Internet entrepreneur Jared Polis spent millions of dollars from his own fortune to help Democrats take over the Colorado state Legislature in 2004, an effort that helped Joan Fitz-Gerald become the first woman to serve as state Senate president.
Now he’s spending millions to deny her a chance to serve in Congress.
The battle between the party’s leading moneyman and one of the best-known Democratic figures in Colorado politics is the marquee matchup in Tuesday’s Rocky Mountain State primary. Now Polis and Fitz-Gerald, along with environmental activist Will Shafroth, are all vying to succeed Democrat Rep. Mark Udall, who is running for the Senate.
The winner in this Boulder-area district is almost assured of serving in Congress, given the district’s Democratic tilt.
Democratic operatives in Colorado acknowledge that any of the three candidates in the primary has a chance at winning, with Fitz-Gerald holding a narrow edge over Polis — and Shafroth lurking in the background as a wild card with an outside shot.
“Shafroth’s trying to be the green candidate, Fitz-Gerald’s the candidate of Democratic organizations like labor and teachers unions and Polis is trying to be the new nonconventional, Boulder-hip Democrat,” said Colorado political consultant Eric Sondermann. “And all of them have a constituency in the district.”
But it’s Polis who is garnering the most headlines by challenging establishment favorite Fitz-Gerald, who has been backed by a majority of labor groups, women’s groups and legislative leadership.
The 33-year-old Polis has been known in Colorado for his money and ambition as much as his political savvy. He was one of four liberal activists in the state — called the “Four Horsemen” — who spent millions helping elect Democrats and also supporting liberal-minded ballot measures.
But since then, detractors argue he has been concerned more with advancing his own political career than supporting the party. He spent $1 million in a successful at-large campaign for the state Board of Education, a low-profile position on which most candidates spend no more than several thousand. He lobbied unsuccessfully for a constitutional amendment restricting gifts to state employees, which many dismissively called “Jared’s Law.”
And he has poured over $5 million of his own money into the congressional race, saturating Boulder and Denver with advertisements in the past three months.
Federal Election Commission reports show that he has spent the most money of any self-funded candidate so far this election cycle.
“People have told us that this is like presidential-level spending, in terms of what he has spent,” said Fitz-Gerald campaign manager Mary Alice Mandarich. “This is a test case of whether someone can actually buy a congressional seat.”
All three of Polis’ past allies have endorsed Fitz-Gerald — one has even funded a 527 group that has aired attack ads against Polis.
Fitz-Gerald began the race as the favorite, winning the support of the Democratic establishment in Colorado. Women’s groups like EMILY’s List view her election as a top priority — as far back as 2005, Democratic operatives had pointed to her as a rising star at the legislative level.
She was a high-profile state Senate president, working with former Republican Gov. Bill Owens to back a tax compromise and helping recruit strong candidates that allowed Democrats to take control of the legislature.
While Fitz-Gerald has been a strong fundraiser, she hasn’t been able to keep pace with Polis’ fortune.
The campaign has turned negative in the campaign’s final stretch, with Fitz-Gerald attacking Polis for supporting voucher programs, while Polis has portrayed Fitz-Gerald as a pawn of oil, gas and mining interests.
“We’re supposedly running against a Democrat, but she has taken money from the oil and gas industry. She has been beholden to the special interests,” said Polis campaign spokeswoman Dayna Morian. “Jared is only beholden to himself.”
Meanwhile, as the two front-runners have been attacking each other, Shafroth has gained traction, according to Colorado political observers. He won high-profile endorsements from The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. He also has gotten plaudits for his latest ad decrying the negativity between Fitz-Gerald and Polis, which features two children arguing with each other.
The former executive director of the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund, Shafroth has a natural constituency among the state’s environmental community, which has strong roots in Boulder.
But it may be too little, too late. With an early voting system, Colorado voters are able to submit mail-in ballots up to one month before the primary — this year, more than 25,000 voters have already done so. Even if voters gave Shafroth a second look in the final weeks, his efforts may have come too late for the voters who cast early ballots.
Colorado Republicans are also choosing nominees in two conservative districts where primary victors typically coast to election.
Freshman Rep. Doug Lamborn is facing a credible threat from a familiar opponent, Jeff Crank, who came within 892 votes of winning the primary in 2006.
Since that divisive primary, Lamborn has failed to win a majority of Republicans in the district. His wounds are largely self-inflicted: He drew unwanted publicity after leaving threatening voice mails with a constituent who had written to the local newspaper accusing him of accepting money from the gambling industry.
He also has failed to make inroads within the Colorado Springs business community and is seen as more interested in the social issues that animate the district’s base of conservative, evangelical Christians. The district is home to Focus on the Family and several other leading evangelical organizations.
“The business community was used to having a congressman who went to bat for them and was effective in securing funding for highways and making sure Fort Carson remains a growing Army base,” said Colorado GOP consultant Katy Atkinson. “They’re concerned he’s more interested in the social issues.”
Despite his vulnerabilities, Atkinson predicted Lamborn would ultimately prevail with less than 50 percent of the vote because of the presence of a third challenger, retired military officer Bentley Rayburn, who may siphon off some of Crank’s share of the anti-Lamborn vote.
In the suburban Denver 6th District, Secretary of State Mike Coffman is the favorite in a four-candidate primary to succeed retiring Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo. Coffman’s leading challenger is businessman Wil Armstrong, the son of former Colorado senator Bill Armstrong.