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Democrat Phil Weiser, left, and Republican George Brauchler, the two candidates for Colorado attorney general, debate in Colorado Springs at a face-off sponsored by The Gazette and KOAA-TV on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. (Nathan Hahn, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The dimming Republican prospects at the top of the ticket in Colorado are prompting a renewed focus on the attorney general’s race as a potential backstop to a Democratic win in the election for governor.

Jared Polis, a five-term Boulder congressman, holds a comfortable lead against Republican rival Walker Stapleton in the gubernatorial campaign as voting begins this week.

The latest poll numbers released Wednesday show the Democrat at 47 percent and Stapleton at 40 percent — the same result as a poll three weeks earlier, despite millions of dollars spent on negative ads trying to knock Polis from his perch.

The race for attorney general appears much closer — with Republican George Brauchler and Democrat Phil Weiser locked in a dead heat for a position that is considered a check on the state’s executive branch and the Trump administration.

MORE: George Brauchler vs. Phil Weiser: Where Colorado’s attorney general candidates stand on the issues, from marijuana to the death penalty

Brauchler, the chief prosecutor in a Denver-area judicial district, is the first to acknowledge that Democrats are poised to make major strides in November. He supports Stapleton, but in campaign appearances he talks about the potential for a Polis victory as one reason for voters to support his candidacy.

“I’m not going to come out there and say, ‘All the polls are wrong and I think Walker is going to run away with this thing,’ ” Brauchler told The Colorado Sun in an interview.

The Democratic momentum this year, he said, could extend to the legislature to and other statewide offices. With the Colorado Supreme Court already dominated by picks from current Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, Brauchler says Colorado will need a Republican as its top lawyer to balance the power.

18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, the Republican candidate for Colorado attorney general. speaks at a debate with Democrat Phil Weiser in Denver. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“My whole life, that I’ve been here, we have never been all one party or all the other — one ideology or another,” he said. “This election poses, for the very first time, a very credible possibility that we wake up on Nov. 7 and we’re all one (party).”

The Stapleton campaign dismisses any concern about its chances. “There are hundreds of thousands of Colorado Republicans that are fully behind Walker and doing everything they can to make him win,” said campaign spokesman Jerrod Dobkin.

But Republican and Democratic strategists are seeing a heightened emphasis on the attorney general’s race, as well as competitive state Senate contests. Both are easier to win than the governor’s race, but at the same time, down-ballot Republicans need Stapleton to keep it close, otherwise it will hurt their chances, too.

Democrats have historically fared better in the election for governor, but Republicans dominate campaigns for other statewide offices. For instance, only two Democrats have held the attorney general’s seat since 1951.

And even if Polis wins, Republican strategists note, it’s not clear whether his support will carry Weiser to victory. In 2014, Gov. John Hickenlooper won, but the Democratic candidate for attorney general, Don Quick, received 180,000 fewer votes and lost to Republican Cynthia Coffman.

Brauchler’s potential future is another factor

Moreover, Brauchler is seen as potential star in the Republican Party — a telegenic father of four who serves as an Army colonel in the Colorado National Guard and prosecuted the Aurora theater shooter. He entered the governor’s race briefly, but exited as it grew crowded and his fundraising faltered.

MORE: Get to know George Brauchler, the Republican candidate for Colorado attorney general

“I get the sense there’s a lot of enthusiasm on the right behind his candidacy,” said Jimmy Sengenberger, a conservative radio show host in Denver. “The buzz, in part, is that I think George Brauchler has a strong future in Colorado’s Republican Party, and I’d like to see it be an even stronger future.”

Brauchler’s potential in Colorado politics is one reason the Republican Attorneys General Association is making this race one of the top priorities in the nation — and why top Democrats are fighting so hard to deliver a defeat in 2018.

When it comes to talk about a so-called “blue wave” election, “the litmus test of how Colorado will go is the attorney general’s race,” said Mike Stratton, a top Democratic consultant.

He pointed to the nearly $3 million that RAGA put into the contest so far. “The theory Republicans are operating under is that Polis is likely to win, so how do we counter him?” Stratton continued. “And they believe (the attorney general’s race) is where to do it.”

RAGA spokesman Zack Roday said his group’s effort in Colorado is substantial, but so far his organization is not focusing on the checks-and-balances argument in regards to the governor’s race.

Prominent Republicans strategists in Colorado say it’s far too soon to write off the governor’s race, despite Stapleton’s deficit in the polls.

Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who is the Republican nominee for governor. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

“On one hand, it is a legitimate observation by George Brauchler that right now there is a strong chance there will be a Democratic governor,” said Dick Wadhams, a former chair of the Colorado GOP. “But I don’t think that it means that this race is out of reach. I think Republicans think this (governor’s) race is still winnable.”

Former state Sen. Greg Brophy, a Brauchler ally, said “the big ticket race is the governor’s race, and it’s going to be much closer than the polls indicate.”

“I remember back in 2006, when there was a big ‘blue wave’ and the top of ticket got absolutely shellacked, but here in Colorado we still won the secretary of state and attorney general’s race and nearly won the treasurer’s race,” Brophy added.

Weiser wants the focus on Trump, not Polis

On the Democratic side, Weiser, a former University of Colorado Law School dean, is vowing to be a check on President Donald Trump — and trying to tie his Republican opponent to the White House.

MORE: Get to know Phil Weiser, the Democratic candidate for Colorado attorney general

He hammers Brauchler for refusing to commit to join lawsuits against the Trump administration and pledges to add Colorado as a plaintiff in efforts to secure the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and preserve protections for those with pre-existing conditions in the Affordable Care Act.

“The stakes are critical: It’s health care. It’s protecting our land air and water. Fair and legal treatment of immigrants. That’s what’s at stake,” Weiser said at a debate Saturday in Colorado Springs. “We have a check on the federal government if it acts illegally and hurts us. It’s our attorney general. The attorney general is not doing his or her job if we are not defending the rule of law when people’s lives are at stake.”

Democrat Phil Weiser, who is running for attorney general, speaks at an event in Highlands Ranch in September 2018. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Brauchler says Weiser is committing to join legal action before he has seen all the facts. Lately, he has been painting Weiser as an “ideological Don Quixote.”

He uses similar high-stakes language to talk about a potential Democratic governor in Colorado, while still vowing to be a check on Trump or Stapleton, for that matter, should he be elected. Brauchler told The Sun he will continue to make the argument that a political balance is good for the state.

“My pitch has been: That balance — that is Colorado,” Brauchler said. “We’re about to lose that if we don’t start making decisions about some of these other offices to say, ‘We’ll take one of these and we’ll take one of those.’ ”

Updated on Oct. 18, 2018 at 10:40 a.m.: This story has been corrected to reflect the number of children George Brauchler has. He is a father of four.

Rising Sun

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.