The Aaron Harber Show

Bill Ritter's Big Surprise
November 8, 2006
By Aaron Harber

Part 1: Why Ritter Was Such A Good Candidate

Many long-time political pundits ate their words uttered in 2005 when, two years later, Bill Ritter, the former District Attorney for the First Judicial District (the City & County of Denver) coasted to a huge victory on Election Night. Initially not taken seriously by any “political expert,” Ritter deployed the tortoise-and-hare approach and, step-by-step, won the race over a two-year period. What did he do right?

1. Ritter started early. He knew he needed the time to organize a statewide campaign and to convince political leaders and media pundits he was a credible candidate.

2. Ritter locked up support in the City & County of Denver and then made similar inroads across the State. When others later considered the race, they were impressed with how many people were already committed to Ritter.

3. Ritter drew from his strengths. He had a great life story and used it. Born on a Colorado farm, he had spent a good portion of his life helping others - including service overseas. He always worked hard and it showed. Ritter also used his management experience to build a top-notch campaign management team. Although many Democratic “pros” held off while bigger names were considering the race, Ritter got the best people available and they rose to the challenge under his leadership. Soon, everyone else came onboard when it became obvious he was going to be the nominee and he magnanimously welcomed them, too.

4. He kept his eye on the prize - i.e., winning the November 7th election - by staying consistent on issues which made him a good General Election candidate but a poor Primary Election candidate. For example, being an anti-abortion candidate was an anathema in the Democratic Party but it was a factor which made him a very centrist candidate, which is ideal for a Democrat running in a statewide election. With a strong “Law & Order” background as a District Attorney who put criminals behind bars, Ritter was the perfect “tough” Democrat to win a General Election in Colorado.

5. Ritter was consistent in his response to potential opponents. He made it clear he was in the race to stay and they would be in for a tough fight. Many of the better-known prospective candidates wanted the nomination handed to them. They understandably believed any kind of contested primary would make the winner too weak to prevail in the General Election. Knowing Ritter was an obstacle, some concluded it wasn’t worth the risk.

6. When an onslaught of other names was paraded before the public - Colorado Senate President Joan Fitzgerald, Colorado Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, House Majority Leader Alice Madden, Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, U.S. Senator Ken Salazar, and Congressman Mark Udall, among many others - Ritter kept his cool and didn’t get upset by the “Anybody But Bill” campaign being conducted by those Democrats who couldn’t stomach the thought of nominating a man to lead their party who was anti-abortion.

7. He got lucky. Multimillionaire entrepreneur Rutt Bridges entered the race and was set to face- off in the Primary Election against Ritter and was likely to get many Democratic votes just due to Ritter’s anti-abortion stance. After a few months of campaigning, Bridges concluded he did not want to seek the office and dropped out of the race.

8. Ritter also was fortunate to benefit from a national Democratic tide which helped Democrats in many races across the country but his margin of victory greatly exceeded any boost he received from “The Blue Wave” of 2006.

Ritter’s timing, however accidental, was phenomenal. His hard work and patience paid off. In a matter of months, he went from a candidate who wasn’t taken seriously to a runaway winner in what had been projected to be a close race.

Part 2: History Lesson Lost On Beauprez

Many political experts thought the gubernatorial race was Bob Beauprez’s to lose - and, surprisingly, he did just that. Beauprez was an incumbent Congressman who had won a tough race by only 121 votes in the first-ever election in 2002 for Colorado’s new 7th Congressional District - a district with almost 700,000 residents. He had won a four-person Republican primary and came out of that election at full throttle - taking on his well-known and well-liked Democratic opponent, Senate Minority Leader Mike Feeley. It was Feeley who was defeated by Beauprez in the General Election.

In 2004, Beauprez ran for reelection against Democratic nominee Dave Thomas. Thomas had impressive credentials as the District Attorney in the judicial district which includes and is dominated by Jefferson County. Beauprez’s campaign attacked Thomas for a series of decisions made by the D.A.’s office and the result was an overwhelming 30,000-vote margin for Beauprez - just two years after winning by only 121 votes.

Now running in a statewide race in 2006, Beauprez started off with a Republican voter registration advantage of over 170,000 - far above Bill Owen’ 8,300-vote margin of victory in 1998, when he first won the race for Governor against then Lt. Governor Gail Schoettler. Beauprez was well-liked and considered successful in office after having served as the Colorado Republican Party’s Chairman. A successful businessman who was a dairy farmer, an established family man, and a Colorado native, Beauprez offered Coloradans the kind of executive leadership most voters desire.

Other top-rank Republicans stepped aside for Beauprez and all but handed him the nomination. Prominent Republicans such as former Congressman Scott McInnis, former U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Lt. Governor Jane Norton, and State Treasurer Mike Coffman all yielded to Beauprez (and some regret their decision today). The maverick who didn’t, however, was former University of Denver President Marc Holtzman. Holtzman wanted to lead the Republican Party in a new direction and had no compunction about taking on Beauprez.

What was interesting is Beauprez took Holtzman’s challenge so seriously it resulted in the misdirection of Beauprez’s campaign - throwing it off its potentially successful track. This was the first indication that Beauprez was not getting or taking good advice.

A similar situation had just occurred two years ago. Comparing the 2006 gubernatorial race to the 2004 U.S. Senate race, well-known, well-liked, and well-respected Democratic Attorney General Ken Salazar faced a tough, intra-party challenge from Mike Miles, even after the other Democratic heavyweights such as Congressman Mark Udall and entrepreneur Rutt Bridges had stepped aside for Salazar. In 2006, Holtzman was the Republican version of Miles - a candidate who was a vehicle for change and who was trying to steer a new course for his party.

Salazar all but ignored Miles and refused to be pulled in any significant way to the Left as a means to snare Democratic Primary Election voters. Salazar maintained his centrist positions with a view towards the General Election, when everyone voted. Miles worked hard and convinced the Democratic Party faithful to support him. A majority did exactly that at the State Convention and surprised the pundits by giving Miles top-line designation. Salazar, however, wasn’t fazed and maintained the centrist position he knew he needed to have in order to win the General Election. Salazar went on to handily defeat Miles in the Primary Election by an overwhelming margin of 73% to 27% (173,0167 to 63,973 votes out of 237,140 cast). Beauprez, however, did not follow the same course.

Part 3: Bob Beauprez’s Major Miscues

There is no question that 2006 was a tough year to be a Republican in many parts of the country. Colorado was no exception. With unhappiness about the War in Iraq, broken promises about fiscal responsibility, and a dominating sense the Republican leadership - wracked by scandal and influence peddling - had not come close to fulfilling the promises it had made to the American people in 1994, when the Republican Party took control of Congress, many voters had lost faith in the Republican Party. And even though the Colorado Economy was doing well, Bob Beauprez faced a tough crowd in 2006.

With Marc Holtzman dogging him in 2005, Beauprez came out against Referenda C & D - two much-needed measures meant to give Colorado’s State Government some fiscal breathing room. Holtzman was the primary critic of the two measures and Beauprez felt it was necessary to join the Ref C opposition. He miscalculated, however, as the campaign for the Referenda was led by Republican Governor Bill Owens, long known as a fiscal conservative, and was supported by a major segment of the traditionally Republican business community across the entire State. This miscalculation was Beauprez’s first major mistake.

Beauprez elected to not use Owens and many other prominent and well-respected Republicans such as former U.S. Senator Hank Brown as “cover” and, instead, mimicked Holtzman. While that negated Holtzman politically, it was an overreaction by Beauprez and moved the moderately-viewed Congressman further to the Right. Once Referendum C passed in November, instead of welcoming the fiscal relief, Beauprez failed to regroup and continued his opposition to it.

Several months later, given a second chance to mend fences, Beauprez instead elected to prominently sign a petition seeking to limit the Ref C proceeds to $3.7 billion over five years rather than allow the State to keep all net tax collections, even if they cumulatively exceeded the $3.7 billion figure. This further alienated many Republicans and an entire range of businesspersons who wanted to see the State repair roads and bridges as well as better support education at all levels. It also unintentionally made Beauprez look like a sore loser and unwilling to embrace the public’s decision. Rather than simply say, “Ref C is the will of the people and I’m the best man to implement it effectively,” Beauprez continued to paint himself as an opponent of Ref C and only came around to the “best man” position late in the campaign.

Beauprez’s next major mistake was to sign a petition supporting Amendment 38 - the Petition Rights Amendment. The PRA was a proposal to streamline the Colorado petition process and ensure that citizens could petition their government at all levels within Colorado. It was a reaction to the General Assembly and Secretary of State’s efforts to limit the petition process. It was written too expansively, however, and encountered stiff opposition - failing overwhelmingly at the polls on November 7th.

The PRA was opposed by most elected officials and many businesspeople - resulting in Beauprez being seen as even further to the Right at a time he should have been focused on getting to Colorado’s political center. He backtracked and eventually disavowed the PRA but the damage had been done - and now, adding to his problems, he was appearing facile and inconsistent (qualities one does not want to have in a political race).

Part 4: The Wrong Nominee And A D.A. Attack Misfires

Marc Holtzman’s campaign ended when he failed to get on the Republican Primary Election ballot and Bob Beauprez then automatically became the Party’s nominee. However, rather than moderate his tone and tactics, Beauprez moved further to the Right by selecting newly-elected Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland as his running mate. No one understood the selection because Rowland was a complete unknown. Coming from the Western Slope might have been a plus for the Democratic nominee but for Republican Beauprez, the nomination made no sense at all. Getting someone such as Lola Spradley, the first woman ever to serve as Speaker of the House in Colorado, would have been a coup. And there were many other excellent choices to be considered. Rowland, while an extraordinary person and very well-accomplished in her own right, simply was a complete unknown.

Then the Rowland nomination backfired when a video clip surfaced of her appearance on “Colorado State of Mind,” a KRMA-TV Channel 6 program hosted by Greg Dobbs. The discussion involved gay marriage and Rowland made comments about it possibly leading to bestiality. She apologized for her comments but the incident stymied any attempt by Beauprez to move to the political center. It also caused pundits to question his campaign management in that the Beauprez team either severely underestimated the reaction to the PBS appearance or had failed to identify it before the nomination. Either way, Beauprez lost ground.

Rather than gaining momentum, Beauprez unintentionally kept impeding his own campaign. The campaign felt confident it could successfully attack Democratic nominee Bill Ritter the same way Beauprez had eviscerated Dave Thomas, the District Attorney for the First Judicial District, who had been the Democratic nominee for Congress in 2004.

That year, the Beauprez campaign selected several controversial cases Thomas’s office handled and attacked him as having been incompetent and having endangered the public. Thomas did not have the resources to respond in kind and found the attacks devastating. They were fatal to an already uphill effort to unseat a popular incumbent and Thomas lost by a wide margin.

This year, Beauprez rolled out a similar attack by focusing on a large number of cases (almost 200) which made former Denver District Attorney Ritter look bad. Ritter had plea-bargained 19 out of every 20 cases and some of the plea bargains were very controversial.

Part 5: Beauprez’s Last Chance Backfires.

When Bob Beauprez deployed the same tactic in his 2006 gubernatorial bid against former District Attorney Bill Ritter which he had used successfully in 2004 in his congressional reelection campaign against Jeffco D.A. Dave Thomas, it backfired. Right away a number of DA’s across Colorado - including some prominent Republican DA’s - came to Ritter’s defense. This mitigated much of the effect of the attack. Then a number of newspaper editorial pages criticized Beauprez for oversimplifying the reality that all DA’s are forced to plea bargain the same average of cases because of the extraordinary number of cases they are required to process as well as the limits which exist on jail and prison space.

What really surprised political analysts, however, was the level of sophistication voters displayed. Many understood the problems with an overburdened judicial system and, as a result, did not always see the selection of less than 200 out of over 60,000 cases prosecuted by Ritter’s office as being relevant. Colorado citizens knew most cases got plea-bargained and that, without plea bargaining, the entire judicial system would collapse. And Ritter already had prepared his campaign for exactly the attack Beauprez launched.

The result was Beauprez’s attacks were not nearly as effective as he had hoped. Even worse, however, they backfired when it was determined his campaign had used information procured illegally by a supporter. The supporter was a federal agent who had accessed a restricted, confidential government database and communicated his findings to the Beauprez campaign. While Beauprez and his campaign did not know the information had been gained improperly, the scandal which resulted killed any remaining chance of a Beauprez victory.

Rather than denouncing the illegally gotten information and pulling the ad, Beauprez made the situation worse by declaring the federal agent was a hero. This allowed Ritter to put on his DA “Law & Order” hat and argue that those who break the law should not be held up as model citizens. The situation made Beauprez look bad – i.e., a Republican arguing that breaking the law was excusable. And it made Ritter look good – i.e., a centrist Democrat emphasizing the need for Law & Order and for all Coloradans to follow the law and be treated equally under it. The situation again made many experts wonder who was advising Beauprez. Although he was trying to make lemonade from lemons, he ended up in a worse position (holding a stinking pile of rotting lemons, perhaps?).

The outcome was Beauprez had lost the confidence of the majority of voters and was unable to get it back. He went from the favored frontrunner, with ample resources, to the losing candidate in what, at worst, should have been a close race. His +170,000 Republican voter registration advantage was rendered meaningless as Ritter got the solid support of almost every Democrat in the State along with the vast majority of unaffiliated voters and numerous Republicans.

In less than ten months, Bob Beauprez had taken a downward ride on a campaign trajectory consistently pointed in the wrong direction. Even before Election Day, the Washington Post labeled it as one of the nation’s “Ten Worst” campaigns. Unfortunately, for one of Colorado’s own, the label was well-deserved.

By the end of Election Day, Bob Beauprez had magnanimously conceded the Republican governorship of Colorado and watched as his Congressional District elected Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat, to help forge a Democratic majority in the U.S. Congress for the first time in a dozen years. It was a tough day to be a Republican.

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