Republican candidates for governor will debate this week — here’s what to watch for

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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Colorado State Treasurer Walker Stapleton. The 2018 Republican State Assembly on the campus of the University of Colorado Boulder, April 14, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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Colorado State Treasurer Walker Stapleton. The 2018 Republican State Assembly on the campus of the University of Colorado Boulder, April 14, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Update: One debate is now complete. Here’s what happened. The candidates debate again on Thursday at 7 p.m.

It’s anyone’s guess who is leading the Democratic gubernatorial slate, but there’s a pretty clear frontrunner among Republicans: State Treasurer Walker Stapleton.

He’s leading the four-man group, which includes Victor Mitchell, Doug Robinson and Greg Lopez.  Unlike a pre-assembly debate in April, all four will be on hand on Thursday at 7 p.m., during a Republican gubernatorial debate produced by 9News and airing on Chanel 20 KTVD. Lopez, Mitchell and Robinson will feature on a Colorado Public Television debate livestreamed Wednesday at 2 p.m. and broadcast on channel 12 on Friday at 9 p.m.

If you need a reminder of Stapleton’s popularity, we should revisit his unprecedented move this spring.

After abandoning his petitions over issues with signature gathering, he waltzed into Boulder to the party’s state assembly four days later and earned a spot on the primary by winning 43 percent of delegates, more than any other candidate (he needed to get at least 30 percent to qualify on the ballot). He was able to get enough support after months of focusing on petitioning gathering and with no intent of participating in the assembly.

The limited polling data available is also backing up Stapleton’s lead.

Two weeks ago, tucked inside a congressional race poll of 519 likely Republican primary voters in the 5th Congressional District race, was a governor ballot question. While it’s only a portion of the state, it showed Stapleton with a lead among voters in El Paso County, which the polling firm, right-leaning Magellan Strategies, said historically contributes close to 20 percent of all Republican primary ballots casts in Colorado. A March poll from the same firm had Stapleton’s comfortably in the lead.

Stapleton earned 32 percent of support in the May poll. The newer poll made another revelation: Mitchell was now sitting squarely in second place, earning 18 percent support from all voters. The poll showed 34 percent of respondents were undecided.

“In our view, the emergence of Victor Mitchell as the primary challenger to Walker Stapleton is obviously the biggest finding,” Magellan Strategies wrote in the summary. “While this sample, and the ballot test results could be representative of statewide Republican primary voter opinion, we want to be clear that it is not. We stress to everyone reading this survey summary to keep that in mind.”

Mitchell hasn’t held back on the attack ads. Will he (the rest of the field) gang up on Stapleton on stage?

While we spent last week discussing the first negative ad on the Dems side, Mitchell has made himself game warden and declared it open season on Stapleton.

Colorado gurbernatorial candidate Victor Mitchell speaks on a panel during Colorado State University's Water in the West Summit at the McNichols Building, April 26, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Colorado gurbernatorial candidate Victor Mitchell speaks on a panel during Colorado State University's Water in the West Summit at the McNichols Building, April 26, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Mitchell has released three ads attacking Stapleton. Mitchell has spent a lot of money reminding people of Stapleton’s East Coast connections (he was born there and got a graduate degree there, too).  He has repeatedly referred to Stapleton as George W. Bush’s cousin and criticized his family connection.

A TV ad released last week is borderline comical (it doesn’t help that’s its animated). It depicts a conversation between two white guys (Winston and Brooks, the latter of whom says words like “indubitably”) playing tennis and discussing how they’ve chosen Stapleton as their candidate. The ad has more than 47,000 views on YouTube as of Tuesday.

Another TV ad posted Monday on YouTube from Mitchell calls attention to Stapleton’s Bush connection while contrasting Mitchell as the “conservative outsider businessman” candidate. There’s also a one-minute radio ad, repeating similar lines and saying Stapleton takes money from the “Trump-hating Bush family network.”

So Mitchell clearly isn’t afraid of bashing Stapleton. Will he similarly call out Stapleton onstage?  Mitchell, along with Robinson and Lopez, might not have another choice.

How will Stapleton manage his lead and how will that affect other candidates’ approaches?

University of Denver communication studies professor Darrin Hicks said there will be less pressure on Stapleton during the debate. Hicks, who said he’s familiar with some of the candidates from their TV ads, said Stapleton is running primarily on his past record. Stapleton needs to focus on holding his ground, rather than gaining it, he said.

“If you’re already in the lead, you can put more time in defense than in offense,” Hicks said.

Denver-based conservative radio talkshow host Jimmy Sengenberger said Stapleton appears to be the frontrunner at this point, but no candidate at the top should ever take their position for granted.

“He’s going to need to bring his A game in order to ensure he stands out  from the rest of the pack,” Sengenberger said.

The three other candidates are effectively trying to play catch-up. Hicks said these three candidates need to balance how much of themselves and their ideas they will put forward and how much time they will spend attacking Stapleton.

“If you find yourself in a position where you’re trailing in the polls in a debate, then you have to be more aggressive, which means you have to pivot away from yourself and toward your opponent,” Hicks said.

Gubernatorial nominee Greg Lopez greets delegates after the 2018 Republican State Assembly on the campus of the University of Colorado Boulder, April 14, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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Gubernatorial nominee Greg Lopez greets delegates after the 2018 Republican State Assembly on the campus of the University of Colorado Boulder, April 14, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The alternative is being less aggressive and focusing on ideas. Hicks said that, by example, this tactic didn’t turn out well for Ohio Gov. John Kasich during his 2016 presidential run. It turned into a one-upmanship among candidates challenging that week’s frontrunner.

Candidates can’t be robotic, either, as voters will notice rehearsed responses, Hicks said.

“Voters are pretty good at noticing when someone is speaking from something they obviously have prepared before the debate,” Hicks said. It helps candidates appear more authentic when they answer questions in a extemporaneous manner.

Sengenberger, who’s interviewed all four candidates, said Lopez is probably the strongest speaker in the bunch. Along with Stapleton, Lopez qualified onto the primary during the assembly in April.

“The questions is, will he be able to leverage his presentation well enough to start standing out from the pack in a primary context?” Sengenberger said. “He broke out and placed second at the state assembly, largely because the way he came across.”

Many Republican voters may see the debate as a chance to start figuring out how the the candidates might fare against their potential Democratic challenger, Sengenberger said.

“Republican voters are looking to size up how they will perform, the nominee will perform against Jared Polis or Cary Kennedy,” Sengenberger said.

Can the moderators tease out some differences between primary candidates?

The 9News debate will be moderated by Kyle Clark. Before the debate between Democrats earlier this week, he said his goal in moderating debates is always to “give viewers an idea of where candidates differ substantially on policy and on personality” — and that “the differences highlighted by television debates are 80 percent personality and 20 percent policy.”

When it comes to Thursday’s debate in particular, he thinks he knows what Republican primary voters want to hear about.

“Not even close, the number one issue among Republican primary voters is immigration,” he said. “You have a section of the electorate that is red-hot about an issue on which there is a lot of rhetoric but not a ton of policy differentiation. That is something that we’re going to continue to explore.”

He said that both for Democrats and Republicans, there are issues where candidates are doing that — talking without necessarily offering practical steps they’d take.

“It is possible that people will be satisfied just hearing what they want to hear about it,” Clark said. “We’ve seen a lot of that in national politics.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Robinson speaks at the Colorado Health Institute's Hot Issues in Health conference, Dec. 8, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Robinson speaks at the Colorado Health Institute's Hot Issues in Health conference, Dec. 8, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Wednesday’s Colorado Public Television debate will be moderated by Dominic Dezzutti, host of Colorado Inside Out. Like Clark, he’s tasked with trying to help viewers suss out differences between candidates, which can be tricky in a primary.

“I think that it’s clear that most of the major issues are going to be similar,” he said. But he suggested a few areas viewers might watch for differences.

“I think there’s going to be a clear difference on how they’re going to work across the aisle as a governor,” he said. “You can be as partisan as you want in a campaign, but the job is about crafting compromises with the party.”

Dezzutti, who been moderating debates for Colorado Public Television since 1996 — “I remember Diana DeGette coming in here as a non-incumbent” — thinks the polarization is particularly extreme this year.

He’s interested to see if and how candidates appeal to unaffiliated voters, who can vote in Democratic and Republican primary elections in Colorado for the first time. In Colorado elections, he said, the people who win eventually appeal to the middle. He cited Sen. Cory Gardner’s win over then-Sen. Mark Udall in 2014.

“Cory Gardner’s ads looked like a Democrat’s ads,” he said. “He has the blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up and he was standing in front of a windmill … He only won by less than 2 points but he did because I think, at the very least in the way he looked and talked, he embraced this middle ground.”

Two more issues Dezzutti wants to raise for viewers:

“I’ll want to press on how they want to look at transportation funding and the … potential ballot initiatives that will come up this year,” he said.

And he wants to get candidates to draw the line between things that can be done by a governor and things that must be done by a federal official. He says he’s heard a lot about Obamacare and immigration this cycle.

“If I really hate Obamacare,” he said, “the governor of Colorado is not going to overturn it.”

How will moderators handle a major candidate who’s not showing up to debates?

The elephant in a room full of elephants is Stapleton. Not only is he the conventional-wisdom frontrunner, he’s the guy who didn’t show up to 9News’s earlier debate — and who won’t be at Wednesday’s Colorado Public Television debate.

“If you don’t have the presumptive frontrunner, that’s not ideal,” Dezzutti said. But he thinks voters can also learn something about Stapleton as a candidate by his absence. “Voters can make their decision based on that as well,” he said.

In any case, that just leaves Clark’s debate on Thursday.

“We’ve had a conversation (about that),” Clark said. “The fact that he skipped our first debate, does that mean that he gets more scrutiny in our second debate? Scrutiny also means more talk time.”

But he said he thinks viewers will want to get a sense of who Stapleton is outside of the easy-to-control environment of campaign events and ads.

“That’s not government,” Clark said. “That’s not rough and tumble, that’s not exchanges, that’s not questioning … I think that people want to see him in that respect.

“And also there are going to be questions about … what have you accomplished? And also how does your very limited scope of executive experience extend to the job of governor? He has executive experience for sure, but this is somebody who would openly bemoan the very limited reach and power of his office,” Clark said.

“It almost reminds me of how much credit Jared Polis wants for not accepting large donations — except from himself.”

Dave Burdick contributed to this report.