THORNTON — Dana Scott came to a Republican Party field office in Adams County — a crucial 2018 battleground — one recent Saturday to get a better feel for gubernatorial nominee Walker Stapleton.
But before the two-term state treasurer even spoke, Scott knew what he wanted to hear: Donald Trump 2.0.
“I love him,” the 70-year-old from Welby said of the president.
His commitment to Trump is so keen that he wants Stapleton to be just like him. “I actually do,” he said.
The fervor of the Republican base for Trump, combined with the reality that Trump lost Colorado and remains a liability among unaffiliated voters, defines the political conundrum Stapleton faces in the November election against his Democratic rival, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis. And it’s a problem that applies to just about every Republican on the 2018 ballot, too.
The question is this: How do Stapleton and other Republican candidates keep the base energized — eager to volunteer and vote — by professing loyalty to Trump, while at the same time they establish a healthy distance from the White House to appease wary swing voters?
In Thornton, Stapleton didn’t mention Trump once in the 1 minute and 40 seconds he spent talking at the Republican Party event. Afterward, he said in an interview that the party’s supporters “are really revved up,” even as he acknowledged the need to “make the argument to independents and Democrats” to win.
Alice Nichol, a former state lawmaker who attended the event, wanted to hear about Trump. She said she is concerned about whether Republicans can win at the top of the ticket in 2018.
The only way it will happen, she said, is to ride Trump’s coattails.
“Trump is leading this ticket, and he’s doing so well nationwide that it can filter down, and I’m hoping it filters down to Colorado,” said Nichol, a former long-time Democrat who turned Republican and drives a Prius hybrid with Trump signs in the windows. The GOP’s chances “are excellent,” she added, “as long as we stay on the Trump train.”
The dedication to Trump from the party faithful comes despite the recent criticism the president has received from members of his own party on the issues of trade, border policies and Russia.
But the phenomenon is evident deep in the numbers of a June poll conducted by Magellan Strategies, a leading Republican firm in Colorado.
- First of all, the baseline: The president’s approval rating among Republicans in Colorado is rock-solid at 80 percent or above, polls show.
- What’s more: A plurality of committed Republicans (likely primary voters) in the state self-identify as “Trump Republicans.”
- The kicker: The 40 percent bloc of “Trump Republicans” in the state is double other party groups, such as “evangelical Christian conservative” or “traditional Republican.”
Stapleton’s favorability among “Trump Republicans” stood at 54 percent, according to the survey, with just 14 percent looking at him unfavorably.
The numbers are “pretty significant,” said Courtney Gibbon, the director of survey research at Magellan Strategies.
The polls show that GOP voters “kind of want all the Republican candidates to be (like Trump),” she said. “Walker is obviously not that way. And if he was that way, he wouldn’t have a chance to win Colorado.”
What Stapleton did to earn those numbers in the primary, where he won by an 18-point margin, was a delicate dance.
He tried to embrace the president’s policies, but not the man himself. “I’ll work with the White House to make life better for Coloradans, and I’ll take it on an issue-by-issue basis,” he said in the final primary debate. “If something impacts Colorado negatively (or) the economic future of our state, I’ll stand up and let Washington know about it, regardless of who’s in charge.”
Despite the nuanced stance, Stapleton’s willness to work with Trump resonated most with voters. In the end, Stapleton positioned himself to Trump:
- He proclaimed he never made a disparaging comment about Trump.
- He suggested the president would campaign for him in Colorado.
- And he refused to condemn the White House’s policy on separating immigrant children from their parents at the border.
The idea that the incumbent president from your own party is a drag on the party ticket is new territory, according to GOP operatives, after eight years of a Democratic president. And it will take a soft touch to keep Republicans happy without disturbing unaffiliated voters.
Ryan Lynch, a Republican strategist who attended the Thornton event, is navigating the Trump question as a consultant to multiple statewide campaigns and state Senate contests.
For the party to win, he said, Colorado voters must behave as they did in the 2016 campaign — and differentiate the president from other GOP candidates.
“People in the last election were able to separate Trump from the rest of the party,” Lynch said. “The question is whether they are still able to. If they are not, then Republicans are in trouble with independents.”
All of this could change if Trump campaigns in Colorado and endorses Stapleton, which he has not yet done, despite similar support for other candidates across the country.
And the tension is becoming only more difficult with the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
Stapleton did not answer a direct question from The Colorado Sun about whether he would still campaign with the president after the indictment of two top Trump campaign aides.
“The president is going to have to sort that out on his own,” Stapleton told The Sun. “He’s going to have to figure it out. That’s a Washington issue.”
And Democrats are making it their mission, once again, to connect Trump to all of the candidates on the ballot. So the battle lines are drawn.
“It sounds like Republicans know he’s going to be an albatross around their necks,” said Eric Walker, a Democratic Party operative working in the governor’s race, referring to the president. “Stapleton has done a fine enough job tying himself to Trump, whether defending Trump on forced family separations or the domestic gag rule on abortion, or his tax plan.”