Walker Stapleton will almost certainly be the Republican nominee for Governor.
This is almost certainly not great news for Colorado Republicans.
We’re just days away from the June 26 Primary, and the overwhelming favorite for the GOP gubernatorial nomination is running a campaign that has Republican observers positively terrified.
“I’m starting to worry that Bill Owens might be the only Republican governor in my lifetime,” said Dick Wadhams in a recent interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette.
Wadhams is the Republican strategist and former State GOP Party Chair who was pulling many of the strings that helped elected Owens in 1998 (and again in 2002) and Sen. Wayne Allard in 1996 and 2002. Things have not gone well for Republicans (or Wadhams) ever since. Cory Gardner is the only Republican candidate to win a race for U.S. Senate or Governor in Colorado in the last 16 years, and it sure doesn’t look like he’s going to have any company this fall.
As Wadhams recently suggested to Mike Littwin of the Colorado Independent, Stapleton is earning a new nickname: “Walker Stumbleton.”
Congressman Jared Polis remains the likely frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for Governor, and Colorado Republicans have long expressed their desire to challenge the Boulder-area Congressman in a General Election. But here’s something you might not have heard: Stapleton has always been the candidate that Democrats hoped to face in November. It’s not hard to see why…
Campaigns Fall Apart
To rephrase Chinua Achebe, “Campaigns (and Candidates) Fall Apart.”
Major political campaigns in Colorado have crumbled for numerous reasons in the last 20 years. Some campaigns flame out quickly because of a scandal that is impossible to ignore, like Republican Scott McInnis and his plagiarism problem (Governor: 2010); Ken Buck’s disastrous appearance on national television just weeks before Election Day (U.S. Senate: 2010); or Jon Keyser’s never-ending petition troubles (U.S. Senate: 2016). Some campaigns falter after failing to make adjustments to core messages, such as Sen. Mark Udall’s re-election effort (U.S. Senate: 2014) or Pete Coors’ spectacularly-bland statewide bid (U.S. Senate: 2004).
But most big campaigns fail because a steady drumbeat of smaller problems feeds into a larger narrative of inability, ineptitude, or untrustworthiness — and sometimes all three. This is what happened to the likes of Bob Schaffer (U.S. Senate: 2008), Tom Tancredo (Governor: 2010, 2014, 2018), and Darryl Glenn (U.S. Senate: 2016). In this cycle alone, compounding errors sunk the hopes of candidates such as Cynthia Coffman (Governor: 2018), George Brauchler (Governor: 2018), and Donna Lynne (Governor: 2018).
Perhaps the best modern example of this kind of political implosion is the 2006 gubernatorial campaign of then-Rep. Bob Beauprez, who over the course of 12 months went from being the presumed frontrunner to getting blown out in the General Election by Democrat Bill Ritter. Given the advantages he started with and the distance he plummeted, Beauprez is enshrined along with 2016 Senate candidate Darryl Glenn in the Colorado Pols pantheon of “worst statewide campaigns in Colorado history.” But Beauprez’s example is more relevant to Stapleton’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign; both campaigns sought the office of Governor, and both candidates entered the race with high-profile elected offices on their resumes. Here’s a quick, but by no means exhaustive, list of everything that went wrong for Beauprez in 2006, a campaign recognized by the Washington Postas one of the 10 worst efforts in the entire country:
♦ Beauprez’s first campaign manager quit the team in April 2006 under murky circumstances. Deputy Campaign Manager John Marshall was elevated to the top job and proved to be completely out of his depth; Marshall all but disappeared from Colorado political campaigns after the 2006 election.
♦ By the summer of 2006, Beauprez was regularly adding fuel to the fire that had become his nickname — “Both Ways Bob” – which served as a consistent reminder of Beauprez’s penchant for supporting both sides of every issue.
♦ Beauprez was widely mocked after a radio appearance in August 2006 in which he confidently declared that “70 percent of African-American pregnancies end in abortion” in the United States. You don’t need to be a mathematician to understand the decline in population that would be evident were this claim even remotely accurate.
♦ Ritter had taken a double-digit lead in the polls by August, and the margins only increased in the next 6-8 weeks. By October 2006, Beauprez’s campaign was fading so quickly that the Republican Governor’s Association just walked away from Colorado.
♦ Beauprez had hoped to pick up some momentum when he selected Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland as his running mate – apparently without bothering to Google her name first. Rowland’s selection was quickly obscured by comments she had recently made saying that homosexuality is a slippery slope toward bestiality.
♦ The coup de grâce for Beauprez was a desperate October effort to link Ritter to a case where an illegal immigrant was apparently released on a plea bargain before later committing a more violent crime. The Beauprez campaign never got this attack to stick because it was quickly determined that Team Beauprez probably broke the law in trying to prove the allegation. The Beauprez campaign’s attempt to smear Ritter instead turned into headlines about an FBI investigation into how it was able to access a federal law enforcement database.
The 2006 Beauprez campaign is best visualized by his unforgettable TV ad standing next to a horse’s ass. It is an ad that will forever live in Colorado political infamy. Meant to generate a laugh about dealing with all the “crap” in politics, instead the ad served as the ultimate metaphor for Beauprez’s disastrous campaign.
Beauprez, Part Three?
Stapleton will likely become the GOP nominee for Governor on Tuesday largely because of his family ties (he’s a cousin to former President George W. Bush) and his not-unrelated ability to amass sizable amounts of campaign cash. He has spent the last eight years positioning himself among the Republican establishment to make this run for Governor, but now that he’s here, he can’t seem to get out of his own way.
Stapleton is a natural boob who couldn’t pose for a flattering photo for all the money in the world (just do a Google image search for “Walker Stapleton” and you’ll see what we mean). In interviews and debates, he comes across as a sweaty, stammering idiot. Yet Stapleton still garners strong financial support from Republican donors and family as well as ham-handed backing from the GOP establishment.
These are not good traits for a candidate for governor, but the rough edges would have a better chance of smoothing if Stapleton’s campaign wasn’t so harmful to itself. Stapleton was absolutely destroyed by 9News reporter Brandon Rittiman over HIS VERY FIRST TELEVISION AD — which contains blatantly false assertions (problems first pointed out here at Colorado Pols) that the candidate himself essentially defended during a Republican candidate debate. Stapleton claims in the ad that he was “the only State Treasurer in the country” to support the 2017 Republican tax plan in Congress. This is an easily disprovable lie (and multiple local news outlets debunked it) and it’s also a pointless fib; nobody cares if Stapleton was the onlyRepublican Treasurer to back the tax plan.
Here’s some of what Rittiman had to say in early June:
We don’t know what Stapleton was thinking when he started running this ad, but we know he knows better now.
In the 9NEWS Republican debate Thursday night, Stapleton acknowledged that what his ad says isn’t true.
What’s more, he said it’s not important that it isn’t true…
…If Mr. Stapleton doesn’t want to be called a liar, then he should stop saying something he knows is false.
Gah! Just a few days later, Stapleton was shredded again by Kyle Clark of 9News. This self-inflicted wound has served as easy fodder for attack ads from Republican opponent Victor Mitchell. After getting drilled over this for weeks and stretching the lie out in campaign mailers, Stapleton finally conceded the point in a Republican debate with the Denver Post and Denver7. In the June 19 debate, Stapleton said that he was “one of the first to support the President’s tax cut.” This statement probably isn’t true, either, but it is at least much harder to refute.
If you thought Stapleton might have learned his lesson here, you would be wrong. Stapleton followed his first ad by running a spot in which he claims to be a “fourth-generation Coloradan.” Surprise: He’s not. Stapleton first moved to Colorado when he was 29-years-old, which makes him a native Coloradan in the same way that your new neighbors from La Jolla were pioneers.
Seems like a good time to mention my 4th great grand uncle William Middaugh was Denver’s original Sheriff. Not sure if that qualifies me to run for office. Just thought I’d put it out there. #9NEWS #copolitics #cogov https://t.co/5kQNXOLPxt
— Kyle Clark (@KyleClark) June 21, 2018
Alas, these are not the only examples of Stumbleton’s campaign following in Beauprez’s footsteps with error after error after compounding error. Some of these mistakes might be considered minor when appraised individually, but together they form a problematic narrative of incompetence that can be difficult to shake once it sticks. For example:
♦ Stapleton was forced to ask the Colorado Secretary of State’s office to remove his name from the Republican Primary ballot because of strong evidence of massive petition signature fraud in the effort to get his name onto the ballot via petition. This made its way into several attack ads from Republican opponents. Stapleton was then forced to seek ballot access through the Republican state convention, where he stooped to requesting the nomination from racist firebrand Tom Tancredo.
♦ Stapleton told a crowd in Grand Junction that he travels the country fundraising for his campaign, often relying on the pitch that he could help out-of-state residents cut their property tax bills on vacation homes in Colorado.
♦ Stapleton continues to stumble around on his self-appointed signature issue of PERA reform. He may or may not have been trying to kill reform legislation that passed through the legislature in May, though he later boasted that lawmakers acted upon some of his ideas. Stapleton has also repeatedly suggested that he was sleeping when the legislature came to an agreement on the bill in the late hours on the final day of the 2018 session – a particularly bad look for a guy who rarely bothers to even attend PERA Board meetings despite the fact that HE IS ON THE BOARD. Such leadership!
♦ Stapleton sat down for an interview with Fox News in the aftermath of a school shooting in Texas and proceeded to make a complete ass of himself despite the fact that the show’s hosts were doing everything possible to put him in a good light.
♦ Stapleton earned the wrath of an otherwise-friendly panel on the “Colorado Decides” television program when his campaign inexplicably ducked repeated efforts to schedule him for a debate.
♦ Stapleton continues to have trouble filing accurate reports on his personal finances that are required under Colorado law – a problem that is likely to continue to cause him problems in the fall. These gaffes were also turned into attack ads from fellow Republicans. Stapleton also won’t commit to the traditional practice of gubernatorial candidates releasing tax returns.
♦ Stapleton appears to make little effort to make sure that he is using accurate information in public statements and debates, such as this absurd claim that 150,000 Coloradans possess medical marijuana cards.
All of these stumbles have taken place before the June 26 Primary Election, and there’s no reason to think that Stapleton is going to get much better in a General Election. Stapleton was accused of shady fundraising tactics and questionable collaboration with outside groups well before he was even an official candidate. He launched his campaign in September 2017 on a weird note and has been humming odd tunes ever since.
Even when Stapleton manages to avoid saying something false, he still figures out a way to make a dumb comment. For instance, take this word vomit about not meeting with Colorado teachers in the spring:
“There was this teacher rally, which you might remember, over teacher salaries, at the Capitol, and I didn’t care to have a Molotov cocktail thrown at me, so I didn’t get up and speak to the teacher rally.”
What is the point of saying this? Is Stapleton trying to capture the vote of the 10 people who don’t like public school teachers?
The evolution of Stumbleton has not gone unnoticed by pundits on all sides. A recent story on CBS4 Denver pointed out that Stapleton has gone through “one misstep after another” and quotes Wadhams expressing concern that Stapleton might be “limping to the nomination.”
The Associated Press noticed the same problem in a recent Primary summary:
Despite prodigious fundraising, Stapleton stumbled his way into the primary after citing possible fraud by a contractor who gathered petitions on his behalf. He has recently aligned himself with President Donald Trump on immigration and other issues, but faces rivals’ questions over his participation in a bid by lawmakers to rescue Colorado’s state employee pension plan.
“His campaign missteps – limited debates, media interviews that lend themselves to attacks using his own words and a verifiably untrue campaign ad that’s still on the air – make him look vulnerable for November…Stapleton, however, should be cruising to a primary win and positioning himself for the general election, instead of struggling to establish his identity in June…”
And check out what “independent” political consultant Eric Sondermann had to say about Stapleton’s campaign on a May episode of “Colorado Inside Out”:
“I think Walker Stapleton is making a number of strategic errors here. Walker Stapleton has a luxury that none of the Democrats have, which is to run a November race even now in May and June…
…This Governor’s race in November is going to be tough enough for Walker Stapleton as the presumptive Republican nominee as it is. He is making it tougher for himself by using his advertising dollars to overly-embrace Donald Trump. He doesn’t need that to win this Primary. To have Tom Tancredo give his nominating speech at the convention in Boulder…you don’t think that one will come back to bite him come September, October, etc.? In tennis, it’s called ‘unforced errors.’”
Ah, Trump. Stapleton is an unabashed Trump supporter who has praised the President for his “zero tolerance” immigration policy and even pledged to send National Guard troops to the border if elected Governor. Stapleton has also said that he supports President Trump’s domestic gag rule on abortion providers, declaring that he would be “a pro-life Governor,” and he regularly says that gutting Medicaid would be a top priority if elected. All of this might be music to the ears of right-wing Republicans, but it can only hurt Stapleton in a General Election.
Let’s go back one more time to Wadhams, shall we? “You add these things up,” he told Denverite in late May. “And I think it raises the question, is Walker Stapleton ready for a general election?”
Two years ago, Colorado Springs Republican Darryl Glenn won a double-digit victory in the GOP Primary for U.S. Senate, which all but guaranteed the re-election of Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in November. Stapleton isn’t as bad a candidate as Glenn – not yet, anyway — but there are similarities in that Democrats will be happy to see his name atop the Republican ticket this fall.
Sure, maybe things change in the coming months and Republicans end up with the wind at their backs in November. Maybe Stapleton stops screwing up every couple of days and morphs into the second coming of Ronald Reagan. It’s certainly not impossible that Republicans could take back the Governor’s Mansion for the first time in a dozen years.
But it’s more likely that Walker Stapleton will keep on being Walker Stapleton. Democrats are counting on it.