Their Contributions Helped Buy a ‘Cadillac Campaign’ in Colo.

Posted February 1, 2005 at 6:08pm

In their forlorn search for political bright spots, disconsolate national Democrats have turned hopefully to Colorado.

In 2004, Democrats astonished the complacent Rocky Mountain State GOP, wrestling control of both chambers of the state Legislature for the first time in decades and sending the Salazar brothers — Sen. Ken and Rep. John — to Congress to fill seats that had been held by Republicans.

What was their secret? And can this success be duplicated nationwide in 2006?

Maybe so, if Rutt Bridges, Tim Gill, Jared Polis and Pat Stryker are willing to dig a little deeper into their bank accounts and play more on the national stage. [IMGCAP(1)]

It may be hyperbole to say that these four millionaires were solely responsible for the Democratic surge in Colorado last year. But their contributions, literally and figuratively, cannot be minimized. Friends and foes have taken to calling them “The Big Four.”

“They all came together and they had a profound effect” on the 2004 elections, said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based independent pollster. “But for them, the Democrats wouldn’t have won.”

Each of the four had been active in Colorado politics and civic life before. And despite the howls from Republicans, they weren’t part of a cabal that met together in secret to plot the GOP’s demise.

“They do have separate focus and separate interests,” said Chris Gates, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party.

But the Big Four’s increased contributions to Democratic candidates, party committees and sympathetic 527s were key. The Denver Post reported that outside groups spent a record-breaking $10 million on legislative races in 2004. By the newspaper’s estimation, the quartet accounted for at least $3 million of those expenditures.

Two of the four were briefly — very briefly — candidates for federal office themselves in 2004.

Bridges, a businessman and philanthropist best known for funding a measure to curtail the practices of telemarketers, jumped into the Senate race last March when it looked like no other Democrat would take on two-term Sen.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.).

But in a stunning sequence of events, Campbell hastily dropped out of the race a few days later, prompting first Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and then Ken Salazar — who was the state attorney general at the time — to jump in. Bridges and Udall quickly deferred to Salazar.

Yet during Udall’s 24-hour Senate candidacy, Polis, a 29-year-old tech entrepreneur famous for outspending his Republican opponent by 100 to 1 to earn a seat on the Colorado Board of Education in 2000, jumped into the race to succeed the Congressman. He quickly pulled out as soon as Udall decided to skip the Senate contest.

While they didn’t run this time, Bridges and Polis are almost certain to be candidates for higher office again, and their prospects could both be tied to Udall’s.

If the Congressman chooses to run for governor in 2006, he will probably clear the Democratic field, paving the way for Polis to run for Congress in earnest this time.

Polis would not be a shoo-in for the 2nd district Democratic nomination, because a roster of officials with impressive résumés could also join the fray. Other possible candidates in the Democratic stronghold include state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, businessman and 2002 gubernatorial nominee Rollie Heath, state House Majority Leader Alice Madden and state Sen. Ron Tupa.

Polis isn’t just young — he is, by some accounts, rather eccentric. One Democratic leader says he’s been known to order take-out pizza from the dais of the state Board of Education meetings, and once suggested that board members wear judicial robes at their official proceedings.

“Polis’s entire life,” the Denver newspaper Westword recently wrote, “is a wild ride, and he has the fiscal wherewithal to keep the pedal to the metal for the foreseeable future.”

Meanwhile, if Udall does not run for governor, Bridges almost certainly will, and he could wind up facing any of the following in a primary: former state Sen. Mike Feeley (a losing candidate for the U.S. House in 2002), Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, former state Senate Minority Leader Ed Perlmutter, outgoing Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter and state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

Political office does not appear to be in the cards for either Gill or Stryker. Gill, who runs a charitable foundation, has been one of Colorado’s leading advocates of gay rights. And Stryker, the granddaughter of a manufacturer of medical devices, is said to be content to sit on the political sidelines and let her money do the work. Despite her wealth, friends say she lives like a typical suburban soccer mom in Fort Collins.

But Stryker’s longtime friendship with former Colorado State University President Al Yates, a popular and powerful figure in Colorado, may have been the catalyst for the four millionaires to spend so much time on state and local political races. Once a nonpartisan figure, Yates has become a fiery Democratic adviser and essentially brought the four together.

Yates is now thought to have political aspirations of his own — perhaps as a candidate for secretary of state, perhaps as a challenger to Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.).

The knowledge that Bridges, Gill, Polis and Stryker were willing to be major financial players in the 2004 cycle helped the Democrats immensely from the outset, said Sean Tonner, a Republican consultant in Denver.

“It allowed the Democrats to know they could write up a Cadillac campaign plan,” he said.

Gates said while the Big Four’s money helped, it wasn’t the only factor in the Democrats’ surprising success.

“We had better message, we had better mechanics, we had better candidates,” he said. “This is not about some big contributors buying an election.”

Tonner noted that Colorado Republicans have no shortage of big-time donors, too. But he said they weren’t adequately engaged in state races in 2004.

“A lot of people thought there was no way we would lose the House,” he said. “We were going to win the Senate. A lot of people were focused on the national elections.”

Ciruli agreed. “They did get caught with their shorts down,” he said.

With an open governor’s seat heading the list of statewide offices up for grabs on the Colorado ballot in 2006, and with a chance to regain the majorities they just lost in the state Legislature, Republicans are not likely to be disengaged this time.

When they go into political battle, however, the Democratic Big Four will be waiting.

“From what I hear,” Gates said, “they’d like to continue.”