Two Colorados, two visions, one tight race

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper was cruising toward victory. Then everything changed.

The 2014 Colorado governor's race wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't even supposed to be a race.

On one side was the overwhelming favorite: current Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. As the mayor of Denver from 2003 to 2011, Hickenlooper routinely racked up approval ratings in the 70 to 90 percent range. He won re-election in 2007 with 87 percent of the vote. And in the 2010 gubernatorial race, he trounced the second-place candidate, right-wing crackpot Tom Tancredo, by nearly 15 percentage points.

Facing Hickenlooper from the right: what appeared to be a motley gaggle of Republican wannabes. The field included Tancredo, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric had long since made him unelectable most places on Planet Earth, and a former dairy farmer, community banker, and congressman named Bob Beauprez, who had lost by an even larger margin than Tancredo when he last ran for governor in 2006.

Polls taken in the spring showed the incumbent ahead by an average of 11 percentage points, prompting at least one national journalist to predict a cakewalk. "Hickenlooper is skating toward reelection," Stephen Rodrick declared in the first paragraph of a Men's Journal profile. "A loss seems unlikely."

But a funny thing happened on the way to a Hickenlooper sequel: The GOP nominated Beauprez, and the governor's lead suddenly went poof. Nearly every survey released since mid-July suggests a statistical tie, and earlier this month, Quinnipiac released a poll that gave Beauprez 50 percent of the vote — to Hickenlooper's 40. In short, the Colorado governor's race has been transformed into a textbook tossup.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez speaks to a group attending a forum at 21c the new branch of the Pikes Peak Library District on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Jerilee Bennett)

This doesn't make a whole lot of sense on paper. As the governor is fond of reminding his constituents, Colorado has flourished since he took office, rocketing from 40th in the nation for job creation to fourth while state unemployment plunged from 9.1 to 5.3 percent. In August, Business Insider ranked Colorado's  economic growth as the best in the country. And Hickenlooper himself has enjoyed near-constant hosannas from the press, including a spot on Politico's new list of 50 "thinkers, doers and dreamers who really matter in this age of gridlock and dysfunction." How could such a (seemingly) successful incumbent be struggling to win re-election in such a (seemingly) successful state?

In early September, I flew into Grand Junction to find out. Over the following week, I logged more than 700 miles on the road with both Beauprez and Hickenlooper. What I discovered is that Hickenlooper himself is partly to blame: A series of missteps has shaken Colorado's confidence in his consensus-seeking, technocratic style of leadership.

But there are more fundamental reasons, too — reasons that have less to do with Hickenlooper's fumbles than with Colorado's changing sense of identity, and the backlash those changes have unleashed. Once reliably red, the Centennial State has emerged in recent years as America's leading 21st-century bellwether: a place where the nation's demographic, social, and political future is already underway. Pot is legal. Young coastal types, especially Californians, are flocking to the Denver metro area. The Latino population is surging. As a result, Republicans haven't won a top-line election since 2004, and the percentage of Colorado voters who chose Barack Obama in each of the past two presidential contests almost precisely matched the percentage of voters who did so nationwide. "Seemingly every big issue finds vivid expression here," the New York Times' Frank Bruni recently wrote. "Colorado has become the nation's mirror."

For some Coloradans — the Front Range urbanites, the Rocky Mountain yuppies — these are welcome developments. For many others — the Western Slope retirees, the Eastern Plains farmers — the New Colorado seems like too much, too soon.

Hickenlooper embodies one side of this divide and Beauprez the other — and that's ultimately why the 2014 gubernatorial contest is neck and neck. The governor entered office in 2011 promising to pursue a moderate agenda, but in the years since, he has been pulled to the left, as if by gravity, on issue after issue: guns, gays, education, energy, capital punishment. In many ways, he has come to represent the New Colorado: an emigre — from Pennsylvania, in Hickenlooper's case — with increasingly progressive tendencies. Beauprez, in contrast, is positioning himself as just the opposite: the fifth-generation farmboy who, in the best Western fashion, wants Denver and Washington to butt out and leave the Old Colorado alone.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), center, talks with people at the Aurora Seniors Center in Aurora, Colorado, August 4, 2014. (Sebastian Payne/The Washington Post/via Getty Images)

"As we travel around the state, we ask people, 'How ya doin'?'" Beauprez drawled onstage at the first gubernatorial debate, held Sept. 6 in Grand Junction. "'We're OK,' they answer. But you probe a little bit deeper and they say, 'You know, not as good as maybe we once felt.' Not great. Not Colorado anymore." Hickenlooper shook his head. "I believe Colorado is going to be defined more by its future than its past," he snapped. "And I think this future is about innovation and collaboration, not about picking fights and attacking each other."

Yet as much as Hickenlooper might wish otherwise, Colorado's identity crisis is real: Last November, five rural counties actually voted to secede from the rest of the state . And that's what makes the Hickenlooper-Beauprez contest so fascinating. Sure, it's about those big, vivid issues: fracking, gun control, regulations, and so on. But it's also a deeper referendum on which Colorado, Hickenlooper's or Beauprez's, Colorado wants to be — and, by extension, what kind of country America is becoming.


"Is it really a race?" Hickenlooper asks, a grin spreading across his boyish face. "Is it reeeaaally competitive?"

John Hickenlooper isn't your typical politician, as John Hickenlooper is typically the first to point out. Leaning against a low bookshelf in one corner of his wood-paneled office is a Martin acoustic guitar tattooed with the Sharpie signatures of pretty much every rock star who currently resides in Colorado (members of The Fray, The Lumineers, Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic); his shelves are strewn with bottles of Conestoga Distillery booze, a Bose iPod dock, a New York license plate that once belonged to Kurt Vonnegut, a half-eaten Panera sandwich, and a copy of Geoff Smart's recent book about outside-the-box politicians, Leadocracy, in which Hickenlooper himself is, of course, profiled.

Hickenlooper's well-cultivated nonconformity probably explains why his first impulse, as soon as he's asked about the gubernatorial race, is to question whether such a thing even exists — and look around the room for a laugh.

"I'm just kidding," Hickenlooper admits a few seconds later. He leans back in his chair. "It's pretty close to a tossup. I don't argue."

Denver Mayor-Elect John Hickenlooper acknowledges a passerby's congratulations during a portrait session along 17th Street, on June 4, 2003 where Hickenlooper bacame a successful restauranteur.  ( Glenn Asakawa/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Hickenlooper has always been a bit of a joker. A gangly geek with thick glasses, dyslexia and a lingering speech impediment, he was so bullied at his public school outside of Philadelphia that he eventually transferred to the posh, private Haverford School, where he figured out that even geeks could have friends if they were funny. Bachelor's and master's degrees at Wesleyan took nearly a decade; Hickenlooper's dream of becoming a novelist fizzled when a pal told him his Salingeresque Bildungsroman was crap, and he drifted through classes on "electronic music" and "the design and construction of stained-glass windows" before eventually falling in love with geology (and a parrot-owning anthropologist who studied witches).

Four years and one devastating breakup later — lithium helped him recover — Hickenlooper had a job with Buckhorn Petroleum in Denver. He was laid off in 1986. Jobless and aimless, he bought a red 1967 Chevy Malibu, drove it to California, and tried writing spec scripts for Moonlighting.

But Hickenlooper couldn't shake Colorado. One day he had an idea: He would transform a pigeon-infested warehouse in a shabby section of downtown Denver into what came to be known as the Wynkoop Brewing Company. Hickenlooper's timing was impeccable: The brewpub craze took off, and soon he was opening restaurants nationwide. Still single, he offered a $5,000 bounty to anyone who could find him a wife, a stunt that scored him a spot on the Phil Donahue Show; riffing on Pamplona's famous running of the bulls, he hired a herd of pigs to trot past the Wynkoop each year.

Next was Hickenlooper's rookie mayoral run. He had no political experience to speak of, so all he had to sell was himself: his geologist-turned-brewer biography; his "cowlick of a personality," as Denver's glossy 5280 magazine described it. He won with 65 percent of the vote. "Like so many wildcatting, pioneer adventurers before him, [Hickenlooper had] come from someplace else ... and staked his claim," continued 5280. "Just as appealing as what he was, was what he was not: He was not another lawyer. He was not another career politician. He seemed incapable of the same old entrenched backroom political horseshit."

Hickenlooper's ads were quirky: Hickenlooper tries on goofy suits at a costume shop; Hickenlooper hands out quarters to parkers frustrated by high meter rates; Hickenlooper takes a shower with his clothes on; Hickenlooper goes skydiving (even though he's afraid of heights). His political style was even quirkier. He rarely wore a tie. He never uttered the words "Democrat" or "Republican." And he was so devoted to a pair of political maxims — "There is no margin in having enemies" and "The secret to overcoming any challenge is finding the alignment of self-interests" — that he began to refer to them as his "brand."

Yet Hickenlooper's quirks weren't just for show; they actually seemed to work. As mayor, he erased a $75 million budget deficit, slashing his own salary by 25 percent. As governor, he transformed a $1 billion shortfall into a $600 million surplus. The brand was golden.

Then came 2013. "Hickenlooper had this long, long winning streak going," says Mike Littwin, the veteran Denver Postpolitical columnist who now writes for The Colorado Independent. "But over the last year or so he's gotten redefined — and he hasn't been able to pull himself out of it."

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper bows his head during a prayer at a dedication ceremony for the newly planted trees at Hope Park at The Potter's House of Denver on Sunday, July 20, 2014 in Aurora, CO. Each tree planted bore a yellow ribbon with the name of a person who lost their life in the tragedy. (Kent Nishimura/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Hickenlooper's initial response to the July 20, 2012, Aurora massacre was indistinguishable from the NRA's; he was never particularly gung-ho about gun control, so he decided to push for mental-health reform instead. "If there were no assault weapons available and no this or no that, this guy is going to find something, right?" Hickenlooper told CNN two days after the shooting. "He's going to know how to create a bomb."

But when Democrats won control of the state Legislature in November, gun-safety legislation began to look inevitable — so Hickenlooper pivoted. He can still recite the statistics that changed his mind. "In 2012, when Colorado did background checks on half the gun purchases, there were 38 people convicted of homicide trying to buy a gun, and we stopped them," he explains. "One hundred, thirty-three people convicted of sexual assault. 620 burglars. 1,380 people convicted of felony assault. On top of that, 32 of the 42 mass slayings we've had in this country since the early 1980s were with high-capacity magazines." He pauses for breath. "It seems to me that in the end that you've got to come down on the side of public safety."

On March 20, 2013, Hickenlooper signed a trio of new laws banning magazines that hold more than 15 bullets and requiring buyer-financed background checks for almost all firearms sales. No other Mountain West state had ever implemented such strict gun regulations, and the backlash was severe. Within weeks grass-roots activists had launched recall petitions against four state legislators; by the end of the year, three of them, including the Senate president, had been run out of office. "Hickenlooper hit the third rail with the gun legislation," says Littwin. "Once that happened, everything changed."

Then in May 2013, Hickenlooper reversed himself on the death penalty, granting an indefinite stay of execution to convicted murderer Nathan Dunlap, one of three Coloradans currently on death row. "I'd been pro-death penalty my whole life," he says now. "Eye for an eye. My dad was a Sunday school teacher. But at a certain point, you have to look at the evidence. There's no deterrence. Sometimes innocent people are executed."

And yet despite his change of heart, Hickenlooper refused to call for a statewide ban on capital punishment, or even to grant clemency; he simply passed the final Dunlap decision on to his successor. "Part of my job is not to change the system," he explains, "but to create a context for a conversation." It was a middle-of-the-road approach that managed to upset Coloradans on both sides of the debate.

The same month, Hickenlooper approved a sweeping election-reform bill that garnered precisely zero Republican votes in the Legislature — a rare move for a governor almost pathologically inclined toward bipartisanship. In June, Hickenlooper again angered Republicans, and some rural Coloradans, by backing a controversial measure doubling rural renewable-energy requirements. In November, Hickenlooper " staunchly supported" a billion-dollar income-tax hike designed to fund statewide education reform — and a staggering two-thirds of the electorate voted against it.

Governor John Hickenlooper, seated, celebrates with (l-r) Speaker Mark Ferrandino, Representative Sue Schafer, and Sens. Pat Steadman and Lucia Guzman after signing the Colorado Civil Union Act at the History Colorado Center in Denver, CO March 21, 2013.  (Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post via Getty images)

By the end of 2013, same-sex civil unions were legal. So was recreational marijuana. In a little more than a year, a lot had changed in Colorado, and John Hickenlooper's brand had changed as a result.

The changes could be explained in part by the Democratic Legislature, and in part by forces beyond Hickenlooper's control, like James Holmes' decision to go on a shooting spree at an Aurora cineplex. But whatever the reasons, the Philly native who had risen through the ranks of Colorado politics by presenting himself as the right kind of outsider — a pioneering, pig-running, nonpartisan problem-solver — was beginning to seem, at least to some Coloradans, like the flip side of that stereotype: yet another one of those progressive urban interlopers pushing Colorado to be more like New York or California or even (gasp!) Washington, D.C. "People here started to question whether Hickenlooper was what he always told them he was," Littwin says. "And then they started to ask themselves, 'Well, if he isn't, do we want to vote for him again?'"

Enter Bob Beauprez.


It's a mid-September morning in Lafayette — cold, drizzly and gray — and Beauprez's long-cab Ford F-150 has just turned left onto Beauprez Avenue. The street sign might as well say "Memory Lane."

For the past 20 minutes or so, Beauprez has been tooling around the site of his family's old dairy farm, which does not look like a dairy farm anymore. In 1990, Beauprez and his brother sold their ancestral plot to a local developer, who set about covering its soft hills and green meadows with a public golf course lined by 1,400 cookie-cutter homes in various shades of periwinkle, teal, lavender and peach. "The farm has changed pretty dramatically since I was a boy," Beauprez says, squinting through his windshield. "Everything here is new."

Everything, that is, except for Beauprez Avenue. This is where the F-150 finally rumbles to a stop. When Beauprez opens his door and lowers a brown dress shoe onto the gravel, it's like he's emerging from a time machine. In front of him is the low, brick ranch house he grew up in. To his left is the low, brick ranch house he raised his own family in. And to his right is the antique Beauprez barn — tall brick silo, gray gambrel roof, white aluminum siding. The whole panorama is perfectly preserved (and perfectly out of place): a single, anachronistic acre of Lafayette's rural past, surrounded on all sides by golf carts and condos and progress.

"This was built in 1927," Beauprez says as he sidles through the creaky barn door and steps onto a floor still caked with hay and dung. "Back then it would have been a pretty big barn." When Beauprez speaks — his voice is deep, earthy and laconic — he sounds a bit like Sam Elliott, part small-town sheriff, part Smokey Bear. A canvas barn coat enhances the effect, even though with his crisp khakis, black V-neck sweater, smooth skin and meticulous silver hair, Beauprez now looks more like the multimillionaire community banker he became after selling the farm than the rural kid who was forced to milk cows here every morning.

GOP gubernatorial contender Bob Beauprez, center, greets customers during a campaign visit to Sam's No. 3, a diner in Denver, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

He surveys the space. "When the milk truck came, the milkman would stick his hose through this hole and pump the milk out. Back here is where I actually learned how to milk. I started eighth grade with a black eye. A cow kicked the milker." He touches his left cheekbone. "I had the biggest shiner. I remember my football coach said, 'Looks like you started practice a day early.'" He chuckles, mostly to himself. "This place served us well."

So well, in fact, that when it came time to sell the rest of the farm, Beauprez couldn't part with this piece. You can "develop" the rest of our land, he told the developer. But you have to leave our little homestead alone. And so now here it stands, untouched by time: an island of stasis in a sea of change, and a testament to Beauprez's reluctance to let go of what is important from the past.

A lot of Coloradans feel the same way, especially lately — and Beauprez understands this. One recent Monday afternoon, he attended a small fundraiser at the C.B. & Potts brewpub on the Collindale Golf Course in Fort Collins, Colorado. As golf carts coasted silently by the windows and 70 local Republicans dined on Buffalo wings and potato skins beneath signs extolling the chain's "handcrafted ales" — Total Disorder Porter, Buttface Amber — Beauprez delivered a feisty rendition of his usual stump speech. He started with his apple-pie bio: "high school football"; "the little family dairy farm" where he later figured out how to breed prize-winning Holstein cattle; "the little community bank" that he took from a "$4 million-asset bank to a $450 million-asset bank in a dozen years"; Congress, the Oval Office, the occasional flight on Air Force One. "Only in America," Beauprez added.

Then he turned to Hickenlooper. "Sure, the governor says we're creating jobs, and we are creating some," Beauprez said. "But compared to what? If you look at the real unemployment numbers, five states around us — Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Utah — are all doing better than us. Did you ever think those states would be kicking our you-know-what?"

Gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez is pictured on his 1300 acre ranch called Eagle's Wing Ranch in Coalmont, CO on September 22, 2014. He runs 300 head of bison on the ranch and sells the meat under the label Eagle's Wing Natural Bison. (Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post via Getty images)

A few diners frowned; others shook their heads. The problem, Beauprez continued, is regulation. "Guess who's number one for economic opportunity right now? Utah! Next-door neighbor. Look across that state line. What's so different about here and there? Government! When Gary Herbert took over in Utah, he made the same promise that I'm making to you. Day one, we're going to freeze all nonessential regulations. We're going to take an inventory of what we got. And then we'll ask the question: Is it pro-job, pro-opportunity, pro-believing-in-individual-liberty-and-freedom? Or is it anti- that? And if it's anti- that, we'll pull it out by its roots and throw it away!"

The crowd clapped. "You need a governor who understands the complexities and different ways of life that make up the great state of Colorado," Beauprez concluded. "When I go around and ask about John Hickenlooper, just like I've asked some of you, people say, 'Does he realize he's not just mayor of Denver anymore?'" The candidate chuckled; so did his supporters. "There's a whole lot of state besides Denver."


Beauprez's barn jacket is off now. It's "call time" at the Denver offices of Buz Koelbel, a local developer and longtime Beauprez supporter. Beauprez's finance chief, Jerry Hamill, has sequestered his candidate in a cramped first-floor conference room just down the road from campaign HQ so he can dial for dollars without interruption — a chore that, given Colorado's tight $1,100 limit on individual contributions and Hickenlooper's multimillion-dollar head start, seems to consume most of Beauprez's time these days.

Between calls, Beauprez takes a break to chat about the campaign. He can sum up his problem with Hickenlooper in one word. "Leadership," he growls, leaning his elbows on the table and turning the Sam Elliott effect up to 11. "People will talk about the guns. Rural Colorado talks about the renewable energy mandate. They talk about overregulation by the government — state and federal. They talk about the Nathan Dunlap issue. But when you probe just a little more, all of those issues come back to an unwillingness — an inability — to make decisions. Nearly four years into a Hickenlooper term, you ask people, 'What's the Hickenlooper legacy?'" Beauprez pauses for dramatic effect. "What is it?" Another pause. "He doesn't have one. As [former Republican Gov.] Bill Owens said the other day, 'You know, a governorship is a terrible thing to waste.' And I think John's done that."

U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, left, R-Colo., and U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman stand by test equipment used for processing solar cells as they toured the New Science and Technology Facility at the Renewable Energy Laboratory near Golden, Colo., on Friday, July 7, 2006.  Bodman and Beauprez were among the dignataries that cut the ribbon opening the facility. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

At the moment, the polling suggests that swing voters are open to replacing Hickenlooper. In September 2012, the governor's approval rating stood at 60 percent; 24 percent of Coloradans disapproved of the job he was doing. Earlier this month, however, the same firm, Survey USA, showed that Hickenlooper's approval rating had plummeted to 46 percent, with 45 percent now disapproving. Just as perilous in a state evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and independents was the governor's statistically insignificant 4-point lead among unaffiliated voters. As Survey USA put it, "where these disaffected independents go on Election Day may well determine the outcome" of the race.

Beauprez, who won his congressional seat in 2002 by a mere 121 votes, was dismissed as a lackluster campaigner after his drubbing in 2006. But he insists that he's "matured" and learned how to "do a better job of disciplining myself — of staying on message and remembering where the prize is and how to get there." On the trail, he's gotten a lot of mileage out of reminding voters that the governor spoke to (of all people!) New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg during the gun debate, a fact that even Hickenlooper seemed embarrassed about at one point. And his basic pitch — I'll get the Bloombergs of the world off your back — remains a perennial favorite in pioneer states like Colorado. "There's a large libertarian sensibility out here on both the right and the left," Littwin says. "It's a Western thing."

Still, just because Coloradans are a little uneasy with Hickenlooper doesn't mean they're comfortable with Beauprez. In fact, when centrist swing voters start tuning in to the race — ballots will be mailed out on Oct. 13 — they may find some of his views difficult to swallow.

Back in the Koelbel conference room, Beauprez says the reason he beat early front-runner Tom Tancredo in the 2014 GOP primary was that "there was a growing sense among our voting base that Tom probably couldn't win a general and that the most electable general-election candidate was me." And it's true that nearly every report on Beauprez's come-from-behind victory described him as the "mainstream" or "moderate" alternative to Tancredo's particular brand of wingnuttery. But when pressed, even Beauprez admits the moderate label is inaccurate — a misconception that has more to do with style than substance.

U.S. President George W. Bush (R) is applauded by gubernatorial candidate Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-CO) at a reception in Englewood, Colorado October 4, 2006. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

"I describe myself as a conservative," he explains. "My voting record certainly says I'm a conservative. I appreciate the moderate perception, but that probably reflects the fact that I'm respectful of people who may not see the world exactly as I do. It's more a mannerism than a voting pattern."

In the House, Beauprez voted with President George W. Bush 98 percent of the time, according to a report in Congressional Quarterly. He's also a devout Roman Catholic who has described himself as "hundred percent pro-life." In 2006, Beauprez answered "yes" to every one of Colorado Right to Life's litmus test questions, meaning that he favors a constitutional amendment protecting "preborn human beings," feels the same way about federal personhood legislation and opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

"That's the public policy I've always supported," Beauprez says. "But when you talk about governing, I know what the law is and I've got to enforce the laws of the state of Colorado." Still, Colorado is a libertarian-leaning state where the most important swing voters, moderate suburban women, support reproductive rights by wide margins year after year — and all-out opposition to abortion has not been a recipe for success in recent statewide elections.

Inspired by the tea party movement, Beauprez seemed to drift even further to the right after leaving office in 2006. In 2009, he wrote that global warming was "at best a grossly overhyped issue and at worst a complete hoax foisted on most of the world"; on talk radio a year later he called for an "extremely conservative reform agenda."

Beauprez's antipathy toward President Barack Obama became particularly pronounced during this period. "We're living through what a while ago was fantasy: Orwell's 1984," he told another talk-radio host in 2010, adding that, "like sheep," Americans "would line up behind some kind of a dopey system" so the government could "start tracking us with a little microchip." In his conservative Web newsletter, A Line of Sight, which has now been removed from the Internet, Beauprez speculated that Muslim Brotherhood operatives had infiltrated the White House and described the president as a race-obsessed "radical leftist in the Socialist-Marxist-Fascist mold."

"Barack Obama believes that the capitalistic economy of America and Western Civilization is the root of the world's evils," Beauprez wrote in 2012. "The private sector, he believes, has routinely abused 'people like him' and exploited the poor and their resources in the developing nations of the world. Further, even a casual read of his books reveals that Barack Obama sees everything through a black-and-white prism. For him, racism explains everything. The free-market system, as he sees it, is dominated by white men at the expense of blacks. It has been used to enslave, exploit, and permanently suppress blacks in his view."

Republican candidate for governor Bob Beauprez speaks during a news conference and meeting with state Republican Hispanics, at a Mexican restaurant in Aurora, Colo., Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Asked whether he regrets anything he said or wrote after leaving Congress, Beauprez demurs. "I suppose any of us have given interviews — John [Hickenlooper] certainly has — that you wish you had a mulligan on," he says. "But if anybody cares to be balanced in looking at a political candidate, I hope they see me as a guy who's been pretty much who he represented himself to be all his life. A conservative guy. A very traditional guy. Perfection has never been something that I've pretended to be. But what you see is what you get."


Which vision — of leadership, and of the state itself — will Coloradans prefer? Outside groups have been slamming the candidates all summer: The Republican Governors Association spent millions mocking Hickenlooper's quirkiness, and the pro-Hickenlooper PAC Making Colorado Great is trying to convince voters that as a congressman Beauprez wanted to help "banks like his ... get away with risky practices [that] were a major factor in the economic recession." (Fact-checkers say that's a stretch.) But the campaigns themselves are just gearing up. Hickenlooper's first ad debuted Sept. 9; Beauprez's launched a week later.

Sources in Colorado say that's better news for the governor than his challenger. Beauprez has only $363,000 on hand, while Hickenlooper — who recently regained some of his centrist mojo by brokering a major compromise on fracking — has already paid for and reserved $2.3 million in statewide advertising. Hickenlooper doesn't do negative ads — friendly PACs handle the dirty work — so his closing message will probably sound a lot like his opening remarks at the Grand Junction debate.

"Virtually every sector of Colorado is moving up," he told the audience. "About the only thing trending down is statewide unemployment. It's now 5.3 percent — down from 9.1 percent after 33 consecutive months of job growth." The left side of the Two Rivers Convention Center — the Democrats — applauded. "All this was achieved while we faced droughts, wildfires and the most destructive flood in our history," Hickenlooper continued. "Thirteen federally declared disasters, more than any state in history during a four-year period. But we came back stronger every single time. And this doesn't happen on its own."

Hickenlooper repeats these lines everywhere he goes these days, and rightfully so — they're as factual as they are flattering, both to Colorado and to the candidate himself.

John Hickenlooper attends Audi at Aspen Art Museum 2014 ArtCrush Summer Benefit on August 1, 2014 in Aspen, Colorado. (Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Aspen Art Museum)

But deep down, voters may be reacting to another Hickenlooper catchphrase when they cast their ballots this fall. In August, the governor created a stir in the state by telling The New York Times that "Colorado is the new California." When Beauprez is asked about his opponent's remark, he scoffs. "Well, if John has his way, Colorado might become that," Beauprez says. "Native Coloradans — and people who came here because of what Colorado has historically been — they don't see that as flattering."

And yet it's clear that Hickenlooper does. Back in his office, the governor insists that Beauprez is wrong to resist the comparison. "When I graduated from college, the kids who wanted to make a lot of money, they went to New York," he says. "The kids who had more creative ambitions — they wanted to do something big, but they weren't sure what it was; they wanted to find themselves but also do something meaningful — they almost all went to California. Now those kids are coming to Colorado."

Hickenlooper's eyes widen. His voice rises with every syllable, as if he's pitching those creative, ambitious kids at a college fair. "They come to Colorado, and they want to work out," he says. "And Denver's become a big city that really allows for that. We've got 900 miles of bike paths in metropolitan Denver. That's a lot! And we're within 25 miles of completing what we call the Alma-Aspen loop. It'll be a 300-mile bike trail through these glorious forests and mountains. It's very attractive."

The governor is on a roll now. He leans forward in his chair. "Did you know there are more live music venues in Denver than there are in Austin or Nashville?" he says. "No one talks about that! Some of the biggest rock 'n' roll bands have moved back to Denver!"

But what about the Coloradans who don't want Colorado to be a New Colorado — let alone the New California?

That kind of response, Hickenlooper insists, is "exactly what California went through and continues to go through. But we didn't choose this." He pauses — then leans a little further in. "You can't go backward," he says. "Sometimes history makes its own choices."