Surprise: Colorado Democratic Party chair Pat Waak's take on Governor Bill Ritter's decision not to run for reelection is considerably different from the one offered earlier today by her Republican counterpart, Dick Wadhams. But she does concede that the out-of-the-blue declaration takes some of the steam out of the Dems' gubernatorial plans.
"We lose a little bit of momentum, charging up a new candidate," she says. "But we haven't even had our caucuses yet. It's very early in the year."
According to Waak, she didn't hear about Ritter removing his hat from the ring from a representative of the governor.
"I actually got a call yesterday afternoon from someone saying they had heard something from, I guess, the Washington Post, and wanted to know if I knew anything about that," she says. "After that, I started getting press calls from everyone in the world -- and I started having conversations with elected officials until after 10 last night."
At the outset of Ritter's remarks earlier today, he made a joking comment about a leak. Did someone on his staff covertly release the information to the media, forcing him to hurriedly call a press conference?
"Clearly something happened where the news got out before he was ready to make his announcement," Waak believes. "I don't think it came from anyone immediately around him. My sense was that it came from the next tier down. Someone must have said something to someone. That's all we could figure out. But I know the people around him were pretty tight-lipped."
In his comments, Ritter suggested that family concerns drove his decision not to run, while Wadhams argued that several other considerations were more important, including his poll numbers head-to-head against Republican frontrunner Scott McInnis; Wadhams says they "suck." Waak disputes that.
"There are a number of polls out there, and some of the more private polls I've seen showed Governor Ritter ahead," she allows. "And if the last year didn't teach us something about not relying on polls, we should be hit on the head. I remember having this same conversation in 2008, with people saying, 'The polls show everything running even,' and we asked, 'Are you polling people with cell phones? Are you polling newly registered voters? Are you polling people who are coming back to voting for the first time in a long time?' And they said, 'No, no, no.' So I don't think poll results had anything to do with this. It's so early in the campaign that they weren't anything I was concerned about."
With that in mind, Waak believes the real reason Ritter is bowing out is just as he told it to the media earlier today.
"The Ritters are a very close-knit family," she says. "During the past several years when he was serving as governor, I've heard him comment more than once that the schedule was impossible and he wasn't getting any time to spend with his family. So I do think there was wear and tear on them. It's hard to make the choice he did; it's a hard choice, because we got involved with our egos sometimes. So I think it says something good about a person who makes that choice."
What about speculation that national Democratic powers asked a number of weak candidates to step aside -- not just Ritter, but also Connecticut's Christopher Dodd and North Dakota's Byron Dorgan?
"I don't have any indication whatsoever that the White House has had any involvement in this," Waak notes. "I know Chris Dodd very well, and he's been fighting prostate cancer this year. I just think he felt that given the odds, it was time for him to retire. I don't know Senator Dorgan that well, but if you look at the Republican side, you'll see that a number of congresspeople have decided not to run again. I think people are just tired. It's been a hard fight and it's wearying."
A number of names have surfaced as possible replacements for Ritter on the Democratic ticket -- most prominently Ken Salazar, John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff. Waak doesn't tout one over any of the others, but she does say "I think the governor's absolutely right. We have a huge bench out there, tons of people who are interested in this seat. So, to me, it's more about who wants to get into this race, and who has the ability to raise the money and work with the grassroots. We'll be talking in the coming days to all of the potential candidates out there to see who's the best candidate and who wants to make that commitment."
Does that mean Waak would like to follow McInnis' lead and line up the party behind a single individual rather than go through a contested caucus?
"We're a democracy," she notes, "and although any political chair running a party would probably say, 'It's nice not to have primaries,' we also know that process sometimes brings out the best in our candidates. We want the best candidate out there, and whichever way we can get that candidate is fine."
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McInnis spokesman Sean Duffy, who also spoke with The Latest Word earlier today, feels that with Ritter out of the way, his guy has already defeated "the varsity," leaving the Democrats to field "the b-team." Waak doesn't take this bait.
"I think that's a little silly," she says. "Obviously, there is an edge with incumbencies. But we've got some real powerhouses in this state. The Republican Party can spin this any way they want, but they haven't come up with a vision for this state yet."
And the Democrats' outlook? It'll be clearer once they decide on who will try to fill Ritter's loafers.