Polis launches re-election campaign in a changed Colorado, and a new political environment

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis in his office at the State Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, during an interview with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Gov. Jared Polis is set to formally launch his re-election effort at a brewery in Pueblo on Tuesday night.

It could be a very different campaign than his 2018 bid for the office. In that “blue wave” year, Polis successfully ran on promises to change how Colorado approaches health care, education and more.

Four years later, he’s emerging from a first term that was overwhelmingly shaped by the pandemic, as well as wildfires, mass shootings, and other disasters. And he will have to make his pitch in an election year that will likely be focused on the rising cost of living and increasing crime.

“These last three years have really taught me that leadership matters and judgment matters, and I'm very proud of the work we've done to save thousands of lives while keeping our schools and economy open,” Polis said in an interview this week.

Polis came in on a 'blue wave' in Colorado. Now, Republicans are trying to recover some of those losses.

Polis was elected governor by more than 10 points in 2018, a year that saw Democrats take full control of state government amid a backlash against then-president Donald Trump. In 2022, Republicans hope to recover some of those losses, with a platform focused on crime and inflation.

A dozen GOP candidates have filed paperwork to run in the party’s gubernatorial primary, although only half of them have raised or spent any money. Polis also faces one little-known Democratic challenger.

In the early days of his re-election campaign, Polis has tried to get ahead of his opponents by zeroing in on messages like “saving people money” and improving public safety.

“We as a state can't address every issue you face. Some are a result of international or national issues,” he said. “But what can we do? We can reduce your costs, save you money and protect our amazing quality of life in Colorado.”

The campaign launch has included few of the kind of dramatic policy proposals that marked his first campaign. Instead, he has talked about a narrower set of cost-savings efforts, such as delaying a 2-cent-per-gallon surcharge for gas and reducing vehicle registration fees by $11.50.

“We, as government, need to tighten our belt and we need to pass the savings along to you,” he said.

What Polis is emphasizing as he launches his campaign, and how his opponents are countering.

However, his opponents are trying to make the case that Polis is either acting too late on these issues, or that he contributed to them. For example, the gas fee that Polis has asked to delay is the result of a Democratic transportation spending package that he approved. 

And while Polis argues that crime is increasing nationally as a result of complex social factors, Republicans put the blame on recent criminal justice reforms, such as laws that lowered certain drug possession penalties and reduced the use of cash bail for low-level offenses. (Both of those laws had Republican co-sponsors.)

Polis has “showed that he will never accept responsibility for the role his failed, far-left policies have played in the rise of crime in our state,” wrote challenger Heidi Ganahl.

Polis is also trying to remind voters of some of his larger priorities that were approved in his first term but are still being implemented, including free full-day kindergarten, preparations for “universal” pre-K and the drafting of the “Colorado option” health care plan.

Polis' public health messaging during the pandemic has caught national attention.

Polis also has a hand in directing billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money, which will go toward housing, workers, businesses and behavioral health.

As the campaign gets underway, Polis is getting national attention for his message about COVID-19: Months before other Democratic governors, Polis relaxed state mask restrictions, declared that the emergency for state government was over and pushed for a reopening.

“We have a very powerful tool in three doses of the vaccine to prevent severe health outcomes from COVID 19. And we've done everything in our power to use it along with that means that we have to go about our lives,” he said in the interview.

In his efforts to re-open the state, Polis has focused more on individual responsibility and action than on public health measures.

“And we have to understand that while of course there's an economic cost of caution, it's also about the social emotional cost of people,” he said of the closures forced by the pandemic. “It's about young people who weren't able to date. It's about people in retirement homes who weren't able to play bridge on Fridays or have a movie night. And we're only on this planet for so long.”

Polis plans 22 stops in cities and towns across the state over the next week, he said.