Out Of The Gate, Governor Candidates Stapleton And Polis Start Making Their Case

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<p><span style="font-size: 13.008px;">Nathaniel Minor and&nbsp;</span><span style="font-size: 13.008px;">Alex Scoville/CPR News</span></p>
<p><span style="color: rgb(64, 69, 64);">Jared Polis (left) and Walker Stapleton (right) are the Democratic and Republican candidates for Colorado governor.</span></p>
Photo: Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton
Jared Polis (left) and Walker Stapleton (right) are the Democratic and Republican candidates for Colorado governor.

Republican Walker Stapleton and Democrat Jared Polis wasted no time taking aim at each other in their acceptance speeches Tuesday night, once it became clear that they were their parties’ nominees in the race to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper.

State Treasurer Stapleton attacked Polis as fiscally irresponsible for his support of things like universal health care, while the congressman went after Stapleton for supporting the president's immigration policies.

It took less than an hour for media outlets to call the Democratic race for Polis and it wasn’t long after that the candidate took the podium in a packed hotel ballroom as “The Times Are A Changin' ” by Bob Dylan blared over the speakers.

“We’re excited. This is a short night,” the five-term congressman said in greeting his supporters. “Isn't that nice?”

Polis brought strong name recognition and plenty of money to his primary run. The former tech entrepreneur poured $11 million into his primary campaign -- including more than $10 million of his own cash. That was far more than any other Democratic candidate, to say nothing of Republican Stapleton who, along with his associated Super PAC, have already raised more than $3 million.

The investment paid off for Polis. Both former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy and former state Sen. Mike Johnston trailed Polis by about 20 points. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne came in a distant fourth.

“You know Cary, Mike and Donna are people o f great integrity,” Polis said. “I'm excited to continue to work with them to make sure they can keep helping the people of Colorado.”

But with the primary out of the way, Polis quickly shifted his attention to his general election opponent, Stapleton. He said his campaign presents a sharply different vision for Colorado than the Republican candidate’s. Polis is running on an unabashed progressive platform including universal access to pre-kindergarten education, single-payer healthcare, lofty renewable energy goals and local control over Colorado's $31 billion oil and gas industry.

“Before we can turn our full vision into reality we have to go up against Walker Stapleton, who offers a starkly different vision for our country," Polis said. "Look. On almost every question before us this election, from whether or not healthcare is a human right to whether immigrant children deserve human decency and human rights to even the basic question about whether or not honesty is important in the public sphere, Walker Stapleton comes out on the wrong side and the people of Colorado know that."

Polis touted his background as a businessman, philanthropist and member of Congress, saying those experiences have prepared him to lead the state. “We're going to make Colorado even better, even stronger. We'll build an economy that works for everyone, in every part of our state.”

He also urged unity, drawing in a reference to President Donald Trump.

"People are tired of hearing that divisive political rhetoric," Polis said. "They want a governor who can unite rather than divide them. I can work with Trump when we need to, but I am not beholden to him."

One longtime supporter, Tom Parson of Broomfield, said he supports Polis as much for more than just his politics because “he's a wonderful, quality human being, he hasn't let his wealth go to his head. He's there for the working stiff.”

If Polis wins, he'd be the first openly gay man elected governor in U.S. history. Parson said he doesn't think that will hold Polis back in the general election.

“People are less and less concerned about whether somebody looks like them, has feelings like them,” he said.

A few feet away, Chris Nicholson beamed. Nicholson is a immigration policy advocate from Boulder -- and he's also gay.

“To see a guy like him getting the nomination -- it's just inspirational and it means so much,” Nicholson said, but he recognizes that other things could also make Polis a hard sell outside the Front Range. He's extremely wealthy. He's progressive. And he's from Boulder, which comes with its own stereotype to some Coloradans.

“But I look at the campaign that he's run here. He had to run a statewide campaign against [other] candidates -- and he smoked them.”

Photo: Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton
Jared Polis (left) and Walker Stapleton (right) are the Democratic and Republican candidates for Colorado governor.

On the Republican side, Stapleton, bested three other GOP candidates, with his nearest competitor Victor Mitchell, 18 points behind. He wasted no time at his victory party Tuesday night attacking Polis for everything from his support of legal marijuana to his backing of universal healthcare.

“Jared Polis supports a government takeover of your healthcare,” Stapleton said. “Make no mistake: a Gov. Jared Polis will raise every tax and fee on hardworking Coloradans that he can find.”

“Coloradans work hard every day and as your next governor I will work hard for you every day because we can do better and we must.”

The mood was light at the Stapleton gathering from the minute supporters started trickling in -- including his mother, Debbie Stapleton, who said her son’s win was no shock.

“I know he has, since he was a little boy, wanted to be in public service,” she said.

And for many of those in attendance, it’s Stapleton’s record of public service that brought them this far. The state treasurer has campaigned on a platform of fiscal conservatism, lower taxes and reforming the public employee retirement system known as PERA.

“I’ve been a Republican for many, many years, I’ve watched good candidates come and go, I’ve watched sort of marginal candidates come and go, and I really think that once people understand who Walker is, they’re going to be pretty excited,” said one supporter, Laurie Horn. That focus on fiscal policy won her support.

Stating with healthcare, Stapleton has aligned himself with President Donald Trump on a number of issues. A distant relative of President George W. Bush, he closely wedded himself to Trump on virtually every issue — even refusing to condemn the Trump administration's immigrant family separation policies — except trade, where he opposes tariffs that could produce a trade war and harm Colorado industries.

He welcomed the federal repeal of the individual mandate that helps subsidize the Affordable Care Act and has pledged to fight any public expansion, especially when it comes to Medicaid. Stapleton also attacked Polis as someone who would chase energy jobs out of Colorado, and he opposes Polis' pledge to modify a constitutional amendment that severely restricts Colorado's ability to raise taxes or spending.

So far that’s seems to have played well with the party faithful, but the test in coming general election is whether a Trump-tied candidate can succeed across the state -- a situation Stapleton’s campaign manager Michael Fortney hinted at Tuesday night, hedging that Stapleton’s support for Trump is not absolute.

“Look, Walker’s been on the record agreeing with Trump, Walker’s been on the record disagreeing with Trump,” he said.

Stapleton now has to sell his record to unaffiliated voters, the state’s largest voting bloc -- and significantly, more of them chose to vote the Democratic ballot in this year’s first-ever open primary. Stapleton’s campaign says they have no plans to change strategy moving forward.

“I’ve made the case to independents and I’ve made the case to pragmatic Democrats, and a lot of people are going to wonder how Jared Polis plans to pay for everything that he’s promising, starting with me,” Stapleton said.

Expect to hear that a lot in the coming months, as this gears up to be the most expensive governor’s race in Colorado history.


Ann Marie Awad was with the Stapleton campaign, Sam Brash was with the Polis campaign. The Associated Press contributed to this report.