all Colorado’s 64 counties, Larimer County most closely mirrored the over-all results, coming within a fraction of a percentage point of each of the top three candidates’ shares. Hickenlooper won Tancredo’s home of Jefferson County by 9 points and Arapahoe County by 13 points. On opposite sides of the state, Montrose and Baca counties, which both sided narrowly with Tancredo, were the most closely divided counties.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com