Heidi Ganahl is some Republicans’ latest hope for Colorado. Can she get past the primary?

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican Heidi Ganahl is one of two candidates in the party’s gubernatorial primary.

On the afternoon of the Republican assembly, Heidi Ganahl stood before the party faithful and hit the high notes of her campaign: She was a “mom on a mission” who had bounced back from personal tragedy to build a successful nationwide business, and now she was ready to take on the Democrats she argues have ruined the economy, corrupted schools and discounted the lives of the unborn.

“I was raised to never back down. I've fought adversity my whole life,” she told thousands of delegates as she asked their support to become the GOP nominee for governor.

But before she launched that rallying cry, she had cracked a joke that acknowledged the deep frustrations and failures of the Republican Party in Colorado. Ganahl, 55, is currently a regent for the University of Colorado — making her the only Republican to win statewide office in nearly eight years.

“It’s lonely. I need help,” she told the crowd with a chuckle.

The Colorado GOP has been beaten down in recent election cycles. The party hasn’t held the governorship since 2007. Democrats took full control of the legislature in 2018. And Republicans haven’t come close to winning down-ballot races like Treasurer or Secretary of State, either. Two years ago, the party's highest profile politician, Sen. Cory Gardner, lost his bid for reelection.

Ganahl says she is the one to finally turn that tide. For months, she’s positioned herself as the only candidate who can beat Gov. Jared Polis, an incumbent with a nearly-bottomless personal warchest, and she’s become the flagbearer for establishment Republicans. 

She argues that Democratic handling of the pandemic, including restrictions on business, will inspire the general electorate to consider a Republican — if only the party can pick the right candidate.

“The things (voters) care about are crime and our kids and the cost of living. Those are the issues they wanna talk about — and rural Colorado, making sure that it stays healthy and strong,” she said.

Ganahl’s policy proposals include a plan to eventually eliminate the state income tax and halve the state’s gas tax, changes that would reduce state revenue by close to $10 billion a year. She says she would offset that by cutting the state workforce, but hasn’t explained her plan in detail.

If she wins the general election, she will be the first female governor of Colorado.

With the primary election just a week away, Ganahl holds a significant edge in big-name endorsements and fundraising — she’s raised more than $1 million, about eight times more money than her opponent, Greg Lopez. The race has been a relatively low-profile affair so far, but that could change as Democrat-aligned outside groups have started pouring in hundreds of thousands of dollars to boost Lopez’s conservative image.

The race could also end up highlighting the ongoing rift between the party establishment and its resurgent right wing.

Much of the conservative base’s focus is on the new fronts of the so-called culture wars, including anti-trans backlash, fears of “woke” indoctrination in schools and false claims of a stolen 2020 election. Lopez has embraced those issues, saying that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, while Ganahl acknowledges Biden is president and has said Colorado’s election results are valid.

A balancing act

Instead of a hard-right conservative, Ganahl styles herself as a “Reagan Republican” who cares most about shrinking government and unleashing private enterprise, along with opposing abortion in nearly all cases. Some in the party establishment think that’s the right message and story for an increasingly moderate and liberal state.

“It’s a challenge for my party,” said former Gov. Bill Owens, the last Republican to hold the office. “And the challenge is how to get through the primary as a strong conservative, without appearing to be nuts.”

His suggestion: “You have to tell the truth, but you have to focus on your issues instead of focusing on stuff that's beyond the pale.”

Owens recently endorsed Ganahl — one of the rare times he’s intervened in an intra-party fight. It’s a sign of what establishment and moderate Republicans see at stake in this primary: a chance to finally regain a measure of power.

“In this case, I just think there is a clear differentiation. I want to see Colorado Republicans win in this next cycle because I think Colorado has become unbalanced,” he said.

Who is Heidi Ganahl?

Ganahl, whose maiden name is Heidi Ann Haight, spent her early years in Orange County, Calif., before moving to Monument, Colo., at age 12. Her campaign has pushed back on the idea that she is “from” California, but the candidate acknowledges that the move was a culture shock.

In an interview, she described how her pink Vans sneakers initially marked her as an outsider in her new, small town.

“Other kids were like, ‘What on earth? Who are you? Where are you from?’” she recalled. But the family quickly made Colorado their home.

Ganahl’s father worked in sales and later owned a janitorial supply business, while also volunteering as a deputy law-enforcement officer. Her mother was the town clerk of Monument, which is located in northern El Paso County.

Ganahl went on to attend the University of Colorado-Boulder, and at 25 was married to Bion Flammang. But their life together was tragically erased just two years later; in 1994, Flammang was killed in a plane crash. 

“It was brutal. It still makes me tear up,” she said. “Nothing changed me like that.”

That tragedy was a turning point for Ganahl. In the aftermath, with the encouragement of her brother, she returned to an idea she and Flammang had shared: starting a day care for dogs.

“And I really just kept going back to the idea of creating the happiest place on earth for dogs. And that made me very happy,” she said.

The business, Camp Bow Wow, launched in 2000 and eventually spread nationwide through franchising.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
University of Colorado Regent, Republican Heidi Ganahl, announces her candidacy for governor outside Rosie’s Diner in Monument, near Colorado Springs, on Tuesday, September 14, 2021.

One former employee, Janet Forgrieve, remembered a trip she took to Greece with Ganahl and another employee, under the banner of a dog-help nonprofit Ganahl had founded. Their mission was to take home dozens of neglected dogs that had been tied to trees for years on end.

“We each had a small dog in a carry-on. The rest went in the cargo hold (in crates),” Forgrieve said. Ganahl “just said, ‘Why can’t we do it? And so we did it.’”

By 2014, Camp Bow Wow was reporting more than $100 million in revenue across its franchises, and Ganahl decided to sell to a national veterinary company. She declined in a recent interview to say how much she profited, but a federal filing said the value of the deal was between $17 million and $20 million. While she stayed on for a while after the sale, she currently has no association with the company.

Ganahl currently lives in Lone Tree, in a home purchased several years ago for $1.6 million. She is married to Jason Ganahl and has four children. The family also owns the G-Que BBQ chain of four restaurants, including a kiosk at Mile High Stadium.

Ganahl would not disclose her current net worth. “I’m not going to answer that, no,” she said.

From business to politics

It was one particular experience at Camp Bow Wow that “launched me into politics,” Ganahl said. State regulators told the company they needed one employee for every 15 dogs, instead of every 25 dogs.

Ganahl said the change was unnecessary and costly.

“What that did was require a lot more staff at the Colorado franchise locations. It reduced their profitability dramatically and their ability to pay people more,” she recalled. 

“And I thought, ‘How does this person who's not even elected and doesn't know our business well get to come in and tell us how we do our business?’”

Ganahl’s frustration with government regulations didn’t end there: A 2015 fight at the federal level over whether companies like Camp Bow Wow and McDonald’s are responsible for how their franchisees treat employees led her further into politics.

Ganahl joined the fight through a conservative nonprofit called the Job Creators Network, which was launched by Bernie Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot and a significant funder of conservative candidates and causes.

Ganahl had been a lifelong Republican since voting for Reagan in 1984, but didn’t consider herself very political.

“I wouldn't say I was a staunch party person either way, but I believed in the principles and I started to study up on more about the founding of our country and why free markets work and really began to fall in love again with what America is, and what it's all about and how it can be better,” she said. 

Within a few years, the franchise owners had won their fight against stricter regulations, and Ganahl had launched her political career.

The last statewide Republican standing

Ganahl first ran for elected office in 2016. Democrats generally had the upper hand in Colorado that year, but she won a seat as an at-large member of the University of Colorado Board of Regents. 

Ganahl focused her campaign in part on “academic freedom,” the idea that universities should foster diverse thought, including from conservatives. She led an effort “to bolster free speech on CU's campuses” amid plummeting conservative support for higher ed, The Daily Camera reported.

“I'm not a fan of safe spaces. I believe in intense discussions, feisty discussions, in cultivating values and opinions,” she said at the time. The regents unanimously adopted a new free speech policy in 2018.

In 2019, Ganahl joined with other Republicans on the board — who at the time held a majority — to hire Mark Kennedy as the CU Boulder president. He resigned just two years later, after Democrats took the majority.

In the past, Ganahl also has supported John Eastman, the conservative law professor who is now at the heart of the Jan. 6 hearings for providing legal justifications for President Trump’s efforts to overturn election results and stay in power. Ganahl has praised the Benson Center, where Eastman was a visiting scholar for the 2020-21 academic year, as home to “fantastic scholars,” although that statement came before the insurrection.

In a recent interview she said Eastman’s involvement in the attempt to subvert the election is “unfortunate and it wasn’t good for CU,” but she did not want to see him fired.

“It was discussed and I advocated for academic freedom and letting it play out in the public,” she told Colorado Matters.

Running against Polis

Ganahl said her decision to run for governor was spurred by a brush with her own mortality. She had surgery to remove a brain tumor, known as a benign meningioma, about two years ago. After her recovery, she said, she decided to run — launching her campaign just a few weeks after doctors cleared her with an MRI.

On the trail, she’s criticized new Democrat-backed laws, including a package of fees on delivery services and gas, which will go toward transportation spending. She also called out a law that requires businesses to disclose salary ranges in job postings as “devastating.”

On climate change, she acknowledges that “man is involved” but says that Colorado’s regulations on energy production have gone “too far, too fast.”

Beyond her small-government message, Ganahl opposes legal abortion in most cases. Unlike her opponent, she would allow exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother.

Like Lopez, she’s called for a crime crackdown through increased police funding. She’s criticized some of Colorado’s recent gun policies, saying that she questions the constitutionality of the state’s red flag law. But, also like Lopez, she said she would “consider” raising the age limit for sales of AR-15-style rifles, though she stressed that she stands by the 2nd Amendment.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Heidi Ganahl, a Republican candidate for governor, at the Colorado Republican State Assembly Saturday, April 9, 2022.

When it comes to some of the most controversial issues animating Republican races nationwide, Ganahl’s apparent strategy is to acknowledge some controversial right-wing priorities but avoid committing herself.

For example, she says that the 2020 election results in Colorado were legitimate, and that Joe Biden “is president,” but she won’t directly answer questions about whether she thinks the national election results were themselves valid.

“I'm upset that everybody's so divided about it. And I think we've gotta bring people together,” she said.

Pressed further on the validity of the presidential election, she said: “It means we're moving forward and we're gonna figure out how to bring people together. That's what good leaders do. Yeah. They don't look back, they look forward. We've gotta learn from what happened in the past, whether it was Trump or Biden, and we've gotta figure out how to bring people together and heal our wounds.”

Asked if she had been transparent about her opinion of the 2020 election, she countered that Democrats had made the issue divisive.

“It's only divisive because they're making it an either/or. It's not (being approached as) a conversation,” she said, adding that plenty of Democrats, including Stacey Abrams in Georgia, have questioned recent election results. 

Despite Lopez and Ganahl's contrasting styles, it’s remained a fairly quiet race. They’ve rarely acknowledged or attacked one another. Instead, Ganahl’s campaign is waging its advertising battle in large part through messaging that she hopes will play as well in the general as the primary.