Colorado's Gubernatorial Trifecta: Trump, the Parties and Cash
Seth Masket is director of the Center on American Politics and a professor in the Department of Political Science. He has taught at the University of Denver since 2004. Masket's areas of research and expertise focuses on American political parties at the local, state and national level. Masket has published two books and has a weekly on-line column with Pacific Standard and is a founder and regular contributor to Vox.com's Mischiefs of Faction blog.
Colorado is nearing the end of a fascinating and competitive gubernatorial primary, with ballots due by Tuesday, June 26th. Before the votes are counted, though, it’s worth reflecting on what we’ve learned so far from this race. I count at least three useful lessons about the state of party politics.
National politics dominates
Both of last week’s gubernatorial debates began with questions about President Donald Trump’s border policies and the separation of children from immigrant families. A half an hour into the GOP debate, the candidates were still discussing their degree of support for Trump’s policies and his statements that the media are the enemy of the American people.
The debates, and the overall gubernatorial campaigns, have hardly been exclusively about national politics. Candidates have spent a good deal of time talking about oil and gas regulations, education reforms, state budget constraints, and other issues decidedly within the purview of the governor of Colorado. But national issues have loomed heavily over the race.
The nationalization of American politics is hardly a new trend. Despite Tip O’Neill’s famous adage that “all politics is local,” national parties have made real efforts to insert national political stories into midterm elections in such years as 1994 and 2006. The 1998 midterms turned heavily on attitudes about Clinton’s impeachment and 2010 was all about the Affordable Care Act.
But those trends largely affected congressional elections, as members of Congress have a plausible connection to national political stories. Gubernatorial elections have usually been somewhat insulated from national stories. The focus on national issues in this Colorado race suggest that candidates, reporters, and voters are unusually fixated on Donald Trump and the degree to which their governor will work, even if only symbolically, to support his agenda or to undermine it.
The parties still work, though
This was an unusual gubernatorial election for Colorado in that both parties’ nominations were wide open. Gov. John Hickenlooper is termed out, and unlike when he first ran in 2010, there was no obvious consensus candidate in either party. Colorado’s major party leaders have made a habit of converging on a favorite candidate pretty early for statewide races like governor and U.S. Senate and discouraging others from getting in the race. Hickenlooper, Cory Gardner, Bill Ritter, Bob Beauprez, and others just didn’t face very strong opposition in their primaries.
It was different this time around. Indeed, there was concern late last year that too many people were running for governor across both parties, and that the parties might face a situation like Republicans did in the 2016 presidential race. That didn’t happen. Candidates with less experience and less proven commitment to their party ended up either dropping out due to a lack of support or through elimination at the caucus stage when they failed to secure the support of party activists.
Going into the primary, each party has four prospective nominees, each of whom has solid credentials as a representative of his or her party. There is only modest ideological range across the Republican gubernatorial candidates, and much the same could be said for the Democratic candidates. Voters certainly have choices, based on the candidates’ perceived electability and statewide appeal, their degree of support for certain policies from education to taxation to environmental regulation, and the teams of allies behind the candidates. But no matter which candidates win the primary next Tuesday, each party will be getting a competent and articulate nominee largely in keeping with where that party is in the state and nationally right now, all without party insiders exerting a heavy hand. That’s actually a healthy sign for the state.
But we still don’t know how to talk about money in campaigns
One of the sharpest exchanges in last week’s Democratic debate concerned the role of campaign spending. Jared Polis, who has put more than $11 million of his own money into his campaign, was accused of trying to buy the election. Mike Johnston was called to task for being funded by out-of-state benefactors like Michael Bloomberg. Both Johnston and Cary Kennedy have been criticized for taking funds from political action committees. Over on the Republican side, Walker Stapleton was questioned for taking money from oil and gas interests; he responded by asking them for more.
These arguments are remarkably unedifying. There’s very little evidence from political science scholarship that donations are actually buying votes. Instead, donations follow votes; people give to candidates based on their records and promises, not to purchase compliance. And arguments about campaign money and corruption rarely make much sense. If someone who spends his own money is as untrustworthy as someone who spends other people’s money, just how useful is this debate?
Nonetheless, voters and political observers remain deeply distrustful of campaign money. One way out of it could be the public financing of state campaigns, which has been attempted, with reasonable success, in states like Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut. There’s little evidence it’s substantially changed the sorts of people who get into office or their behavior once they’re there, but if it improves public trust in governance, that might not be a bad thing. Of course, getting there would require convincing the public that their tax dollars should be spent on political ads, and that’s no small task.
No doubt many voters are looking forward to a respite from the political advertisements. (Don’t worry — they’ll be back in the fall!) But even aside from learning who our next party nominees will be, we know quite a bit more about modern politics than we did a year ago. And even as national politics continues to fascinate, mystify, and shock Coloradans, we can look with some pride on our state’s political system.