One of the top stories of the 2016 elections in Colorado centered on a campaign mounted in a key Colorado Senate race, swing suburban Senate District 19 in Arvada, attacking the Democratic challenger in that race now-Sen. Rachel Zenzinger. The allegation that Zenzinger had “voted to spend taxpayer money on a trip to China” as an Arvada city councillor had been thoroughly debunked years before, but the Republican Senate 527 group Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government chose to recycle the charge in 2016 for Zenzinger’s rematch against incumbent GOP Sen. Laura Woods.
In 2016, this line of attack was prosecuted by CCAG with an audacity that shocked the local media out of its usual complacency about bogus claims in elections. After Denver7’s Politifact Colorado rated the whole accusation “Pants on Fire” false, citing Zenzinger’s stand against using tax dollars for the trip and the fact that the trip never even happened, CCAG actually used copy from that fact-check in another ad doubling down on the lie.
Perhaps the worst moment in this campaign arrived as small cardboard boxes in SD-19 mailboxes containing a fortune cookie “to commemorate Rachel Zenzinger’s vote for a taxpayer-funded trip to China.” This, along with another mailer that featured Zenzinger wearing a Vietnamese straw hat, introduced an ugly racist element to the message.
A complaint to Jefferson County’s elected Republican district attorney citing Colorado law against knowingly false statements in electioneering of course went nowhere, but the campaign ultimately backfired as press stories about the thoroughly false nature of the claim spread much more widely than the mailers themselves were seen by SD-19 voters. In particular, deceptively quoting from the fact-check that debunked the claim in a subsequent mailer struck Politifact Colorado and others as unacceptably contemptuous of the media’s responsibility to keep politics honest–which resulted in more bad press.
Rachel Zenzinger won this election, in no small part due to the backlash against CCAG’s false and racially charged ad campaign. The bad press Republicans earned for the campaign far exceeded any rational benefit. In all of our years covering Colorado politics, this is one of the worst message campaigns we’ve ever seen; and the proof is in the results.
So why are we bringing this up now, you ask?
Because the prestigious political insider publication Campaigns & Elections just awarded this campaign, in particular the fortune cookie mailer, Best Mail Piece For Independent Expenditure Campaign for the 2016 elections.
That’s right, folks! A campaign that was so centered on lies and prejudice that the local media blew it out of the water, and may have cost the candidate it was supporting re-election, has just been held up nationally as an example of how to do it right.
Who knows? Maybe the results of the elections nationally last year stripped the political operator class of their last shreds of objectivity or integrity. But for ourselves, if this is now the right way to do politics, we don’t want to do it right.
We’d prefer to tell the truth, sleep at night, and win the election.