Reporting from Denver — The Republican Party is walking away from Dan Maes, a small-time businessman and political novice with "tea party" backing who captured Colorado's GOP gubernatorial nomination, scrambling the race less than seven weeks before election day.
Maes has been disavowed by pillars of the Republican establishment — including former Sen. Hank Brown and current U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck. The chairman of the state Republican Party flatly said Maes is not running a professional campaign and called on him to drop out before ballots were printed Sept. 3. The Republican Governors Assn. refuses to help fund his campaign.
Several tea party groups have withdrawn their backing after it was revealed that Maes misrepresented how he left a Kansas police department, incurred record campaign fines and called Denver's bike-swap program a United Nations plot.
The question now is who will benefit from Maes' hemorrhaging support — his Democratic opponent, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, or former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo, who is running as a third-party candidate because he thinks Maes is unelectable?
"What may happen is that, with a bit of time, Tancredo becomes viewed as the other major candidate," said Kenneth Bickers, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, who added that he is still reeling from the latest twists in the race. "I didn't see this coming 10 days ago."
Janet Rowland, a Mesa County commissioner who is active in the tea party movement, was one of nearly two dozen Republicans who announced recently that they were switching allegiance to Tancredo.
She said in an interview that this is the first time she hasn't backed a GOP nominee. The entire saga, she added, is a cautionary tale for the insurgent tea party.
"There is a belief by people who are fed up with government that, if they get somebody who hasn't been in politics, they will somehow be more pure," Rowland said.
Maes spokesman Nate Strauch said the establishment's abandonment of the candidate was worrisome.
"The Republican Party in the state has a very specific process for how it chooses its nominees," Strauch said. "It's a process that Dan Maes won fair and square." To turn around and say the votes of those 200,000 people who voted for him "don't count, to reward someone who circumvented the process, sets a dangerous precedent."
Strauch added that many tea party groups still supported Maes.
Maes was a long shot in the Republican primary, up against former Rep. Scott McInnis. He touted himself as a successful businessman, but tax records showed that some years he made little money. A supporter said Maes asked her for help paying his mortgage. He received a record $17,000 campaign fine for paying himself more than $40,000 from his campaign contributions for mileage.
Still, when McInnis acknowledged that he plagiarized a paper on water issues that he was paid $300,000 to write, Maes' support surged. He won the nomination by about 1% of the primary vote.
Two weeks later, the Denver Post reported that Maes' story about how he left a small-town Kansas police department was false. Maes had said he was fired because he had been working undercover for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, but Kansas officials said Maes never worked for them.
Right away, prominent Republicans began calling for Maes to drop out of the race before ballots were printed, including state party Chairman Dick Wadhams. Maes refused. He raised only $50,000 in August — less than a quarter of Tancredo's haul and an eighth of Hickenlooper's.
In an interview, Wadhams noted that Maes is still the party's nominee but worried that he has yet to assemble a professional campaign team. "To run a real, competitive race in Colorado, you have to have a real campaign," Wadhams said.
Strauch said Maes was not planning to hire any political professionals: "He won the nomination on a shoestring and he's using a similar strategy in the general."
Bay Buchanan, a veteran Washington, D.C.-based operative who is now Tancredo's campaign manager, contended that the onetime congressman, best known for his hard-line stance against illegal immigration, is the only real conservative opposition to Hickenlooper. "We've had enormous movement in the last five to six days," she said last week.
Hickenlooper spokesman George Merritt said the Democratic nominee "is focused on creating jobs, finding ways to support Colorado business, and promoting education."
Former Democratic Sen. Gary Hart, who teaches at the University of Colorado-Denver, said that as the GOP nominee, Maes will inevitably receive a large number of votes in November and split the conservative electorate, handing Hickenlooper a victory.
"Tancredo is whistling past the graveyard," Hart said. "What's interesting about the race is the disarray in the [Republican] party in general. It sought to embrace the tea party movement. When it did, it bought a whole lot of trouble."