Heidi Ganahl was the last Republican to win statewide office in Colorado when she was elected to the CU Board of Regents in 2018. Now, she is trying to become the first of her party to occupy the governor’s office in 16 years.
Ganahl first made her name as an entrepreneur. She sold her doggy day care business, Camp Bow Wow, in a lucrative deal, before launching a career in politics with her election to the university board. If she wins her current race, one of her tasks as governor will be to appoint a successor to serve out her term as regent
She has portrayed herself as a “mom on a mission” with a focus on righting the economy, increasing fossil fuel production, cracking down on crime, slashing income taxes, fighting “woke” values in education and restricting abortion rights.
“The things (voters) care about are crime and our kids and the cost of living. Those are the issues they want to talk about — and rural Colorado, making sure that it stays healthy and strong,” Ganahl said in an interview with CPR News. She’s tried to tie Gov. Jared Polis to President Joe Biden, saying he’s added to the cost of living by embracing new fees and trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
If she wins the gubernatorial election, Ganahl would be the first female governor of Colorado.
Ganahl said her decision to run for governor was catalyzed 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 decided to run — launching her campaign just a few weeks after doctors cleared her with an MRI, she said.
While portraying herself as a business-minded “Reagan Republican,” Ganahl also has courted voters on the right. While she consistently maintained that Colorado’s 2020 election results were accurate and that Biden is president, she avoided answering questions for months about the validity of the national vote. Her running mate eventually said in an op-ed that Joe Biden is the legitimate president.
During the primary election, her campaign branded her in a flier as “the MAGA Candidate Colorado has been waiting for.” Now, facing the general election, Ganahl said that was only campaign messaging and that she is just as eager to be “the Biden candidate” or “the Bernie candidate,” explaining that she shared Bernie Sanders’ desire to change the political system, albeit in extremely different ways.
Ganahl has focused on how schools teach students about gender. She recently said her run for governor really began when she became upset that her children’s elementary school in Boulder was putting on a presentation about transgender issues. Believing that it was too early for kids to learn about gender transitions, she joined other parents in a failed attempt to start a charter school, and later moved to Douglas County.
On the campaign trail, Ganahl talks frequently about gender-related issues in schools. She has appeared at a fundraiser for a PAC dedicated to keeping transgender women and girls out of women and girls sports, saying that it puts cisgender competitors at a disadvantage. She claimed she helped a CU student who was unhappy about being assigned a trans roommate.
She has also made broad claims about children embracing the “furry” lifestyle — “identifying as cats … all over Colorado, and schools are tolerating it,” as she told a conservative radio host — arguing it’s proof that parents must be given more authority over school culture.
Ganahl said she had heard about disruptions at a specific Jefferson County middle school; a spokesperson for the school district responded that there “are no furries or students identifying as such during the school day.” Republicans around the country have made similar claims about furries in schools, though a Reuters fact check found “no evidence” of “widespread” disruption.
Public records released in recent days also showed about a dozen emails to school leaders from adults who said they or their children knew of students wearing costumes in Jeffco schools, with some complaining of distractions.
The Ganahl campaign also has distributed a list of schools where it says it’s heard of related issues, largely gathered through a parent-activist Facebook group. The school districts in question have denied claims of disruptions and problems, though at least one has acknowledged the presence of kids with costume ears or tails — a niche trend that’s been around for years.
In one case presented by Ganahl, CPR News confirmed that a Jefferson County school had indeed banned animal accessories this year, although another claim she made about a Douglas County school banning dog collars was denied by that district.
On the campaign trail, Ganahl has criticized new Democrat-backed laws, including a package of fees on delivery services and gas, which will go toward transportation spending. She also has said a new fentanyl-related law “made things worse,” and she separately called out a law that requires businesses to disclose salary ranges in job postings as “devastating.”
Finally, she argues that Democrats’ handling of the pandemic, including restrictions on businesses in earlier phases, should inspire voters to consider a Republican. The Polis campaign contends that he kept the strictest restrictions for only a matter of months, just long enough to prepare a long-term response, and that he moved more quickly than other Democratic governors to reopen the state.
From taxes to social issues, a look at Ganahl’s policy positions
Perhaps Ganahl’s most ambitious policy proposal is a plan to eventually eliminate Colorado’s personal income tax and halve the state’s gas tax, changes that would reduce state revenue by more than $11 billion a year. She said she would offset that revenue loss by cutting the state workforce; shrinking government spending by 10 percent per year; attracting new businesses; and finding $1 billion of waste and fraud (for comparison, Colorado spends $1.3 billion of general fund annually on higher education). In a recent interview, she said she’d look to cut the budget of the state’s public health agency, in particular.
Additionally, she has outlined a $10 billion transportation plan that would ask voters to give their blessing, through a ballot measure, to the state’s existing fees on gas purchases, delivery services and more. Democrats implemented those fees through the legislature last year, but Republicans have criticized them as taxes-in-disguise.
Ganahl’s plan would also raise billions of dollars more through toll lanes and other “public-private” partnerships, and it would refocus money from transit to highways.
On climate change, she acknowledges that “man is involved” but said that Colorado’s regulations on energy production have gone “too far, too fast.”
At a recent event, she said her answer to climate change would be to increase oil and gas production in Colorado because it can be done more efficiently here than in other countries: It’s an “all of the above” approach, she said. She added that expanding roads to reduce traffic jams would ease air pollution, too. And she’s called for more nuclear power.
Ganahl wants changes to the state’s law on abortion. She opposes legal abortion in most cases, but she thinks exceptions should be allowed for rape, incest and the health of the mother. She wants to consider changes to the state’s recent Reproductive Health Equity Act, which cements the legal right to abortion and contraceptive medicines into state law.
“Well, I certainly don't agree with the law as it stands right now, and would have a conversation with the people of Colorado and see where we land and see where the legislature lands,” she said.
She has criticized some of Colorado’s recent gun policies, saying that she questions the constitutionality of the state’s red flag law. But she also has said she would “consider” raising the age limit for sales of semi-automatic rifles.
‘Moving forward’ on elections
For months of her early campaign, Ganahl declined to directly answer questions about her opinion of the 2020 election results.
“I'm upset that everybody's so divided about it. And I think we've got to bring people together,” she said in an interview.
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. Abrams has argued that Republicans “rigged” the Georgia governor’s election by reducing access to voting.
Ganahl further fueled election questions by selecting Danny Moore as her running mate. Moore, a U.S. Navy veteran and entrepreneur who served on the state’s redistricting commission, had posted to social media calling the 2020 election a “Democrat steal” and saying mail-in ballots can be manipulated — both claims are false.
The campaign has tried to put the issue to rest. In an opinion piece, Moore said that Biden was “legitimately elected president.” Ganahl has said that Moore is not an election denier, and she defended his right to have questions about how elections are conducted.
“Why is everybody so afraid to have a conversation about this?” Ganahl said recently. “This is where free speech comes back into play. This is America, where we get to question things, and he deserves the ability to question, because he served in the Navy for 24 years.”
Ganahl also said in June that there “was not enough fraud that would have flipped the election,” in an interview with The Colorado Sun and CBS4.
Meanwhile, she said that as a university system regent she fought against firing John Eastman, a conservative law professor who has been placed at the heart of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Eastman was a visiting professor at CU Boulder’s Benson Center. Ganahl opposed dismissing him, she said, because she supports academic freedom.
She has since said Eastman’s involvement in the attempt to subvert the election is “unfortunate and it wasn’t good for CU.”
Tragedy inspires a business that leads to politics
Ganahl spent her early years in Orange County, Calif., before moving to the El Paso County town of Monument at age 12. Her 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.
Ganahl went on to attend CU Boulder, and at 25 years old, married Bion Flammang. Two years later, in 1994, Flammang was killed in a plane crash.
“It was brutal. It still makes me tear up,” Ganahl said. “Nothing changed me like that.”
That tragedy was a turning point for Ganahl. In the aftermath, she returned to an idea she and Flammang had shared: starting a day care for dogs. The business, Camp Bow Wow, launched in 2000 and eventually spread nationwide through franchising.
By 2014, Camp Bow Wow was reporting more than $100 million in revenue, and Ganahl decided to sell the business to a national veterinary company. In an interview with CPR News, she declined to say how much she profited, but a federal filing valued the deal between $17 million and $20 million. She’s no longer associated with the company.
Ganahl would not disclose her current net worth. She 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 said that her business career led her to politics. Her interest was first sparked when regulators said her facility didn’t have enough staff to care for the number of dogs it was boarding.
“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 in an interview.
“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. Next came 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.
Ganahl joined the fight through a conservative nonprofit called the Job Creators Network, which was launched by Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot and a significant funder of conservative candidates and causes.
Ganahl first ran for elected office in 2016. Democrats generally had the upper hand in Colorado that year, but Ganahl won a seat as an at-large member of the CU 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.
The state of the financial race
Ganahl lags far beyond in the spending battle. She had taken in about $1.8 million in contributions as of Sept. 14, plus $500,000 in loans. That includes $400,000 of Ganahl’s own money, which she gave to the campaign.
The Polis campaign had taken in nearly $10 million. The vast majority — more than 95 percent of the donations — came from Polis himself.
Ganahl is getting a financial boost from an outside funder, Steve Wells, the heir to a ranching and oil-and-gas business in Weld County. Wells has donated $11 million to an independent expenditure committee that is running ads against Polis and for Ganahl.
Editor's note: This article was updated on Oct. 31, 2022, with more information about Heidi Ganahl's claims about "furries" in schools.
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