A rancher in Weld County canceled his solar project to spend $6 million against Jared Polis

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis in his office at the State Capitol on Tuesday, April 19, 2022 during an interview with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Gov. Jared Polis has spent $7 million of his own money on his re-election campaign this year, reminding Colorado’s political world that he is one of the biggest financial forces in state politics.

Not far behind, though, is a new face: Steve Wells, the 64-year-old heir to a ranching and drilling dynasty in northeast Colorado.

Wells has loaded $6 million into an independent spending group to support the Republican cause. So far, it’s spent money on billboards and digital ads that oppose Polis and, in some cases, support his challenger, Heidi Ganahl.

“This isn't about me. It's not about Heidi. This is about fixing something that I see going south rapidly. I mean, this is about the people of Colorado,” Wells told CPR News.

Wells’ family has ranched in Colorado since 1888. His opposition to Polis is tied, in part, to restrictions instituted by the state on oil and gas drilling. His family’s 32,000-acre farm has been the site of drilling, The Denver Posted reported in 2014.

This type of heavy spending from a single individual has become increasingly common in U.S. politics, but it hasn’t been seen as much in Colorado, said Democratic campaign finance attorney Scott Martinez.

“This is new in Colorado. We haven’t had a well-financed candidate who is going to be trying to take out the governor,” Martinez said. “It certainly grabbed my interest.”

Wells said he’s making some sacrifices for the spending. The political spending is taking away money that could otherwise have gone to charities or to projects on the family’s land.

“I canceled a solar project to do this,” he said. “This is probably the most important thing I've ever done in my life.”

Wells’ concerns today go far beyond oil, gas and agriculture. In a promotional video, the rancher shared a dark vision of the future, saying that “this could be the last election that ever matters.”

“This isn’t Democrats and Republicans,” he explained. “This is a fight against good and evil and right and wrong. This is for the soul of our children, our state and our country.”

In the interview, he affirmed that he believes the governor himself is evil.

Wells blames Democrats for crime, saying they’ve “demonized the police and de-funded the police. (Colorado Democrats set aside more than $100 million of federal funding for police hiring, school security and victims of crime this year. Crime is rising in the state, with the parties fiercely debating the causes.)  Wells also warned of a “social engineering project” in the schools.

“The Democrats have turned our school systems into a social engineering project. They’re more worried about transgender athletes and alternative lifestyles than teaching our children anything,” Wells said in the video.

The lion’s share of the money is benefiting Heidi Ganahl, who shares some priorities with Wells. 

At a recent forum, Ganahl said that her response to climate change would rely on producing more fossil fuels in Colorado.

"One of my goals is to get our oil and gas workers back to work because we produce the cleanest energy in the planet right here in Colorado. There is absolutely no reason for us to not produce the energy and instead go to Russia," Ganahl reportedly said. 

That’s an argument based on the idea that if the world needs oil, it should be produced in a place like Colorado, where it’s done more efficiently and with less waste like methane. Wells shares much the same perspective.

“I understand that the green energy coming is a big deal, but until we get there, we can't break everybody (from oil and gas),” Wells said.

Ganahl also has supported a group that aims to keep transgender women and girls out of women’s sports. “I've grown to respect and love all the people involved in women's sports. It's really important that we protect that for our daughters and I will be a warrior for that,” Ganahl told the crowd at a recent event.

Wells said that his money came without conditions — Ganahl didn’t have to embrace any particular policy stance to win his support.

“You know, I haven't seen Heidi since before I started this (independent expenditure committee), but I can ask some pretty tough questions and I will give her this: She did not ignore or skirt one question. I asked her and I was impressed,” he said.

Wells said he hadn’t decided where else his money might go in the election, but he has focused on the governor’s race because he sees Polis as ultimately responsible for what happens in the state. 

He hadn’t decided whether to spend on the U.S. Senate or state Senate campaigns, where Republicans hope to retake some power from Democrats this year.

“So, you have to start at the top,” he said.

Ganahl said in an interview she was “focused on what I believe is right for Colorado,” not on one supporter’s agenda. “We're gonna do everything we can to take back Colorado. And I think there's a lot of excited people to take this state in a different direction.”

Democrats derided the new ads as “partisan politics.”

“As expected, here come the same old attacks from the far-right who want to see a MAGA Republican like Heidi Ganahl as governor. Coloradans know better, and can see right through these extreme tactics,” said Kailee Stiles, spokesperson for the Colorado Democratic Party.

Deep Colorado Wells has already begun its advertising sprint with images that show Polis and Biden together or portray Polis with a cartoonish crown atop his head.

Editor's note: This story was updated on Sept. 13, 2022, to correct Steve Wells' name in one instance.