The Denver Mayoral race is kinda like this.
Who do you think will make it through to the runoff election in the race for Denver Mayor?
That’s the hot question right now in Colorado politics, for a couple of reasons:
For one thing, the Denver Mayor’s office is only open (without an incumbent seeking re-election) about once a decade; the ultimate winner of this race will likely be calling the shots in Denver for the next eight years — and perhaps even 12 years, should they seek a third term.
The second reason that this race is such a hot topic is that nobody really knows anything. The limited polling that has been available in this race is virtually worthless because none of the candidates boast much in the way of name recognition. The ridiculous number of candidates also makes it hard to discern useful information from candidate forums or other similar events; at most events, you’ve got at least a dozen candidates all talking about the same basic issues (homelessness, crime, and affordability), which makes it difficult to remember the policy nuances of the candidates.
And, finally, this is the first time that Denver has run a municipal election with a public financing system in place. It’s difficult to compare this race with past battles for Denver Mayor because this one is just so different.
Nevertheless, we’re going to do our best to help you make sense of this bloated field of candidates. To do that, we looked into the future to see just what in the hell happened on April 4 (ballots were mailed out to Denver voters this week, but Election Day isn’t until April 4).
These two questions will be heavily-discussed in early April as two candidates prepare for the June 6 runoff election:
- Why Candidate X made it to the runoff election;
- Why Candidate X came up short.
To make this easier to digest, we’re also going to break it into tiers. There are 17 candidates — and another 5 “write-in” hopefuls — running for the first open Mayoral seat in Denver since 2011. While there are certainly more questions than answers at this point, some candidates face longer odds than others because of experience, name ID, fundraising, etc. We’re not going to analyze every candidate, because there’s no sensible way to predict what might happen with the bottom half of this field; if Renate A. Behrens gets into the runoff, for example, then things really went off the rails.
♦ Mike Johnston
♦ Kelly Brough
♦ Leslie Herod
♦ Debbie Ortega
♦ Chris Hansen
These are the candidates who possess similar advantages over the rest of the field: They have more experience in the public eye and an easier road to raising their name ID; prominent endorsements; strong fundraising; and a more robust and strategic paid advertising plan than the other hopefuls. These candidates also have relatively-mainstream policy ideas that would be more attractive to a broader group of voters.
Let’s go through our two-part exercise with each candidate:
WHY HE MADE THE RUNOFF: Johnston picked up the endorsement of The Denver Post editorial board, which proved to be more important than in prior elections because of the wide-open nature of this race. Voters were looking for ANY sort of third-party validation to help them make decisions, and the Post endorsement served that purpose well.
Johnston also had the resources to dominate the airwaves and digital advertising, both through his own fundraising and from an Independent Expenditure Committee (IEC) supporting his candidacy.
And his first television ad was really, really good:
Being memorable is critical in a crowded field of candidates. This was the sort of ad that made voters say, “I kinda like this guy.” When other candidates started attacking Johnston in a mid-March debate, it was a clear sign that he was being considered a frontrunner.
WHY HE CAME UP SHORT: Informed voters, particularly Democrats, remembered that Johnston ran unsuccessfully for Governor (2018) and U.S. Senate (2020). To those voters, Johnston came across as a guy who just wanted to be elected to SOMETHING.
Johnston also had the same potential (unavoidable) problem as Chris Hansen: They are financially-comfortable middle age white dudes. With the exception of John Hickenlooper, Denver Mayors in the last three decades have been Black or Latino. Denver has also never elected a female Mayor. More progressive voters ultimately had a tough time convincing themselves to vote for a white dude in 2023.
WHY SHE MADE THE RUNOFF: Herod is a tireless self-promoter who has been planning for this race for a long time. She entered the race with the gravitas of a potential front runner and largely maintained that status to the end. Herod’s solid record of accomplishments and progressive bonafides at the state legislature appealed to voters, and being a Black LGBT candidate certainly helped her stand out from the crowd.
WHY SHE CAME UP SHORT: Herod is a tireless self-promoter who has been planning for this race for a long time. Yes, you read that same sentence earlier, but it cuts both ways. In this case, voters grew tired of Herod’s “look at me” persona; her thirst for attention intensified in March with a strange appearance at SXSW in Austin, Texas that resulted in this awkward photo with Nick Jonas.
No other candidate in this field was damaged more than Herod in the last month or two. Accusations of a hostile work environment portrayed Herod as a ruthless and unkind leader, which gave voters more than enough reason to look elsewhere when they had plenty of other options; Herod also misplayed the response to these accusations, which had the effect of giving more credence to the “bad boss” claims.
Herod also made voters nervous by changing her position on important issues out of an obvious concern that those positions wouldn’t be popular in a municipal election. Her sudden reversal on a much-discussed fentanyl bill — which was only in the early stages of being implemented after passing the legislature in 2022 — provided a jarring contrast with other candidates (see below).
And finally, Herod’s decision to NOT release her tax returns — even though she is theoretically only working as a state lawmaker — raised a lot of eyebrows. Herod was the only top tier candidate who didn’t open up her tax returns for The Denver Post.
In short, voters saw Herod as a candidate who is thirsty for the minor fame of being Denver Mayor and willing to do or say just about anything in order to get there.
WHY SHE MADE THE RUNOFF: Brough had the resources to compete with anyone and benefitted from an early consensus of Denver influentials that she was next in line; her paid advertising campaign appeared to be the most robust of any of the other candidates. She also presented a relevant background in those ads that included serving as Chief of Staff under Mayor Hickenlooper and later working for more than a decade as the CEO of the Denver Chamber of Commerce. Brough came across as a serious, no-nonsense candidate with the experience to hit the ground running.
WHY SHE CAME UP SHORT: Brough, in a word, was boring. Her resume would have been a hit if this were a regular job interview – she was better suited for a different election in a different time – but a successful politician needs to also possess a charisma that can attract uninformed voters. Brough instead came off as dour and perhaps a little too serious through a cookie-cutter paid media strategy. Brough’s narrative at times seemed tin-eared and borrowed from 2022 Republican gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl, who packaged personal tragedy and business success and tried to shoehorn it into a rationale for electing her as governor.
Brough’s biggest anchor, however, proved to be the 12 years she spent directing the Denver Chamber of Commerce. Fair or not, the Chamber of Commerce has a reputation as an organization that works for big corporations at the expense of the little guy. On a national level, the Chamber of Commerce no longer even pretends that it isn’t just a subsidiary of the Republican Party.
Brough couldn’t find a way through a tough catch-22 in the race for Mayor. She was relatively unknown by voters, which is why her television ads repeated her name every 3 seconds. But the more that progressive-minded Denver voters learned about Brough, the less interested they were in electing her as Mayor.
WHY HE MADE THE RUNOFF: From the very beginning, Hansen leaned in HARD on the idea that Denver was a crime-ridden, drug-infested hellhole that needed his strong leadership to fix. This hardline position got him attention in a crowded field, and there were apparently enough Denver voters who quietly agreed and were willing to give him a shot in a runoff election.
WHY HE CAME UP SHORT: Colorado Republicans tried Hansen’s “Denver in decay” narrative in 2022, and they were absolutely crushed at the ballot box. It’s generally not a good idea in politics to tell voters so bluntly that their home city is a terrible place; you’re basically telling people that their decision to live in Denver is wrong.
Some of Hansen’s other messaging was a bit odd. He kept saying in his commercials that he would “audit Denver’s homelessness programs.” Is this something that probably needs to be done? Yes. Is this a message that appeals to people who don’t spend their days looking at spreadsheets? Nope.
Hansen also gave off a very strong vibe of a wealthy and well-educated white guy who is smarter than you and not unwilling to remind you of that fact. If more voters believed that Denver is burning to the ground, perhaps this persona would have worked. Instead, Hansen created a fairly unlikable image that didn’t work outside of his “scary Denver” wheelhouse.
WHY SHE MADE THE RUNOFF: Voters have been electing Ortega to municipal office in Denver for more than 30 years. On a ballot full of unfamiliar names, Ortega had a HUGE potential advantage as a result. Ortega was also helped by a strong endorsement list of grassroots organizations and labor unions, as well as familiar names such as Paula Sandoval and Lucia Guzman.
For voters who were still undecided when filling out their ballot, Ortega was a “safe” name to mark.
WHY SHE CAME UP SHORT: Ortega is not particularly memorable in person, in interviews, or on a debate stage. Some politicians have that undefinable “it” factor that can overcome other potential weaknesses; Ortega is not one of those politicians. In the end, voters didn’t know enough about Ortega beyond just recognizing her name.