Littwin: To catch Polis, Stapleton needs to add drama to the campaign — but maybe not too much
October 7, 2018
For those of us political junkies who have been desperately awaiting a poll in this sparsely-polled governor's race, we finally have one. And, I'm afraid to say, it's a huge disappointment.
The poll, jointly conducted by reputable Democratic and Republican firms, shows Jared Polis with a 7-point lead over Walker Stapleton, which is exactly, plus or minus two points, what I could have predicted without anyone's help.
Where's the drama? Where's the plot twist? Where's Tony Wolters?
I've been binge-watching this race for months, and I'm still waiting for something to happen.
Otherwise, as the analytics guys will tell you, the fundamentals are the fundamentals, and that's what we're left with.
If you don't know the routine, here goes. Only one Republican has been elected governor in Colorado in more than 40 years. Only one Republican has won any top-of-the-ballot election here since 2006. And nothing has happened in this race to change that dynamic, which most recently saw Hillary Clinton winning Colorado by five points over Donald Trump.
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I know neither candidate is long on charisma, but I thought this race promised at least some excitement. We begin with no incumbent, in a nationally watched swing state, with two candidates who stand in opposition on nearly every important issue, with a more-than-reasonable chance that control of the state legislature is at risk, with redistricting upcoming, with Republicans desperate to move the blueish-purple state back to pure purple.
I'd say the seven points is about where we were when the race began after the primaries, and, according to the Magellan Strategies-Keating Research poll — conducted for an advocacy group called Healthier Colorado — that's where we are today, with just a few weeks left before ballots hit your mailboxes.
Not only is the poll predictable, but so are the cross tabs. The poll has Polis leading by 17 points among women, a number that certainly isn't being helped by the Kavanaugh hearings or by Donald Trump's ugly Tuesday night mockfest of Christine Blasey Ford. Polis also leads by 18 points among unaffiliated voters, a number that probably reflects the expected midterm blue wave and obviously must change significantly in order for Stapleton to win.
Then there's this number: Among unaffiliated women, Polis is leading 48-22. This is a big number, a huge number.
So what is Stapleton doing to undo this mess? As far as I can tell, the major thrust of the Stapleton campaign — or at least the major thrust of TV campaign ads paid for by groups supporting Stapleton — has been that Jared Polis is a crazy Boulder liberal socialist with dangerous ideas that would ruin the state.
And though Polis certainly has his idiosyncratic side, he has successfully, to this point anyway, refrained from doing anything during the campaign that would remotely feed into the GOP stereotype.
But now comes the chance, maybe the last best chance, for Stapleton to change things around. Debate season is beginning. It's starting a little late since Polis skipped the Club 20 debate, but there are plenty to come, including the hour-long debate Friday night at 6 p.m. (so close to prime time) on CBS4.
You'll definitely hear Stapleton trying to persuade viewers that Polis is too liberal for Colorado. To this point, that strategy doesn't seem to be working, and maybe that's because on many of the big issues — starting with health care and immigration — the numbers seem to support Polis. And clearly Stapleton needs some issue that works for him beyond an opponent's choice of residence. His problem is that the issues that worked in the primary — say, railing again sanctuary cities or embracing Tom Tancredo — are not winning arguments in the general.
But there is a chance for real drama in the first debate, if anyone has the nerve to bring up the 1999 Polis police report that Republicans have been trying to make into an issue. It hasn't worked so far because there's apparently nothing to the story beyond what is already known — that a female employee (who would later plead guilty to theft) was stealing trade secrets from Polis, who struggled with her as she attempted to take files from the office. Check out this Kyle Clark piece on 9News if you're interested. Or read the police report.
I doubt the moderators will touch the incident, but if they do, how could Stapleton play it? I don't see any easy way out for him. If he backs down, he's deserting his allies who have willfully ignored the point that the police concluded at the time that Polis was the actual victim.
If Stapleton doesn't back down, he's going to have to defend going after Polis for a non-issue while Republicans defend Brett Kavanaugh against what seem to be credible charges of sexual misconduct, including one from Debbie Ramirez, who also happens to live in Boulder.
And Polis would, of course, counter not only with Ramirez and Ford and Trump's indefensible mockery of assault victims, but also with Stapleton's DUI conviction from the same year.
It would be drama all right, probably more than enough to last the entire campaign.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in the Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com