Election 2018

Colorado governor candidates juggle local issues

'Trump factor' weighs in governor’s race, but issues at home abound

Posted 10/15/18

To hear the candidates, their campaigns and political ads tell it, voters might get the impression the race for Colorado’s governor seat is all about President Donald Trump. But up close, the …

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Election 2018

Colorado governor candidates juggle local issues

'Trump factor' weighs in governor’s race, but issues at home abound

Colorado Gubernatorial candidates Jared Polis, left, and Walker Stapleton.
Colorado Gubernatorial candidates Jared Polis, left, and Walker Stapleton.
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To hear the candidates, their campaigns and political ads tell it, voters might get the impression the race for Colorado’s governor seat is all about President Donald Trump. But up close, the Republican candidate says otherwise.

“This is a race between Walker Stapleton and Jared Polis,” said Stapleton, of Greenwood Village, when asked how heavily Trump will weigh on the race. “I’ll stand up to Washington regardless of who’s in power.”

That comment comes after months of campaigning that saw Stapleton, the current state treasurer, touting his support for Trump and making plays to the conservative base. Polis, at times, attempts a moderate tone after months of positioning himself as the anti-Trump warrior — he voted in Congress to consider impeachment proceedings for Trump but has said he can work with the president if needed.

“I’ll always put Colorado first, ahead of the dictates of any” Republican or Democrat, said Polis, the Democrat from Boulder. “I think there’s concern that Trump has his own arbitrary way of thinking that isn’t always in the interests of Colorado.”

Polis, the U.S. representative for Colorado’s 2nd District, said he’d stand up to “this president or any president” to protect Colorado’s public lands, just one item in a long list of such local issues as energy, immigration and transportation that have taken up the front burner this campaign season.

Trump looms large over the midterm elections in general: More Republicans and Democrats say a congressional candidate’s stance on Trump will influence their vote most, compared to the weight of local or national issues, a recent poll said. But a longtime local analyst argued issues will still reign supreme in the governor’s contest.

“Voters really want specifics by candidates on the fundamental issues,” said Dick Wadhams, political strategist and former chair of the Colorado Republican Party. Victory depends on who “can articulate an agenda Colorado can relate to and support.”

Both candidates sat down with Colorado Community Media leading up to the election. Here’s what they, and local analysts, had to say about the race, the issues and who has the upper hand.

'The Trump factor'

Despite the candidates’ embrace of the far left and far right during the race in what’s often pegged as a “purple” state, independent political analyst Eric Sondermann wasn’t surprised.

“I think it’s more predictable than not,” Sondermann said. “Both parties become more polarized. The Republican Party is the party of Donald Trump. You don’t see Stapleton or others deviating much from Trump orthodoxy. The Democrats have shifted as much to the left as the Republicans did to the right.”

Polis has taken direct aim at Trump, and though his website’s main pages appear to consciously avoid mentioning the president, more specific pages on the site and his Twitter accounts lob frequent attacks, such as for “Trump’s Washington attacking women’s reproductive rights.”

Although Stapleton said he doesn’t think opinions on Trump will weigh much on the race, he’s emphasized his support for the president in TV ads and has said he hasn’t made “one disparaging comment” about him. He appeared with former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, known for his hard-line immigration stances and white-nationalist ties, at a campaign event where Tancredo praised Trump and “making America great again,” The Colorado Independent reported.

Polis, on the other hand, has U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, set to campaign for him. And to match Trump’s recent endorsement of Stapleton, Polis has garnered former President Barack Obama’s support, and Hillary Clinton was to appear at a fundraiser with him.

Despite “the Trump factor” playing a likely role in the race, governor’s contests tend to spend ample time on specific issues, Wadhams said — and the candidates offer a clear choice.

On the issues

Polis supports a path toward making Colorado a 100 percent renewable-energy state by 2040, a policy Stapleton has labeled an “extremist plan” that will increase cost of living.

“Polis’ radical agenda will make it even harder for Coloradans to afford their utility bills,” Stapleton said, according to his website.

The Democrat counters that Xcel Energy says new wind energy costs 20 percent less for consumers than existing coal energy, and that a transition would produce “good green jobs that can never be outsourced.”

“We want to make sure we can credit the high skills of people who work in fossil fuels and that they have every opportunity to have good jobs in green energy going forward,” Polis said. His website says he’d move to incentivize a transition, but he’s suggested on Twitter that it wouldn’t involve a requirement.

Polis, who represents north-central Colorado up to the state line, voted against the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act, a proposed 2017 law that would outlaw so-called “sanctuary cities” where officials don’t aid the federal government in deporting undocumented immigrants. Boulder, which sits in Polis’ district, has proclaimed itself a sanctuary city.

Stapleton said he supports the federal government coming up with a path to citizenship for “Dreamers,” those who arrived in the U.S. as children and have protected status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA. He has made opposing sanctuary cities a central tenet of his campaign.

“All immigrants have value,” said Stapleton, adding that sanctuary-city policies only affect people who have committed a felony in addition to entering the country illegally.

Colorado should have a uniform set of law enforcement policies, he said, so officials like police and district attorneys “know that the government of Colorado has their back.”

On transportation, Polis said he differs from his opponent in supporting not only lane expansion on roads, but also bike, rail and bus transit, which he said would help families save money.

Colorado needs “to think outside the box and provide other options to get cars off our roads,” Polis said.

Stapleton’s website focuses only on roads and bridges and says he’ll put pressure on the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“As your governor, I will remind CDOT that they work for you and make them find the money in their existing budget,” Stapleton said, according to the site.

In the dirt

Both candidates have had to wade through the mud on the way to Election Day, with claims ranging from Stapleton lying about finances to Polis rebuffing the Western Slope.

Wadhams said it revealed “an arrogance” on the part of Polis when he declined to participate in a September debate by Club 20, a prominent organization of counties, communities and businesses in western Colorado.

Polis said he had a prior family obligation on that night and pointed to the Oct. 6 debate he had with Stapleton in Grand Junction.

“We’ve held over 40 free meet-and-greets across the Western Slope,” Polis said, adding he has a campaign office in Grand Junction.

He’s also seen accusations he avoided paying taxes. Polis, an entrepreneur, has said he didn’t pay income taxes in years his expenses were greater than his income — cases where he wouldn’t owe income taxes, Colorado news outlets have reported.

“Of course, I paid all my taxes,” Polis told Colorado Community Media. He said that includes all income tax owed in all years.

Stapleton has faced scrutiny over a blind trust, an arrangement set up to allow others to manage a public official’s financial matters to avoid conflict of interest. Denver-area outlets have reported that documents show Stapleton had influence over a trust, Rocky Mountain Trust LLC.

Stapleton said Rocky Mountain Trust LLC is not the blind trust and that the correct entity is the Walker R. Stapleton Blind Trust, according to Denver-area outlets.

“I put all my assets in a blind trust the first year I became treasurer,” Stapleton told Colorado Community Media, saying accusations of improper actions are untrue.

What are the odds?

Stapleton points out his opponent has spent about $20 million on the race, and Wadhams found his spending troublesome.

“Polis bought the (primary) election — he spent $11 million,” Wadhams said. “I think a lot of Democrats are terribly uncomfortable with that. I think a lot of Democrats are not as far left as he is.”

In recent polls, Polis has the edge: A Kaiser Family Foundation/Colorado Health Foundation poll of 1,585 voters has him up 44 percent to Stapleton’s 33 percent, with 15 percent undecided. A Magellan Strategies/Keating Research poll of 600 likely voters said 47 percent supported Polis, 40 percent preferred Stapleton and 11 percent were undecided. The Kaiser poll is the same one that offered insight into how candidates’ support for Trump would affect votes for congressional races.

Sondermann pegs Colorado as a “light-blue state” and believes Polis has some advantage.

“But Walker Stapleton has an advantage too, which is he’s running against the Democrat he wanted to run against,” Sondermann said. “He would much prefer Polis, checkbook notwithstanding,” because Polis has vulnerabilities other Democrats didn’t.

Polis’ support of policies like universal health care and universal preschool exemplify his left-leaning, according to Sondermann. He mused about the polarization between the candidates.

“This is a red-meat Republican,” Sondermann said, “and a fully vegan Democrat.”

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