State treasurer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton admitted on Tuesday that his campaign submitted fraudulent signatures, thus severely jeopardizing his chances of appearing on June's GOP primary ballot. With the signature-filing deadline having passed weeks ago, Stapleton, the perceived GOP favorite before this week, can now only make the June ballot by winning over at least 30 percent of the delegates at Saturday's Republican state assembly in Boulder.
Not only does this have alarm bells blaring at the offices of the GOP's top gubernatorial fundraiser, but it could have massive implications on who'll be Colorado's next governor.
In the near term, it also means that Stapleton just opened himself up to an onslaught of criticism from both sides of the aisle.
"Walker Stapleton wants to pass the buck for his campaign's actions, but he knew who he was hiring to collect his petitions," said Ian Silverii, executive director of the progressive policy group ProgressNow Colorado, in a statement. "Instead of pointing fingers, it's time for Stapleton to do the one thing he has never been able to do in his professional or personal life: take responsibility."
“Walker chose to hire a group of shady petition-gatherers with a notorious and sordid past,” said Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, one of Stapleton's top rivals for the Republican nomination, on Tuesday. “Now, in the eleventh hour, he once again shows no respect for the rules, the party or Republican delegates. Now it will be up to the delegates to decide who they trust to represent their interests in the primary elections.”
In order to make it onto the June 26 primary ballot, a candidate needs either to qualify via petition (10,500 statewide signatures spread over Colorado's seven congressional districts), or net 30 percent of the support at the state assembly, as chosen by party delegates picked during last month's caucuses. In other words, a candidate can choose to spend lots of money and time getting thousands of signatures, or they can work on glad-handing local party bigwigs and giving a bring-the-house-down type of speech at the assembly. Many candidates do both.
Republicans Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson have turned in signatures to qualify for the June ballot. Democrats Jared Polis and Donna Lynne have turned in their signatures, which are under review, and Mike Johnston successfully petitioned to the ballot, the Secretary of State's office announced on April 6.
That leaves the other litter of GOP candidates to cat-fight through the assembly for the remaining three spots on the ballot (it's mathematically impossible for more than three candidates to get 30 or more percent of the vote). Assuming Mitchell and Robinson's signatures are verified by the Secretary of State, this group will include Stapleton, Coffman, former Denver Trump campaign chair Steve Barlock, businessman Barry Farah, former Parker mayor Greg Lopez and Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter III.
Stapleton performed well during April's caucuses and had been leaning toward an assembly appearance even before the signature fiasco. His new absolute need to win the assembly, however, may also be bad news for other fringe candidates hoping to get on the ballot via the assembly. If Stapleton takes a larger share of the vote, he could knock out rivals in the process. If he gets 70 percent or more of the vote, he wouldn't just keep Coffman, Barlock, Farah, Lopez and Gaiter off the ballot; he'd also get the top spot and go into the June primary as the surefire heavy favorite against Mitchell and Robinson.
But the assembly approach is risky, and the last GOP event featured a Cinderella story. Republican Darryl Glenn shocked and awed his way to the Republican senatorial nomination in 2016 on the back of a rousing speech. Glenn's 2016 state assembly performance propelled him to 70 percent of the assembly vote, essentially delivering a knockout punch to the rest of the competition, since no one else was able to get to that magic 30 percent.
Stapleton and Coffman, both generally considered to come from the more centrist wing of the Republican Party, could deliver a huge blow to Barlock and Farah, both self-professed Trump loyalists. Or centrist Republicans could split their votes between Stapleton and Coffman, opening a door for Barlock, Farah or perhaps an outsider like Lopez or Gaiter. Alas, it will come down to the votes of a relatively small group of Republican delegates, many of whom could be swayed by Saturday speeches.
Coffman had long been planning to get onto the ballot via the assembly. If she wins 30 percent of votes and Stapleton somehow comes in below the 30 percent threshold, Coffman would knock out one of her potential top rivals, catapulting her into frontrunner status in the process.
There's one sure-ish conclusion from all of this: The winner of Saturday's state assembly will probably be the favorite to win the GOP nomination, the result of a combination of knocking out rivals, winning the top spot on the primary ballot and having the electoral backing of local party infrastructure.
As Michael Roberts wrote last month, Stapleton appeared to be the GOP candidate to beat. The lone recent poll of the GOP gubernatorial primary field had Stapleton with a solid 26 percent of the vote and Coffman with 13, albeit with a massive 40 percent undecided figure that makes it hard to gauge who, exactly, is the definitive frontrunner. But as we mentioned earlier, Stapleton is also the top Republican fundraiser, with about a million in the bank and second cousin George W. Bush helping out with a high-roller February fundraiser in Dallas.
Saturday's GOP assembly was already going to be interesting, but thanks to some signatures collected from a dubious political company, it just might keep Stapleton, the Republican favorite, from getting left off the primary ballot in June. But it could also help him further assert himsef as a frontrunner.
Update: This story initially miscalculated which candidates successfully petitioned onto the ballot.
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