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Aspen Skiing Co. takes leap in its political activism by targeting 3 Republican U.S. senators in new ad campaign

The glitzy resort has been active politically behind the scenes for years, but dives into partisan politics with this new effort -- and is risking alienating customers

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Aspen Skiing Company is taking its political and environmental activism public with a new ad campaign that in part asks outdoor enthusiasts to help pressure three Republican U.S. senators, perceived as malleable, to do more to address climate change.

While the glitzy, world-famous ski area has worked quietly for years on everything from immigration to LGBTQ rights, the new action is thrusting them into partisan politics and comes as other major players in the industry are bolstering their influence on elections.

“We’ve always been active and been doing a lot of lobbying and activism behind the scenes,” Aspen Skiing’s Chief Marketing Officer Christian Knapp said. “This is sort of an evolution to a more customer-facing political activism stance. I don’t think anyone in our industry has targeted specific senators and targeted them with advertising.”

The “Give A Flake” ad campaign launched online last week and will appear in five magazines that have a combined circulation of about 1 million people.

On the resort’s website, users can type in their address or ZIP code to find out whether their congressional representatives are doing enough, by Aspen Skiing’s standards, to combat climate change and learn how to contact their elected officials. The tool uses ratings from the left-leaning League of Conservation Voters to assess senators and representatives.

Those who supported more than 50 percent of initiatives that would have “positively impacted climate change” get the thumbs up.

Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, is ranked positively, while Republicans U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, whose district includes Aspen, get negative marks. (Staffers for Gardner and Tipton declined to comment.)

Mike Coffman, Doug Lamborn and Ken Buck, Colorado’s three other GOP representatives, received negative ratings while Democrats Jared Polis, Ed Perlmutter and Diana DeGette got positive ones.

The print component of the campaign is more aggressive, with ads in fall issues of Outside, Freeskier, Powder, Transworld and Aspen Sojourner that target Republican U.S. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Rob Portman of Ohio.

The ads include tear-out, postage-paid postcards addressed to Collins, Murkowski and Portman asking them to do more to fight climate change.

Collins, Murkowski and Portman are considered moderates who each have worked on climate issues. The three are not up for re-election this fall.

“We purposefully chose ones that are seated because we didn’t want to spend all this energy and resources and have them voted out,” Knapp said.

Collins’ office did not respond to a Colorado Sun request for comment, but staffers for Portman and Murkowski pushed back against the notion that those senators are not doing enough to fight climate change.

“Senator Murkowski believes that climate change is real, has worked to establish a place for a reasonable conversation about legislative responses within Congress, and has put a number of ideas on the table that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Murkowski spokeswoman Karina Borger said. “Those range from her bill on ocean acidification; her broad, bipartisan energy bill focused on efficiency and innovation that drew 85 votes in the Senate; and the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act that she introduced just last week.”

Portman, too, has worked on environmental legislation over the years, his spokeswoman Emily Benavides said.

“Portman believes that protecting our environment should be a non-partisan issue and has a proven track record of working on common-sense solutions to protect the planet for generations to come,” she said. “He believes the data is clear and that the Earth is warming and that humans play a role. He’s an avid outdoorsman who has consistently fought to restore our national parks, protect the Great Lakes and ensure America becomes a more energy-efficient country.  And he will continue to work with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to make these issues a priority.”

Aspen CEO Mike Kaplan calling out U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner on Twitter as part of the resort’s “Give A Flake” campaign. (Twitter)

Why isn’t Aspen targeting Gardner if they think he isn’t doing enough?

“We talked about that quite extensively,” Knapp said. “We looked at Senator Gardner here in Colorado and decided there was probably less swaying him based on his voting record.”

Aspen Skiing Co. says it isn’t spending significantly more on the “Give A Flake” campaign than it has on past ad campaigns. Knapp, however, wouldn’t  say exactly how much the resort spent on the digital and print elements.

“We wanted to go beyond saying just ‘isn’t this bad and this is what we stand for,’ ” said Dave Cook, who works for the Denver advertising firm Karsh Hagan and helped Aspen Skiing Co. craft the campaign. “I don’t think it’s an attack. It’s a nudge.”

Aspen has been increasing its political activism over the past few years, including an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, titled “Aspen Needs Mexican Tourists,” from CEO Mike Kaplan in which he said there was “xenophobia radiating from the Oval Office.” Kaplan also publicly backed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields some young immigrants from deportation, after it was dismantled by President Donald Trump.

(DACA remains in effect because of court challenges.)

Skier Conor Crowley makes his way down a trail at Aspen Mountain in 2016. Aspen Skiing Co. is hoping to draw its customers and the public into it political activism. (Nathan Hahn, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The resort and Kaplan have acknowledged that they might alienate customers because of their political activism — and there already has been some blowback. The resort, for instance, sees a lot of visitors from Portman’s home state of Ohio.

Still, privately owned Aspen Skiing seems to be shrugging off that risk, hoping to lead other companies toward similar efforts. “Collectively, we are a powerful voice, and by using it, we can make a difference,” Kaplan said in a statement.

“This is bigger than us,” Knapp said. “If we have customers who aren’t acknowledging that the climate is impacting skiing, then so be it. But we believe it is important for us to be politically minded and take a stand. It’s important to us as a company. It’s always been. We’re just being more public about it now.”