Mike Littwin: Stapleton changes debate strategy, trading in faux anger for phony outrage
October 20, 2018
If you watch the governor's debates closely — and, because it's my job, I do — you saw a, uh, radical change in Walker Stapleton's strategy Wednesday night at Colorado State University.
In the previous debate, Stapleton, trailing in the polls, came out red-faced angry, repeatedly lashing out at rival Jared Polis as "radical and extreme" and making the case that Polis, if elected, would not only be too radical and too extreme for Colorado but also would bankrupt the state.
By one count, he got up to 13 radicals. As far as I know, no one was keeping track of the extremes, which was too bad. I blame myself. But Stapleton apparently didn't persuade many people with his performance because, among other issues, the governor — even a progressive one like Polis would be — doesn't have the actual constitutional power to bankrupt the state. Mostly what governors do, if we take the case of our present governor, is race around the country running for president.
On Wednesday, Stapleton still got in a couple of radicals and a couple of extremes and he threw in Polis's so-called $93-billion budget (there is no $93-billion budget), but he didn't seem angry and he wasn't red-faced and I didn't see him sweat.
This time, he traded anger for outrage over a 1999 police incident, in which the police concluded that Polis was the victim. Unfortunately for Stapleton, the outrage was, like Stapleton's imaginary Polis budget, completely phony.
As the ballots land in your mail boxes, Stapleton wants you to believe that Polis is a, well, woman-pusher. And as a father of three children (at one point, he said two children, but, hey, who's counting), Stapleton was pretty sure Colorado could do better.
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If you know the story, it's because Stapleton can't resist retelling it. He brought it up at every opportunity Wednesday, occasionally over the objection of 9News moderator Kyle Clark. A PAC formed recently to support Stapleton went further, pushing an attack ad on the air about Polis shoving a female employee. As the Colorado Independent's Alex Burness pointed out in his review of the debate, what Stapleton and the PAC don't mention is that Polis was being robbed at the time by his employee, that the woman was hitting Polis with her bag (which apparently led to the pushing) and that Polis had called 911. Neither mentioned that the woman would plead guilty to stealing trade secrets from Polis. Or that KMGH-Denver7 would pull the ad on the incident for being misleading, as most fact-checkers had already noted.
By the way, Stapleton, protector of women, was asked about Donald Trump's treatment of women and whether it matters that he was supporting a president who called women "horse face" and worse. Stapleton said he didn't concern himself with Trump's "personality," which may not have answered the question, but it did show (without even mentioning paying off porn stars and pussy grabbing) that Stapleton's outrage may be limited.
Do you wonder why Stapleton can't seem to find an issue of his own that resonates with voters? (We need more roads, so vote for me, because my opponent believes in so many modes of transportation it's hard to keep track. Under a Polis administration, the state will go bankrupt, women will be pushed, health care will be expanded, Boulder will remain part of Colorado and kindergartners will go to school a full day.)
There is legitimate question about how Polis — who keeps trying to push his way toward the center during these debates — would pay for all his ideas without raising taxes. (Here's a hint: Polis will ask voters to raise taxes, but he might also ask to lower taxes on lower earners.) He'll be campaigning with Bernie Sanders next week, which Republicans will dine on for a few days and which Polis hopes will encourage younger voters to hit the polls.
And so Stapleton's entire campaign is about Polis in a campaign season in which the main issue across the country will clearly be Trump, who won't be campaigning here. Mike Pence is coming to town, and he's not campaigning, either. Polis rarely mentions Trump. He doesn't have to. Trump's influence in a state he lost by 5 points to Hillary Clinton is baked in. Stapleton rarely mentions Trump either, not since the GOP primary anyway. He can't afford to.
Republicans up and down the ticket in Colorado are worried about a prospective Democratic wave — which one national Democratic strategist said would be more like a cyclone, hitting certain parts of the country and missing others. And Colorado? In a new New York Times/Siena College poll of the 6th Congressional District, upstart Jason Crow is leading Mike Coffman by 9 points. A month ago, the same pollsters had Crow up by 10, showing no movement in that time. Meanwhile, Nate Silver's fivethirty eight.com — which scores the Colorado governor's race as likely Dem — surprisingly just moved the 3rd Congressional District, where Republican Scott Tipton is the incumbent and Diane Mitsch Bush the challenger, to a toss-up.
There is one televised debate left in the governor's race, and it will be interesting to see whether Stapleton goes for anger or outrage or something else entirely. If I were running, I'd go after Polis' real vulnerability — his spending $22 million of his own money trying to buy the election. But for born-rich Stapleton, close relative to the Bush dynasty, who has tossed $1 million of his own into the race, whose grass-roots support has been uninspiring, the challenge might sound a bit extreme.
Or maybe he could go this way: What we've learned so far from the debates is that Stapleton has three kids and Polis has only two.
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
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