DENVER – About a year ago, Dan Maes stood on the rooftop deck of a downtown Denver bar, surrounded by fans and TV cameras, as the star of the most improbable Cinderella story in modern Colorado politics.
It was going on midnight when the political novice claimed victory over former Congressman Scott McInnis in the Republican primary for governor. A rising movement known as the tea party helped propel Maes to victory – along with plagiarism allegations against McInnis that a legal panel later refuted.
“I think what went through my mind was, oh my gosh, we’re really here, and we have an incredible, incredible responsibility in front of us to do the right thing,” Maes said.
But, like Cinderella, midnight also brought an end to the fairy tale.
His campaign began to falter immediately in the face of a drumbeat of negative stories and former Congressman Tom Tancredo’s third-party campaign, Maes finished third, with 11 percent of the vote. He won just two counties – Montezuma and Dolores. Democrat John Hickenlooper coasted to victory.
A year later, the principal players still disagree about the meaning and the lasting effects of Maes’ moment atop the GOP.
‘Anyone can do it’
In a recent interview, Maes said the lesson of his campaign is that politics does not need to be left to the political class.
“Whatever their heart and mind guides them to, anyone can do this,” Maes said. “The patriot groups need to realize that. I sense some are becoming discouraged.”
But Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, has a different message.
“Not anybody can do it. Anybody who’s willing to or able to mobilize all the pieces can do it, but simply securing the nomination and expecting everyone else to do all the heavy lifting is not enough,” Call said.
Candidates have to build a statewide organization, attract a coalition of supporters and raise lots of money, Call said.
Maes had worked for telecommunications firms and ran a credit-reporting business out of his home before entering the race. Recently, he took a sales job for Integra Telecom, and he has no immediate plans to get back into politics.
Maes blames part of his campaign’s collapse on tea party groups – also known as patriot or liberty groups – for demanding perfection and a rigid adherence to ideology.
“The tea party was looking for Jesus Christ and nitpicked anything they could. They wanted purity, and the harsh reality was and remains that no one is perfect or pure, not even little Danny Maes.” he wrote in a book he published this summer, Running Without Cowboy Boots.
Tancredo, though, thinks the party’s 2010 experience will make the vetting of candidates only more intense.
“People in the GOP now will be a little more inclined to look deeper than what is presented at first blush from a candidate they’ve never heard of,” Tancredo said.
New sheriff at GOP
Although tea party groups flexed their muscle in the August primary, their influence began to wane in a less-noticed contest.
In March, Call easily won an election for the party chairmanship over state Sen. Ted Harvey, who had courted tea party support.
The March vote emboldened traditional GOP officials like Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, Call said.
“There has been a dramatic increase in the cohesiveness of the party, the direction of the party, and I think an understanding within the party of the stakes that we face, both in terms of matters of public policy as well as in terms of elections,” Call said.
McInnis dismisses any talk of internal divisions in the party.
“I don’t think there are lasting impacts. All of that upheaval was caused, frankly, by an ambush on me,” McInnis said.
Without the discovery by Democratic-aligned operatives that portions of the “Musings on Water” papers his research assistant wrote were plagiarized, McInnis thinks he would have been the GOP nominee and won the governor’s race.
Tancredo, who has rejoined the GOP, said the best scenario for Republicans would have been McInnis as the nominee without the taint of scandal that followed him last summer. Tancredo thinks his own candidacy was a longshot.
“Frankly, I don’t know that I could have (won). There was never a single negative ad run against me by the Hickenlooper campaign, and that is because they didn’t fear me,” Tancredo said.