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BARNESVILLE — Decisions made at a shiny conference table inside a former truck repair shop in this as-rural-as-rural-gets corner of Colorado may represent the GOP’s best shot in November of unwinding four years of total Democratic control of state government. 

It’s where rancher Steve Wells is plotting, mostly by his lonesome, how to spend the $11 million — and counting — of his personal fortune he’s dedicated to preventing Democratic Gov. Jared Polis from winning a second term. The money is going to a political action committee Wells formed that’s purchasing billboard space and TV ads across Colorado.

Wells, whose family has been farming and ranching in Colorado for more than 125 years, is not your traditional political influencer. He doesn’t like the halls of power, nor the people who fill them. But what he says he dislikes even more is the state’s direction, and he’s willing to dig into his deep pockets — filled with money from when he allowed oil and gas drilling on his 40,000-acre Weld County spread — to change it. 

“This money that I’m spending to do this — I mean, I stopped some other projects I was doing,” Wells, 64, told The Colorado Sun during an interview last week at his property about 20 miles east of Greeley. “I walked away from a solar project. It’s gonna change some things. But this is more important to me. Making him go away is the most important. This will be the most important thing I think in my life if we can get him gone.”

Wells is fed up with the rising number of fentanyl deaths in Colorado and what he sees as a demoralized law enforcement corps. He thinks there’s government overreach in schools, where teachers should be teaching science and math and not “sexual things.” He says agriculture and oil and gas are being overregulated and casts doubt on the science behind climate change and the need for a green energy transition. 

Republican insiders are privately grumbling about Wells because they think his money would be better spent on races that appear more winnable, like the very competitive battle for control of the Colorado Senate, where a GOP majority would decapitate Polis’ policy agenda. One GOP operative in Colorado privately groused that having a lot of money means you don’t have to make a lot of sense.

And Democrats are confident that no matter how much money Wells ultimately unloads, Polis, with his strong poll numbers and ability to self-fund, will be able to fend off his Republican opponent, University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl, whose campaign has little cash and has had a number of unforced stumbles. “Ranchers usually have more sense than to waste their money like this,” said Shad Murib, a Democratic political consultant who ranches in Eagle County and used to be a senior aide to Polis.

Gov. Jared Polis speaks before signing an abortion rights bill into law on April 4, 2022, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Wells, who is by design about as isolated politically as he is geographically, doesn’t care what others think. And he’s confident in his spending strategy, which came as a surprise to Republicans and Democrats alike. “Everybody wants me to spend my money wherever they want me to spend my money,” he said. “I really don’t like working with other people that tell you how to do everything you do. I feel really good about this.”

He added: “I’m really hoping we win. I think we will.”

Despite their skepticism, neither Republicans nor Democrats can sneeze at the $11 million Wells has spent — and however much more money he will spend — to influence 2022 voters. (Wells won’t say how much he will or can ultimately dedicate to his political cause.)

Case in point: Wells missed a call from Polis while The Sun was visiting his ranch. And as this reporter was leaving Wells’ property last week he encountered former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, who had made the trek up to rural Weld County to meet the man who had suddenly become one of the GOP’s largest donors.

“Everything in my life was kind of going south”

Wells was 6 weeks old when he was adopted. His parents were 47 at the time and his mother, Lilian, had gone through five miscarriages. 

“You have to really want kids at 47,” Wells said.

Wells went to grade school in nearby Gill and then high school in Kersey. Before he graduated in 1976, he was farming on a section of his family’s then-30,000-acre spread and in a marriage that would only last about six months. (“Not one of my better moves,” he said of the marriage.)

In his first year of farming, he got divorced. In his second year, his crops were ruined by hail. In his third year, the people Wells was selling feed to filed for bankruptcy. “I had all the farming knowledge I needed at that point,” he said.

Wells switched his focus almost entirely to ranching, the family business, where he found steady work for decades alongside his father and his son. It was a cow-calf operation with an average of about 850 pairs.

In the winter of 2007, however, the fortunes at Wells Ranch changed after Colorado was hit with a series of blizzards that devastated agriculture on the Eastern Plains, destroying crops and killing cattle.

“It snowed every weekend for six weeks,” Wells said, “and I lost a ton of money out there.”

A few months later, Noble Energy, then one of Colorado’s largest oil and gas companies, came to Wells and asked to lease his land. (Noble has since been purchased by the energy giant Chevron.)

“It was one of those things that everything in my life was kind of going south and then they just knocked on the door one day and then we arm-wrestled over percentages and what we were going to do and I signed the lease and that’s how it started,” he said.

Weld county farmer and rancher Steve Wells has hundreds of gas and oil wells on his property. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

At one point, there were as many as 900 oil and gas wells on Wells’ property. 

If you look at a satellite image of Colorado, you can use the drilling sites — they look like wagon wheels, a design Wells says is aimed at limiting the surface damage of drilling on his land  — to easily find the ranch.  It’s a vast range miles from so much as a stoplight, and that’s how Wells likes it.

Wells said he can’t comprehend living or working in Denver. 

“It’s just too many people,” he said. “It’s a different mindset. Country people look at city people completely differently. They don’t understand what goes on out here and the people out here don’t understand a lot of what goes on there.”

A slain deputy’s patrol car

Even if you’ve never heard of Wells before, there’s a strong chance you’ve seen a viral local TV news story featuring him. 

In 2015, Wells purchased a 2010 Dodge Charger at an auction in Weld County benefiting the families of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. The vehicle used to be driven by a sheriff’s deputy, Sam Brownlee, who died in a shootout with a suspect five years earlier. Brownlee’s son, Tanner, was also at the auction, intending to buy the car.

Wells outbid Tanner, spending $60,000 on the sedan with about 150,000 miles on the odometer and valued at $12,500. When the auctioneer handed Wells the keys, Wells immediately handed them over to the deputy’s son, whom he didn’t know.

“Here’s your car,” Wells said to the young man, an emotional exchange captured by TV news cameras and watched by tens of millions of people across the world.

YouTube video

Wells said the moment remains one of the most important of his life. 

Purchasing Deputy Brownlee’s car may have been Wells’ most high-profile philanthropic endeavor, but it hasn’t been his only one. The organizations he’s given to include the Weld Food Bank and Platte Valley Future Farmers of America. He’s also a donor to a program run by the Weld County Sheriff’s Office — the Weld Elves —  that provides Christmas gifts to children. 

Recently, Wells says he has put up money to help build a church in the rural expanse east of his ranch. 

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“He helps out a lot of people in the area,” said Kersey Mayor Gary Lagrimanta, who knows Wells only by his reputation. “He does a lot of good in Weld County.”

(Wells warned in 2014 that a ban on hydraulic fracturing, the drilling practice used to extract oil and gas from deep underground, would cut into his income and in turn limit his philanthropic giving.)

“I truly believe that life is like preseason football,” Wells told The Sun. “It’s about getting picked for the team when you die. And there’s two things you leave in this world when you die: the values you instill in your children and the memories your friends have of you. Short of that, you go out naked and broke. And if you think about those two things all the time, you make better decisions. You want to leave things better for everybody.”

Wells sees his political giving as an extension of the values he lives by.

“I don’t care who you are,” he said, “you don’t want your car stolen. You don’t want crime. You don’t want this stuff. You don’t want to go to the grocery store and have some cracked-out guy harassing you or your wife.”

A sign rests against the wall in Steve Wells’s Weld County office. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

There’s a video on Wells’ website, filmed in his repair-shop-turned-office-and-hangout, where he tries to explain his political giving. He criticizes Democratic policies and transgender inclusivity.  

“Boys and girls can’t call each other boys and girls anymore,” he said in the video. “They don’t know which bathroom to use anymore.” He also says Democrats have demonized and defunded the police and blamed them for crime being “out of control.” Finally, Wells claims increased regulations on the oil and gas industry aren’t about climate change or cleaner air, but rather “about power and control.”

And he thinks his money can reverse “how bad things have gotten.”

“The Republicans are the best shot we have at this,” he told The Sun. “They just are.”

Political spending ramps up

This isn’t the first time Wells has gotten involved in politics. 

State campaign finance records show his first donation to a candidate was in 2010, when he gave $400 to Republican Bob Boswell’s unsuccessful campaign in a Colorado House district in the Greeley area. 

Since then, Wells has donated increasing amounts to GOP politicians’ campaigns and conservative political groups. In 2014, he gave more than $35,000 to Republican Steve Reams’ campaign for Weld County sheriff. He gave $50,000 in 2018 to a state-level Republican super PAC called “Front Range Conservatives,” as well as $400,000 that year to a pro-oil-and-gas super PAC called Spirit of Colorado. Wells made headlines in 2019 after giving $100,000 to a committee seeking to recall Democratic state Rep. Rochelle Galindo, a Greeley lawmaker who resigned before she could be ousted. 

This 2009 photo shows Steve Wells addressing citizens gathered at a rally against federal legislation on climate change in Greeley. The lunchtime event, organized by the American Petroleum Institute, drew about 600 people. (Ed Andrieski, AP Photo, file)

Wells’ spending this year, however, has eclipsed all of his other political donations combined. 

He formed Deep Colorado Wells, a state-level PAC aimed at “defeating Democrats that have destroyed our Colorado way of life,” on June 29. A few days later, he donated $1 million to the group through his company, Wells Ranch LLLP. On Aug. 25, he gave Deep Colorado Wells another $5 million through Wells Ranch. Then, on Wednesday, Wells gave the group yet another $5 million.

The super PAC, also known as an independent expenditure committee, has spent about $750,000 in recent weeks buying TV time to air an ad it launched Wednesday asking voters to “fire Polis” and “vote Heidi Ganahl.” In August, the group paid roughly $500,000 to Salem Media, which owns the conservative Colorado talk radio station 710 KNUS. Most of that money went toward digital advertising, with the rest being dedicated to radio ads. 

Wells also has invested heavily — it appears about $400,000 — in billboards that dot the Denver metro area, but appear as far south as Walsenburg, criticizing Polis over issues like inflation, opioid overdose deaths, car thefts, and pandemic school, church and business closures. 

“VOTE REPUBLICAN” each billboard declares beneath an image of the governor, who is sometimes wearing a crown and other times pictured with President Joe Biden.

A billboard reads "HAD ENOUGH? VOTE REPUBLICAN. #FIREPOLIS" and includes a photo of Gov. Jared Polis with President Joe Biden
One of the anti-Jared Polis billboards posted around Colorado. (Handout)

Most political donors who spend the kind of money Wells is spending work with a team of consultants. But Wells is mostly calling the shots himself, in part to ensure every penny he spends goes toward his goal. 

He is particularly targeting unaffiliated voters in the Denver metro area, though the messaging campaign is statewide. Wells said he’s more interested in casting Polis out of office than in trying to influence the outcome of another race, such as the battle for control of the Colorado Senate, because he thinks “you have to start at the top.”

“The reality of this is everything that happens in this state goes across his desk,” Wells said of the governor. “You don’t fire the players, you fire the coach. Then, if you’ve got some bad players, you weed them out later.”

And Wells says he believes Ganahl is a good replacement for the governor. He met with her for a few hours in May and was impressed.

Everybody wants me to spend my money wherever they want me to spend my money. I really don’t like working with other people that tell you how to do everything you do.

– Steve Wells

“I can ask some pretty tough questions,” he said. “She looked me right in the eyes. She never looked away. She never skirted a question. She never did the political walk around the barn crap. She answered them, every one of them. Did I agree with 100% of what she said? No. But do I agree with about 95% of it? Yeah. She gets it.”

Dick Wadhams, a former chair of the Colorado GOP, met with Wells earlier this month after learning about his political spending. While he acknowledges that Polis may not be beatable, Wadhams thinks Wells’ spending could lift Republican candidates across the ballot. 

And he thinks the conservatives who are grumbling about how Wells is spending his money are probably the same people who have presided over two election cycles of GOP defeats in Colorado. 

“I’m delighted he’s doing it,” Wadhams said. “I think Republicans should embrace him rather than second-guessing him.” 

A run for office?

Wells’ political spending will help make up for Ganahl’s lackluster campaign fundraising. 

Polis has given his reelection campaign more than $7 million out of his personal fortune and began September with $3.3 million in his campaign’s bank account. Ganahl has raised only $1.6 million since announcing her campaign a year ago and had less than $200,000 in her coffers at the start of the month.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl speaks at a news conference on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, where she unveiled her transportation plan. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

But Wells’ money won’t go as far as the governor’s. 

Political action committees are charged two or three times more for TV ad time than candidates, a requirement under federal law. For reference, candidates are paying up to $70,000 right now  to air 30-second TV ads in the Denver media market. 

Because of donor limits, Wells can directly give Ganahl’s campaign only $1,250. Deep Colorado Wells is prohibited by law, meanwhile, from coordinating with Ganahl’s campaign. (A spokeswoman for Ganahl declined to comment for this story.)

“Of course I wish she could raise more money,” Wells said. “I got faith that she can win. If I didn’t have faith she can win, I wouldn’t be doing this. If I don’t give this 100% I would look back one day and say, ‘Damn it, I wish I would have tried.’”

(As of Thursday, Deep Colorado Wells still had $9.3 million left to spend.)

Wells said he thought about running for office himself about five years ago, but it was about that time that his hearing started going bad. He now has cochlear implants and worries about being taken out of context.

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“I didn’t feel comfortable,” he said. “Would I do it now? I don’t know.”

Colorado’s political class, meanwhile, seems unsure of what to make of Wells. 

Owens, the former governor, said his discussion with Wells was interesting. “I appreciate his willingness to help make Colorado a two-party state,” he told The Sun. 

Polis’ reelection campaign declined to comment on the governor’s conversation with Wells. 

(Morgan Carroll, the chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party, said “Steve Wells is a far-right extremist who just wants to see a MAGA Republican like Heidi Ganahl in office. These are predictable attacks that Coloradans can see right through.”)

Wells said of his call with Polis: “Him and I, it’s obvious, agree on absolutely nothing.”

Wells says he has faith that once they see his billboards and TV ads, Colorado voters will agree with his perspective on Polis. 

The Sun asked Wells what failing to oust Polis would mean to him. Is that an endorsement of the governor and what’s happening in Colorado? 

“Interesting question,” he said. “I really don’t know the answer to that. I know that whatever happens — if we don’t win — I’m not done yet.”

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The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...