Polis takes CD 2 in big upset

Fitz-Gerald labor support fails to deliver

By John Schroyer

A few minutes after 10 p.m. Tuesday night, 9News broadcast that former Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald was leading in the three-way race for the Democratic nomination in Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, and a cheer went up throughout Fitz-Gerald’s party at the Amalgamated Transit Union Hall in Westminster.

Fitz-Gerald had trailed former State Board of Education member Jared Polis ever since early returns were first reported by news outlets, and a palpable wave of relief swept through the room.

It was, however, short-lived. The TV station had erred, reversing the results. It was Polis, not Fitz-Gerald, who led by four points.

“It’s over. She’s toast,” said one depressed supporter.

Just 20 minutes later, Fitz-Gerald announced that she had called Polis to concede. She told the unhappy supporters who packed the room that the numbers just weren’t going her way, and it didn’t look like the trend was going to change.

At that point, Polis had 43 percent of the vote, Fitz-Gerald was taking 39 percent, and environmentalist Will Shafroth was a distant third, with 18 percent. Those numbers changed only slightly in the final tally. Polis wound up with 42 percent (19,942 votes), Fitz-Gerald with 38 percent (18,181 votes) and Shafroth with 20 percent (9,708 votes). The secretary of state’s office said they would not have completely finalized numbers available until next week.

Meanwhile, Polis elatedly accepted Fitz-Gerald’s phone call of congratulations, and — after a short speech to supporters gathered at the Renaissance Hotel in Broomfield — was swarmed by well-wishers and grinning campaign volunteers. He painted his victory in terms of broad strides made by progressive candidates and Democrats across the country.

“This has been an amazing election cycle for breaking down barriers. We have proven that a woman can be elected president, we have proven that an African American can be elected president, and — right here in our district — we’re proving that sexual orientation won’t be a barrier to gaining elected office,” Polis said.

And although Polis said Fitz-Gerald was “very, very gracious” in her concession, on Tuesday night, observers could see that she was obviously somewhat bitter about how the race had played out.

“It’s hard to run a campaign when you’re being outspent as heavily as we were,” Fitz-Gerald said during her concession speech, referring to Polis’ decision to donate at least $5.3 million of his own personal fortune to his campaign. (As of two weeks before the primary, Polis had raised a total of $6.4 million, including his personal donations. Fitz-Gerald had raised $1.6 million, and Shafroth had raised $1.3 million.)

Polis, a multimillionaire and former Internet businessman, said his donations were made to counteract the union support that Fitz-Gerald had garnered and used throughout the campaign.

“Sen. Fitz-Gerald had many allies that spent a fortune on her behalf,” Polis asserted.

Some Fitz-Gerald backers took issue with that view.

“I think it’s terrible that the only way he can get elected is if he buys the election,” complained state Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, who served with Fitz-Gerald in the state Legislature. “The citizens of CD 2 have lost.”

Another member of the state Senate felt quite differently, however — Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder, said he “totally disagrees” with the assertion that Polis bought his way into Congress.

He credited Polis’ win to his unflagging commitment to hard campaigning.

“I was very impressed with his work ethic,” Tupa said. “He outworked the other two. That’s what earned my endorsement and what won him the race. He put in 110 percent. All the money did was make the race competitive.”

Tupa’s enthusiasm for Polis, however, might have been influenced by his history of serious disagreements with Fitz-Gerald in the Legislature.

Former state Rep. Val Vigil, D-Thornton, said Fitz-Gerald’s contentiousness had turned off many potential supporters.

“Joan is a divider, not a uniter. It’s either her way or the highway,” Vigil said. He went on to compare Fitz-Gerald to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was known for browbeating political opponents until they submitted to his will.

But state Sen. Stephanie Takis, D-Aurora, laughed at that portrayal, saying it’s based on complaints from lobbyists and lawmakers who wound up with the short end of the stick.

“Joan could push people to compromise, and sometimes that doesn’t sit well,” Takis said. “That complaint is mainly from people who are on the losing end of things. She was wonderful, the way she handled things (in the Senate).”

Political observers agreed that Polis’ ability to saturate the airwaves with his name and message aided him significantly and canceled out the legendary get-out-the-vote machine of the AFL-CIO and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which actively supported Fitz-Gerald.

“People respond to what they see on TV,” said Bob Drake, of the Boulder political firm Talmey-Drake Research and Strategy, Inc. “It’s that simple.”

Even Colorado Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak acknowledged that the kind of money Polis was able to wield had an obvious impact on the race.

Drake added that he was surprised at the results because he had expected Shafroth to pull more votes from Polis because they both hail from Boulder. Fitz-Gerald, on the other hand, was thought to be stronger in Jefferson and Adams counties and in CD 2’s mountain precincts.

But as it turned out, Fitz-Gerald lost in Adams County, and that’s probably what cost her the race. Although her campaign had never expected to win in Boulder County, it had planned to make up the difference with a strong showing in Adams.

Only about a third of CD 2’s 149,000 registered Democrats turned out to vote in the primary, and, of that third, most votes were cast in Boulder County, where Polis won by roughly 800 out of 22,000 votes cast.

But in Adams, he won by an even larger margin, beating Fitz-Gerald by roughly 1,200 of about 12,000 votes cast.

Fitz-Gerald performed well in Jefferson County and the mountain counties, however, but the turnout and registration in those counties is much lower than in Boulder and Adams, the kingmakers of CD 2.

Polis said Adams County’s interest in pocketbook issues gave him the edge there. The candidate said his successful background in business gave him credibility as someone able to help give the district’s economy a much-needed boost.

Shafroth, meanwhile, said he was “disappointed” with the support he received, noting that early voting had probably had a significant impact on the race. Ballots were sent out to voters who registered as absentee weeks before the Aug. 12 election, and early voting took place in many counties throughout the state.

“I’ve had a ton of people tell me and my supporters, ‘Hi, I already voted for so-and-so, I wish I would have known about Will, I would have voted for him.’ That’s a sense of frustration for me,” Shafroth said.

In the waning weeks of the race, Shafroth was endorsed by both The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, and had hoped that such high-profile backers would turn the tide in his favor. But, he said Tuesday night, he simply couldn’t raise his name identification throughout the district fast enough to pull off a win.

“We had this incredibly positive feeling from people we were talking to at the doors, and it just turned out that a lot of the early ballots had been sent in before my momentum really started,” Shafroth lamented.

Next on the list for Polis is clinching the general election, which, Drake said, is all but over, given the sizable registration advantage Democrats enjoy in CD 2. Polis will face off against Republican Scott Starin and Unity Party candidate Bill Hammons.

But in order for Polis to lose, Drake said, either Starin or Hammons would have to run “a breakout campaign the likes of which we’ve never seen.”

Still, Starin promised a vigorous campaign. He said he will target unaffiliated voters as well as Republicans, and noted that unaffiliateds actually outnumber Democrats in CD 2.

“Everybody associates CD 2 as the Boulder CD. There’s 560,000 square miles that are not Boulder, and in those areas, my message resonates with the people,” Starin said.

Hammons commented in an e-mail, “I’m encouraged that the District’s Democrats made a dramatic statement by choosing a member of Generation X as their nominee for Congress, over two more seasoned candidates … Of the three Democrats who ran in the primary, Jared will be by far the most fun to run against in the general election.”

Polis said he plans to continue campaigning hard, and promised that he’s not taking the race for granted.

Tuesday night, Fitz-Gerald intimated that her life in politics was over, and told supporters, “As I close out my career in public service, I want you to know that it matters what people do, and it matters how people vote, and it matters that all of you care.”

She also said she has no interest in running in another primary in 2010 against Polis, as Republican Jeff Crank did this year in the conservative CD 5 after losing to then-state Sen. Doug Lamborn in 2006.

On Wednesday, however, rumors of a possible appointment to the secretary of state’s office began swirling, and the Fitz-Gerald campaign declined to comment on whether the former legislator would be interested in the job. Secretary of State Mike Coffman won the Republican primary for the 6th Congressional District nomination Tuesday night, all but assuring that he’ll vacate his current office and head to Washington, D.C. That means Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter will be looking for a replacement.