The Democratic battle in Colorado to replace two-term Governor John Hickenlooper was supposed to be a humdinger. In this purplest of states, with its equal percentage of registered Ds and Rs (both outnumbered by “unaffiliateds”), the Democrats have traditionally fared best with centrists who resist easy ideological labeling – from Gary Hart to Ken Salazar to Hickenlooper. But Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by five points in Colorado in 2016, after Barack Obama carried it twice; whatever the registration numbers, the state was definitely moving in a blue direction. The question this year was: What shade of blue? The answer, everyone assumed, would speak volumes about how far left the Democratic Party was moving in the Trump era.
But in the end, this national “bellwether” somehow produced a yawner of a primary. Jared Polis, the mega-rich congressman from Boulder bidding to become the country’s first openly gay governor, won a landslide victory on Tuesday – a result that, in the end, barely registered a blip nationally on a primary night headlined by the victories of Bernie Sanders-backed candidates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Ben Jealous in Maryland. Polis, who backed Clinton over Sanders in 2016, also ran on a boldly liberal “anti-establishment” platform. Unfortunately, that’s not why he won.
All the ingredients were there for a fascinating and consequential contest. Two young, personable and eminently qualified candidates were in the mix along with Polis: Mike Johnston, a former state Senator and nationally known “education reformer” cut from the Hart and Hickenlooper mold, and Cary Kennedy, a progressive former state treasurer seeking to become the first woman to lead Colorado. Pundits considered the race a toss-up. But it never developed into the fun, ferocious, and substantive free-for-all that it could have been.
Polis is a poster boy for our post-Citizens United politics, a lavish “self-financer” willing and able to spend any amount to bury his opposition. After lucking into a massive Silicon Valley fortune in his 20s, Polis began buying his way into political office at 25, when he forked out an astronomical $1.2 million (against his opponent’s $10,000) to win a seat on the state Board of Education. Eight years later, in 2008, Polis spent his way to a congressional seat ($6 million).
This year, Polis dropped a record-shattering $11.3 million for the primary alone, allowing him to “saturate the airwaves and carpet-bomb mailboxes,” in the words of Colorado Curtis Hubbard, a former politics editor at the Denver Post. It’s telling that the only real issue The New York Times could suss out, in its pre-primary reporting, was whether Polis – who’s promising universal health care as well as pre-K, among other big-ticket programs – would prove to be “too liberal for Colorado.”
Ironically, Colorado’s extremely strict limits on campaign contributions – only Alaska’s cap is lower – had a further stifling effect on the debate. Kennedy and Johnston, because they are not personally wealthy, had to abide by those rules: No donor could give them more than $1,150, about one-fifth of what a U.S. House candidate can raise in a Colorado district. But thanks to the “money-is-speech” rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, the one thing states can’t regulate is how much money people like Polis can spend on themselves. It would have taken more than 1,100 maximum contributions for any other candidate to match the checks Polis wrote to himself (and if they had, of course, he’d simply have written himself bigger checks).
Self-funding millionaires can be beaten. For every Rick Scott, who purchased the Florida governorship for a cool $75 million in 2010, there’s a Meg Whitman, who pissed away $157 million that same year in California and lost in a landslide to Jerry Brown. If you have enough money to run a viable campaign against someone like Polis, you can exploit the political vulnerabilities that come with being among the 0.1 percent.
Polis, described in a 2014 Politico profile as “a progressive pit bull in a polo shirt who’s got too much self-confidence and too little self-awareness,” has his fair share of those liabilities – though he’s smoothed them out, somewhat, during two decades of campaigning and office-holding, and grown into an effective lawmaker, most notable for his key role in writing the legislation that revised No Child Left Behind; he teamed with Senator Joe Lieberman to create Race to the Top, a controversial school-grant program, and with a very different kind of Democrat, Sanders, he co-wrote the WORK Act, a measure to benefit employee-owned businesses. On the campaign trail, at least, Polis no longer comes across as the arrogant character who permanently alienated the Washington press corps when he first landed in Washington. (Gawker famously headlined a 2009 hit piece “Jared Polis – To Know Him Is to Loathe Him,” and the normally buttoned-up Jeffrey Goldberg, now editor of The Atlantic, was so incensed by Polis’s public celebration of the 2009 shuttering of the Rocky Mountain News, one of the country’s oldest and most distinguished dailies, that he wrote a furious blog post titled “Go to Hell, Jared Polis.” Earlier this year, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni made it clear that the bad rap lingers, zinging Polis’s “grating, peculiarly expressed zeal for attention” in a preview of the governor’s race.)
Polis’ liberalism might become the central “issue” in the general election, but it’s a non-issue for most Democrats nowadays, in Colorado as elsewhere. Certainly, his Democratic opponents weren’t going to make any headway using that against him. The mystery, for close observers of Colorado politics, is why they didn’t go after his other vulnerabilities with progressives – Polis expressed opposition to the assault-weapons ban (though it never came up for a vote in the House) and support for a 2012 Simpson-Bowles-style budget plan that would have drastically slashed “entitlement” spending. Nor did they ask an obvious question: Why had Polis become an even wealthier man while serving in Congress?
In many respects, Polis got a free pass through the primary. That’s partly because his overwhelming financial advantage made it hard for the others to be heard. But there’s one more big reason why Polis prevailed on Tuesday, and will now face Republican state treasurer Walker Stapleton, a country-club conservative who’s recast himself this year as a Trump enthusiast, in a bare-knuckles general-election brawl. And it’s the same reason that one lame attack ad became the defining “issue” of the final stretch of the Democratic contest.
This year, the Colorado Democratic Party came up with its first-ever Clean Campaign Pledge – a PR stunt, by and large, that was vintage Hickenlooper. The candidates were asked to pledge, among other things, not to “engage in personal attacks or smears against the other Democrats.” In return, the party awarded them a seal of approval – literally! A blue seal, in fact, a political version of a Good Housekeeping Seal; check it out here. “To spot a candidate that has signed the clean campaign pledge,” the party website advises voters, “look for a high resolution clean campaign logo like the one provided here.” (Look where, exactly, at what? Would it be tattooed on the candidates’ foreheads?)
It was a silly gimmick, but seemingly a harmless one. Of course the candidates all signed it; what Democrat wants to be known as the one who refused to promise to run a “clean” campaign? Nobody took the thing seriously, or gave it another thought – until Teachers for Kennedy, the candidate’s SuperPAC, ran the ad that constituted the first breach of this mutual-disarmament pact. The 30-second spot, which began airing in late May, was a clunker, full of the usual attack-ad cliches: grainy black-and-white shots of the bad guys, grimly foreboding narration and wild distortions presented as “facts” about her opponents. Though Mike Johnston was polling a distant third, Kennedy’s group decided to take aim at him as well, blunting any impact the commercial might have made with its claim that Polis “supported a voucher program to take money out of public schools” (he has never voted for a voucher measure).
The surprising thing, to most observers, was that Kennedy, second in the polls throughout the campaign, hadn’t tried to take down Polis until the primary was almost over – that, in spite of Polis’s clear and massive financial advantage and steady lead in the polls, everyone actually had kept it “positive” until late May.
The ad gave Hickenlooper, the brewpub magnate whose reputation for quirkiness sometimes obscures his towering vanity, a chance to train the spotlight where he likes it: on himself. In the process, he might well have handed the keys to the governor’s mansion to Polis, the Democratic candidate who’s promising the most radical departure from the “non-partisan” centrism Hickenlooper has stood for.
As soon as the offending ad aired, Hickenlooper called a press conference to make sure everyone knew he disapproved of everyday electoral politics being practiced in his party. “We almost got through a positive [primary],” he lamented, “and I think that would have said a lot about Colorado.”
Hickenlooper’s real hope was that a “positive” Democratic primary, on his watch, would say a lot about him – and help set him apart from the large field of potential 2020 Trump challengers. He wants to burst onto the national scene the same way he did for a hot moment in his first run for governor in 2010, as a “maverick” outsider who’s an idealistic breath of fresh air. During that race, Hickenlooper, then the mayor of Denver, famously responded to Republican attacks with an ad that showed him taking showers, fully dressed in a series of outfits, trying to wash the dirt off. “I’m John Hickenlooper, and I guess I’m not a very good politician,” he said in the voiceover, “because I can’t stand negative ads. Every time I see one, I feel like I need to take a shower.”
It was an instant classic in the annals of political advertising, a viral sensation that gave Hickenlooper a golden image as a “clean” campaigner. It remains one of his major claims to national notoriety – and it’s the image he dreams of converting into a dark-horse run for the White House in 2020. (The fact that Hickenlooper’s 2014 re-election campaign was as dirty as they come, on both sides, didn’t much resonate outside Colorado.)
When Hickenlooper publicly scolded Kennedy for going negative, what came next was entirely predictable. Polis, now liberated from the “clean campaign” pledge by virtue of having been attacked, immediately ran an ad attacking Kennedy for attacking him – featuring footage of the governor’s press conference. This prompted Hickenlooper to summon the media yet again, to decry Polis’ ad. (“What did Hickenlooper think would happen – that Polis wouldn’t grab at the chance?” asked longtime Colorado political journalist Mike Littwin.)
Kennedy, meanwhile, dug herself a deeper hole by refusing at first to ask Teachers for Kennedy to take down the ad – claiming that because campaigns are not supposed to “coordinate” with Super PACS, according to a never-enforced federal law, she wasn’t allowed to do so. To make the whole thing even more absurd, this was exactly the same excuse Hickenlooper himself used in 2014, when Super PACs supporting him waged a scorched-earth campaign against his Republican challenger. Now he was decrying Kennedy for a very mild version of what he’d done himself. Hickenlooper’s “little sanctimony routine,” said Republican strategist Josh Penry, “is a massive Christmas present to Jared Polis.” Hubbard told me that Hickenlooper’s denunciation of Kennedy’s ad would end up being “the key differentiator for a lot of voters.”
They were right. Thanks to Hickenlooper’s intervention, the final stretch of this surprisingly lackluster primary became just as substance-free as the rest of it had been: Now, nobody could criticize the front-runner. This worked entirely to Polis’s advantage – as did the Clean Campaign Pledge, which made it risky for the others to criticize him in a way that might stick, and the state’s campaign-finance restrictions.
The lesson of this whole weird primary was, sadly, a bleak one: In the political dystopia that our courts have made, a “clean” campaign does not necessarily translate into an edifying debate; it can, instead, be the best way to stifle it. And the candidate who emerges from a Democratic primary in which debate has been quieted and discouraged, while he may be “unscathed,” is also untested – and about to face a barrage of fire and fury, with no blue seals to protect him, from today till November.