Why Bill Owens is Colorado’s only Republican governor in 43 years

And what it means for the many, many people running for governor in 2018.
10 min. read
Former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, right, laughs during a news conference in Denver on Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 24, 2007 announcing that he is joining the University of Denver as a senior fellow. (Joe Mahoney/Rocky Mountain News/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/RMN-032-9117) copolitics; governor bill owens; denver; colorado;

Former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, right, laughs during a 2007 news conference announcing that he is joining the University of Denver as a senior fellow. That's other former Gov. Dick Lamm in the background. (Joe Mahoney/Rocky Mountain News/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/RMN-032-9117)

The conventional political narrative of Colorado is that we're a purple state leaning blue after many years of Republican dominance. But Democrats have occupied the governor's mansion for 35 of the last 43 years, and just one Republican, Bill Owens, has managed to win election to the state's top position in that time.

Before Owens, the last Republican governor was John Vanderhoof, who lost his re-election bid in 1974 to Democrat Dick Lamm. Lamm went on to serve three terms and was followed by Roy Romer, another Democrat who also served three terms.

And after Owens, Colorado voters elected Democrat Bill Ritter in 2006, and he was followed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is nearing the end of his second term.

Why was Owens able to succeed where so many others failed? And what, if anything, does this tell us about 2018?

One of those questions is easier to answer than the other.

In interviews with Republicans, Democrats and political observers, there's no trend, no big systematic pattern in Colorado politics that explains Owens. He's just the best candidate Republicans have fielded for governor in the last four decades.

"This may sound overly simplified, but to a substantial measure it's personality, how much money was in the campaign, how well was the campaign run," said John Straayer, a professor of political science at Colorado State University. "The last couple years, the Democrats have been helped by the Republicans."

Owens laid out an agenda in the primary -- cutting taxes, reforming education, fixing roads -- that appealed both within and outside the Republican Party and then, after narrowly winning election, he implemented that agenda.

"Owens ran a campaign in the primary that was definitely mainstream conservative Republican, but it was also an agenda that could appeal to unaffiliated voters and even some Democrats," said Dick Wadhams, a former GOP state chair who ran Owens' 1998 campaign. "Too often we have candidates who think they have to run to the right to win a primary and then they think they can dive into the middle. It doesn't work that way."

Paul Weissmann, a former state lawmaker who overlapped with Owens during his second stint at the Capitol, says he's "not a member of the fan club," but he understands why Owens appealed to voters.

"He's very smooth. In my mind, he's too smooth," said Weissmann, who is currently Boulder County treasurer. "He comes across as reasonable in his presentation. That helps. I'm still absolutely convinced that the majority of people don't vote issues, they vote on a gut instinct of whether someone will work hard and is trustworthy. On those measures, he did well."

Owens' Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler, a former state treasurer, was the first significant female candidate for governor from either party, and she went through a tough primary to get on the ballot. The election was close -- some 8,000 votes and less than 1 percentage point separated Owens and Schoettler -- and Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, a longtime Democratic party activist and most recently the Speaker of the House, believes at those margins, gender was a factor.

"There might have been some of the same issues Hillary Clinton and other women have dealt with," she said. "If you're a woman, you have to be twice as good. That issue of breaking the glass ceiling is still a very big issue."

But Owens was also "a very credible candidate," she said, and these were impeachment times, setting a tone at the national level that had consequences in Colorado.

"Bill Owens was one of their better candidates over time," Hullinghorst said. "He appealed to the centrist part of the party and to unaffiliated voters. And it was 1998. There was a lot of Democratic backlash at the national level."

Mike Beasley, Owens' deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs, said Republicans showed the kind of party unity and discipline in 1998 that's more often been the Democrats' strength in Colorado.

"There are political and policy reasons why," he said. "Politically, that was the first time in all those years that the Democrats had a primary on their side, and those divisions I don't think completely healed. And Republicans, who never met a primary they didn't want to join in, they really got together.

"And he did it on the policy side by talking about the things that were most important on people's minds, more road construction, tax cuts and education reform, and those are exactly what Bill Owens made his priorities in the first four years."

"If you nominate candidates that struggle to articulate a message that resonates with general election voters, they're not going to win," Beasley continued.

Mashing all of this into a red-state, blue-state narrative would be a mistake.

Ken Bickers, a political science professor at the University of Colorado, said individual personality matters at lot more in governor's races than it does for many other offices, for which voters revert to their partisan preferences.

"We think of this as a very red state that has gradually become purple and even blue," he said. "But red states elect Democrats for governor and blue states elect Republicans."

Blood-red Wyoming has had a number of Democratic governors and Mondale-blue Minnesota has had Republican governors. When one party is very dominant, its members can take the governorship for granted or forget that they need to reach out to moderates and unaffiliated voters to win, Bickers said.

"The Republican Party was a majority party, but they would not nominate people who could cross over," Bickers said.

Wadhams, who presided over the implosion of the Republican Party in 2010, when Tom Tancredo ran as a third-party candidate and split the Republican vote, ushering in the era of Hickenlooper, bangs this drum all the time with Republican audiences. After Owens, he sees U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner as the next best example in Colorado today.

"It's very easy to fall into the trap of forgetting you need to win the general and forgetting that the broader Colorado electorate is not as ideological as the parties," he said. "It takes real discipline to craft an agenda at the outset and stick to it that can win a primary and be competitive in the general."

Beasley said he never bought into the idea that Colorado recently became purple. Democrat Gary Hart and Republican Bill Armstrong represented Colorado in the Senate at the same time. "That's Barney purple," he said.

"To a large extent, it's been the good fortune of the Democrats to nominate people who fit well with the dominant trend at that time," said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster.

Democratic candidates have been, for the most part, more centrist. Romer and Hickenlooper come from business backgrounds, and Ritter is a former prosecutor. Lamm's positions, meanwhile, are hard to characterize with one word. He is most famous for his successful opposition to the Winter Olympics, and his views on immigration and concerns about the dangers of multiculturalism would make him a poor fit in today's Democratic Party. He ran for president with the Reform Party in 1996.

But in the 1990s, the dominant trend was conservative, even for Colorado.

"The 90s were indeed a time of probably increased conservatism in the state mostly because of an influx of population, largely from Orange County, California," Ciruli recalled. "The anti-tax movement was really strong here. Evangelical Christians were very strong here."

While Owens is a Republican "blip" in Democratic control of the governorship, Weissmann says it would be a mistake to assume that means anything about Colorado voters and their party preferences.

"I don't know that the governor's race is indicative of whether Colorado is a red state or a blue state," he said. "What indicates that is the hidden statewide offices: treasurer, attorney general, secretary of state, at-large regent. And those have been Republican and may remain Republican."

Down-ticket races show "where people's default is," Weissmann said.

So Democrats have worked harder.

"Really if you look at the contest and the competition and the caliber of candidates over the last few elections, the Democrats have had better candidates," Weissmann said. "Bill Owens was a blip in there, and I think a large part of that can be attributed to Owens himself.

"Part of it is the caliber of the Democratic candidates and the work of the campaigns of the Democrats. If you're running statewide as a Democrat, you have to travel the state and work it harder. Our guys have done that."

What does this mean for 2018?

Who knows!? Last year made me very wary of trying my hand at hot takes. We have large fields on both sides, and for the first time ever, unaffiliated voters can participate in primaries.

Beasley says no one knows what they'll do with that power. They could sit it out, try to punish candidates they don't like or boost candidates they do like.

Hullinghorst is a little dismissive of the Republicans currently in the race, not seeing anyone who brings the same combination that Owens did. Maybe Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, but she has to get past her fellow Republicans first.

"She could come closest to a centrist candidate, and she could be trouble, but I doubt they will nominate her," Hullinghorst said. "And they'll have a hard time pulling together an agenda that will appeal to centrist voters."

Beasley thinks Coffman is absolutely Republicans' best shot.

"I think the candidate that Democrats should fear the most is Cynthia Coffman, by far," he said. "She has conservative credentials and a solid record, but she has a real ability to communicate with voters."

Meanwhile, the Democratic field is more liberal than in years past, and for the first time in ages, they have a competitive primary. Hullinghorst thinks that reflects where the electorate in Colorado is now, not just Democratic voters but many unaffiliated ones as well.

"I think most Republicans believe that if (Rep. Jared) Polis is the nominee, we win no matter what," Beasley said. He disagrees, though. Polis is a real threat -- and not just because of his money. He's pragmatic and policy-centered, with moderate views on taxes and a libertarian streak that has wide appeal in Colorado.

"I think he will be a formidable candidate," Beasley said. "He's a smart guy who works really hard. And on marijuana, he's never made a habit of telling voters they're idiots for voting for a certain thing."

"Republicans are set up to help the Democrats again with their line-up," Straayer said. "Particularly with Tancredo in the mix. On the other hand, the Democrats themselves are all over the map."

Straayer predicts Republicans will run a "vigorous negative campaign" against Polis. "Boulder, Boulder, Boulder."

But Republicans have their own problem.

"I doubt Tancredo can get a majority of Republican votes, but he only needs a plurality," Straayer said. "The moderate wing of the Republican Party, to the extent there is one, will probably be splitting their votes between (State Treasurer Walker) Stapleton and Cynthia Coffman. Tancredo is going to get the angry crowd. That might not be a majority, but it could be more than the other ones."

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