Editor's note: This is the third in a series of interviews with former 2018 Colorado gubernatorial primary contenders. Click to read our previous offerings, "Donna Lynne: My Guv Run Showed Why We Need Campaign Finance Reform" and "Victor Mitchell on Lies, Dark Money and What's Wrong With Our Election System."
Like Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne and entrepreneur Victor Mitchell, former state senator Mike Johnston qualified for the Colorado gubernatorial primary but fell short of earning a spot on the November ballot. Afterward, Lynne and Mitchell expressed frustration with the current system. But Johnston speaks with fondness about the campaign and gives every indication that he's ready for another major race.
Cue the speculation that his real goal is unseating Senator Cory Gardner in 2020 — not that Johnston, who finished third to Democratic nominee Jared Polis, will offer confirmation at this point.
"I've had a lot of people reach out and ask me that, and and I'm flattered by their suggestions," Johnston allows. "But I'm really focused on the 2018 race. I think the stakes are very high."
When it came to Democratic contenders for governor, money was at least as important as ideas, if not more so.
Figures provided by the Colorado Secretary of State's Office show Polis spent $11,240,266.75 during the primary. According to the Colorado Independent, this cash was supplemented by $961,964.88 from political action committees, resulting in a sum of $12,202,231.63. Polis finished with 44.43 percent of the vote.
Next came former Colorado treasurer Cary Kennedy. Colorado Secretary of State post-election numbers showed her campaign contributions and loans added up to $2,236,693.39, with another $2,049,198.53 in PAC cash bringing the total to $4,285,891.92. She earned 24.72 percent of the vote, a little more than 1 percent ahead of Johnston, who was aided by lots of cash contributed by gun-control advocates such as onetime New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Johnston supplemented $2,492,328.91 in standard campaign contributions with $5,214,383.77 in PAC largesse for an aggregate of $7,706,712.68 — a much higher figure than the one registered by Lynne. Her campaign raised $1,191,608 and she got nothing from PACs, but she still managed to collect 7.28 percent of the vote.
Because Johnston announced for governor in January 2017, before any other major candidate in either party, he spent nearly a year and a half crisscrossing Colorado in search of votes. But he insists that "it was an incredible gift to be able to run for governor. You get to go to amazing parts of the state and listen to amazing people who welcomed me into their lives in ways I wasn't prepared for. They wanted to share their successes, their heartaches, their hopes for the state. It was the perfect boost of energy to survive whatever Donald Trump might be putting out on Twitter."
In his view, this process "reaffirmed for me that Colorado just feels like a very different place than the rest of the country. It was clear that people here really do want to find a way to work together. They want to solve problems, and they want to feel connected to their neighbors again. Those were all really encouraging signs for me, and I think that's the reason why we found so much resonance for our campaign. That was our message — that in a moment of divided America, we felt it was still possible to bring people together. And that was true on a historic scale."
According to Johnston, "we wanted to run a campaign unlike one that's ever been run in Colorado before, and we did it on many measures. We had a larger field organizing effort than any gubernatorial effort before. We knocked on 200,000 doors in the last thirty days of the campaign alone. We developed new technology that no campaign had ever done before with our Voter Chase platform. And we came out with the most comprehensive policy proposals than any candidate has put out."
What went wrong?
"We didn't know we would be facing an opponent" — Polis — "who would be self-funding," Johnston says. "That changed the race. But we're very proud we ran and that people got engaged. I think you saw that down the stretch. We won the undecideds in the last thirty days and more than tripled where people thought we were in the polls. We saw a huge movement of undecideds and voters who wanted to be part of the campaign. It was just the name ID hole Jared had us in that made it impossible to catch him. But a number of commentators said that if the campaign had been a month longer and had two more debates, we might have managed it."
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Today, Johnston is an enthusiastic Polis booster and points out that many of the latter's policies, including free kindergarten, are ones he espoused early on. But, he concedes, "I do think we need to look at reforming our campaign finance laws. We set a goal to raise more than any campaign in Colorado history, but we couldn't imagine having an opponent who could outspend us five to one. That's a challenge and probably not what Colorado voters are looking for. But to Jared's credit, he agreed with that when the question came up in a debate. We want to make sure this is an election and not an auction, and Jared said he would support that. But now, the most important thing is making sure Jared wins this race. With what's coming out of Washington, D.C., we can't have a Republican governor aligned with Donald Trump. The last line of defense Colorado has is a Democratic governor who can provide some balance."
As for taking on Gardner two years from now, Johnston insists that the only chamber he's currently focused on is in Colorado: "We need to take back the state Senate, and we're trying to do whatever we can to help a number of women running in key state Senate races who can make all the difference."
In the next several months, though, Johnston confirms that "I'll talk to my wife, my family and my friends. We'll take a look at the landscape and how we can make the biggest impact on the state. So we'll certainly consider [running against Gardner], but we haven't made any big decisions."
Don't be surprised if that choice is made shortly after the dust settles from election day.