Republican Doug Robinson: In the shadow of a front-runner, a tall man makes his move.
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“Hey, hi, Doug Robinson calling. Hope you are well. Listen, just touching base with you— you’ve probably seen some of the news over the last couple of days about Walker’s campaign and some of his missteps. And how— how things are going. And I think this is all going to be good for me. So, anyways, just wanted to touch base with you about that.”
It was approaching mid-April and Republican Doug Robinson, a former investment banker and first-time candidate who is running for governor of Colorado, was leaving voicemails. This particular one landed in the mailbox of a donor to the campaign of Walker Stapleton, the current state treasurer and golden boy of Colorado’s GOP establishment and Robinson’s chief rival in the race.
At the time, Robinson’s stock was rising in the four-way GOP primary, the first wide-open election for Colorado governor in a generation. His entrance in the race seemed to offer proof that this year anyone could make a grab for the GOP nomination. No stand-out front-runner had cleared the field, and Robinson — a businessman who had political family ties but had never run for anything — believed his vision as a pragmatic outsider could resonate among an electorate in an educated, purple, tech-forward state like Colorado. Perhaps especially in the era of Donald Trump and in a primary election where the state’s 1.2 million unaffiliated voters could participate for the first time. As Robinson is fond of saying, there are already seven “business governors” in the nation, all Republicans. And two of them are already named Doug.
‘I think this is all going to be good for me’
Robinson’s April voicemail to the Stapleton donor — and in particular his line about Walker’s missteps — says a lot about his position in this GOP primary, which culminates on June 26. In a four-way race where there isn’t much major disagreement on policy, Robinson’s play, beyond offering his own vision for Colorado, has been to pitch himself as a Mr. Clean alternative to a perceived front-runner Robinson believes could be damaged goods in a general election.
The gambit hasn’t always been easy, and at least once it blew back on him.
Robinson’s April phone call was a reference to a torrent of bad publicity that week that had thrown Stapleton’s campaign into a tailspin and nearly cost him a spot on the June 26 ballot. A company Stapleton hired to gather signature petitions to qualify him for the ballot had engaged in alleged fraud. For Stapleton, the headlines were brutal. A Denver7 broadcast breaking the news had the Robinson campaign’s fingerprints all over it.
Robinson, no pugilist, went on the attack.
The story, he said, showed “Stapleton’s signatures were gathered illegally, with total disregard and disrespect for state law.” He called on the secretary of state to investigate. He accused Stapleton of “underhanded tactics and lazy behavior.”
As Robinson cast Stapleton as a candidate who was willing to work with a firm that executed a rotten operation under his nose, he talked up the “due diligence” of his own campaign’s petition-gathering effort. In early March, on the day he turned in his petitions, Robinson said, “there is no margin for error in our process” — a confident remark that would come back to haunt him.
‘I lived a different life than him’
Doug Robinson is tall and fit at 56. He has a long, oval face and short hair graying at the temples. He possesses the demeanor of a suburban dad leading a Boy Scout troop. When he talks, his cadence sounds very much like that of his uncle, Mitt Romney. When he speaks to crowds, he does so earnestly. In person, he seems genuinely interested in hearing what people have to say. Long before his candidacy, he was known to engage strangers in conversation if he heard something that piqued his interest. If you catch him at a conference the first thing he might ask is if you’re learning anything.
For the father of five, the decision to run for governor took a confluence of timely events.
A Michigan native who moved here from New York 20 years ago, Robinson said he found himself frustrated with Colorado’s direction. Voters had legalized the sale and use of recreational marijuana, and he had seen its effects on one of his children and how he believed it led to a lack of motivation. In response, he helped start a nonprofit with his wife, Dianne. Called SMART, the organization aims to keep kids safe from the effects of legal weed. He also worked to get state laws passed on how to deal with it.
As he drove on poorly paved and potholed roads, he worried the state’s infrastructure was not adequately handling Colorado’s booming population. The place where he now lived and was raising a family, he believed, did not have any real business plan for its future and for the job disruption that would come with a new industrial revolution.
For the past few years, Robinson had been working as an investment banker at KPMG, which acquired a firm he founded called St. Charles Capital, where he helped companies in the technology sector raise money and grow. By the winter of 2017, his three-year employment agreement was almost up. His kids were mostly grown and out of the house. Donald Trump, a businessman outsider with no political experience, and for whom Robinson voted, had stunned the nation by winning the presidency. The year before he had considered and then abandoned the idea of running for U.S. Senate when a seat opened up. But in 2018 there would be a governor’s race with no incumbent. Robinson started thinking seriously about his next move. He broached the subject with his wife on a ski slope.
When he starting telling friends and family, the response was mixed. Getting into politics, some of his colleagues reminded him, can be a messy thing that exposes your personal life to public scrutiny in a way not usually seen in the corporate world.
Still, he left his job so he could run for governor.
“I grew up in a family where politics was like something we ate for breakfast,” Robinson said in early May at his campaign office in a Centennial office park surrounded by gopher fields. He saw the difference his grandfather, George Romney, the three-term governor of Michigan, had made after becoming successful in business and translating that into public service. “My uncle ran for office, I saw what he did in Massachusetts to make a difference. So I kind of had in me a desire. And also a lack of fear about it, too.”
Robinson’s connection to the Romney family has dominated press attention of his candidacy since he announced his run last May. Two months after he jumped in the race for governor, he joked that he’d noticed in news reports his qualifier had changed from “Mitt Romney’s nephew, comma, Doug Robinson, to Doug Robinson, comma, Mitt Romney’s nephew.” At the time, he saw it as “a little bit of progress.”
As he has campaigned across the state, he has often had to introduce himself to the Republican faithful at GOP breakfasts, rubber-chicken luncheons and Lincoln Day dinners.
“Most of you simply know me — because this is the way the media has covered me — as Mitt Romney’s nephew,” he told a Fort Lupton Republican crowd in mid-November to knowing chuckles. “I love and respect my uncle a great deal. I lived a different life than him,” he went on. “You see, when I was a teenager my father left our family. My mother, either out of embarrassment or shame, didn’t share the extent of our circumstances with others. So I went to work and I worked my way through college — often put groceries on the table — made a success of myself through my own hard work and my life, and that gave me a profound respect for the underdog, an ability to innovate, to take risks, to take chances.”
When he decided to run for governor of Colorado, Robinson flew to California to meet with his uncle for advice. They walked down to a local hamburger joint.
“I said what I was thinking about, and he says, ‘You’re crazy, why would you want to do something like that?’” Robinson recalls. “I said I think I could really make a difference for this state. And I want to serve people and make life better for them and I’m concerned about the direction of Colorado, and he said, ‘OK, I’m all in.’”
Since then, the Romney family has donated heavily to help Robinson get elected, and Mitt Romney came to Colorado for a recent fundraiser at a home in the swanky Cherry Creek Village where about 100 people showed up.
‘A weird thing’
Despite the big-name support and a rigorous campaign schedule, Robinson has struggled to gain traction among a primary field that includes Stapleton, entrepreneur and one-time lawmaker Victor Mitchell, who so far has spent nearly $5 million of his own money, and Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker.
Robinson is accessible to the press and makes time for long interviews. As a political newbie, he has also made some blunders and owned up to them, such as when he backtracked over remarks he made to voters about a conversation he had with former Denver Post chairman Dean Singleton, or when he said he did not favor a red-flag gun bill Republicans in the legislature killed after initially supporting it.
“I’m a conservative, but I’m a practical, independent thinker,” he says. He opposes abortion and voted for a state personhood ballot measure, but says he would not try to change any laws about abortion as governor because laws governing abortion rights should be handled at the federal level. “I’m socially conservative,” he said, but he would rather focus on the state’s economy, as well as education and transportation.
On healthcare, he believes transparency in pricing would reduce costs to Coloradans and he is a fan of health savings accounts. He would consider raising Medicaid co-pays for able-bodied adults without kids and perhaps charging them a monthly premium. Unlike his GOP rivals, he has expressed skepticism about rolling back the state’s Medicaid expansion. And he says if he were governor he would have signed a compromise bill to reclassify a state hospital program and stave off crushing blows to rural hospitals by taking the program out from under the limits set by the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment. That amendment requires voters to agree to raise taxes, and limits state spending. Conservative TABOR hardliners in Colorado have savaged Republicans who supported the move.
If he becomes governor, Robinson says he would require patients seeking medical marijuana cards to obtain one only through their existing doctors rather than a “pot doctor.” And while Robinson applauds Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s approach to implementing legal weed, he would like to see more tax revenue collected from the industry by reducing the number of red-card holders who pay lower taxes than recreational buyers. He said he would “take a hard look” at high-potency pot and the “range of products” on the market. He takes credit for SMART lobbying the state legislature to allocate more money to go after black-market drug dealing and urging Hickenlooper to sign a bill reducing the individual pot plant count from 99 to 12.
For Tammy Klein, a Republican activist in Weld County who calls Robinson her “horse in the race,” his work with SMART before running for office says a great deal. “Other candidates talk a lot about killing various ballots issues, but the Robinsons looked at a bigger challenge that is far more significant for the future of Colorado, to protect and inspire our kids,” she says.
As of mid-May, Robinson raised about $500,000, with 77 percent of it coming from within Colorado, which put him about $1 million behind Stapleton at the time. He also has put $300,000 of his own money into his bid. A pro-Robinson Super PAC-style group called Build Colorado’s Future raised about $340,000. In contrast, a Super PAC-style group supporting Stapleton hauled in about $1 million.
A poll conducted June 6 and 7 by the Republican Magellan Strategies firm put Robinson at 4 percent and Stapleton leading with 36 percent. Between the two was Mitchell with 23 percent and Lopez with 10. The poll also found 27 percent of likely Republican primary voters are still undecided.
Those numbers are also reflected on the ground in dozens of conversations with Republican primary voters in Colorado at GOP events over the past few months. In talks with two dozen Republicans on May 12 at a large fundraiser for the El Paso County GOP in Colorado Springs, the majority said they were still undecided. Most who were supporting or leaning toward a candidate said they liked Stapleton or Lopez.
But in a May 7 interview, Robinson said he felt like he was gaining momentum. He has been running digital ads and some TV commercials that aired in markets outside the major metro areas. “For the first time in my life when I’m out in public people are recognizing me, which is a weird thing,” he said. The most common comment after chit-chatting about the governor’s race, he says, is “Wow, I didn’t know you were so tall.” (He is six-foot-five-and-a-half.)
‘Why are you running against Walker?’
In mid-January, three months before the GOP state assembly and five months before the primary election, the conservative editorial board of the state’s second-largest newspaper, The Gazette in Colorado Springs,published a house op-ed calling for all Republican candidates running for governor to drop out and support Walker Stapleton.
The newspaper is owned by Phil Anschutz, an elusive Denver billionaire who bankrolls Republican politicians and Christian conservative causes, and financially supports the Stapleton campaign. While some loyal Republicans say a robust primary only sharpens the candidates for a general election and is good for the party, the editorial reflected a view shared by others grumbling that Stapleton has to fend off GOP rivals.
“I’ve heard that again and again from people — why are you running against Walker?” Robinson said. “It’s hard to hear sometimes because it’s people you thought have been your friends and you’ve done stuff with them. And there is absolutely a lot of establishment support behind Walker [that] hasn’t come to me.”
After the Robinson campaign tagged Stapleton for fraudulent petition gathering, Stapleton decided to ditch the petitions and go through the assembly instead. It was a gamble that paid off. He won about 43 percent of the vote.
Had Stapleton received fewer than 30 percent of the vote he wouldn’t be on the ballot — and Robinson’s play against him would have been a masterstroke. But what happened next made it worse for Robinson.
When it came time for Robinson’s own campaign to deliver its signatures to qualify for the ballot, the Secretary of State’s office said he’d fallen short. The firm he hired to gather petitions for him, the office determined, hadn’t signed up enough Republicans who met the state’s strict scrutiny. The Secretary of State’s office threw out several hundred signatures in the 2ndCongressional District, a more liberal part of the state represented by Democratic Congressman Jared Polis, who is running for governor in that party’s primary. Robinson’s campaign pushed back hard, showing how many of the invalidated signatures were easily fixed technical errors like a voter who signed as Katie but whose legal name was Catherine. In the end, Robinson had to go to court where he successfully persuaded a judge that he should be on the ballot because he had substantially complied with gathering enough signatures.
Other than Stapleton and Robinson, none of the other four Democratic or Republican candidates in the governor’s race who petitioned onto the ballot ran into snags, and the experience left Robinson wondering whether state government had put its thumb on the scale. Asked what the saga says about his campaign or his management style, given the hay he made over Stapleton’s petition fraud, Robinson’s tone turns solemn.
“It’s unfortunate for us, but it was cleared up quickly,” he said. “And we were surprised by that, and, you know, we move forward.”
Since he made it on to the primary ballot, Robinson has positioned himself as a candidate with less baggage in an “absolutely critical” general election in which Democrats will go all out to keep the Colorado governor’s mansion. Democrats, he says, will have a well-funded candidate and won’t hesitate to hammer Stapleton with negative attacks from whatever opposition research they’ve dug up and could be waiting to use in the general election.
In public appearances and in interviews, Robinson has tried to make that case, pointing out the targets on the back of the establishment front-runner, and knocking on what he sees as an absence of leadership in Stapleton’s role as state treasurer.
Asked during an April 13 televised debate in which Stapleton did not participate whether he would want Colorado to report undocumented immigrants to ICE if they got a DUI in Colorado, Robinson dodged by taking a shot. “I’m not that familiar with DUIs,” Robinson said. “Uh, Walker? He is not here.”
That’s in reference to an incident in 1999 in which Stapleton pleaded guilty to drinking and driving in San Francisco and became the subject of a TV advertising campaign by his Democratic rival, Cary Kennedy, in his successful 2010 campaign for state treasurer. (Kennedy is running for the Democratic nomination for governor.)
On May 12, as hundreds of Republican activists filled a ballroom for a dinner in downtown Colorado Springs at a large GOP fundraiser, Robinson leaned on his record helping pass laws that regulate the marijuana industry and said he has done more from outside the system than those who have spent years inside it.
“I think,” Robinson said, “that I’m the candidate that is best capable to withstand the attacks the Democrats are going to bring against us to lead our party to victory in November.”
As the June 26 primary election nears, Stapleton’s stumbles have come into sharper focus. Beyond his ballot-access SNAFU, he skipped two Republican debates, made false statements in a TV ad and direct-mail flyers, endured a painful interview on Fox News about guns, and neglected to list his blind trust on a financial disclosure form. “He’s made one misstep after another,” said one TV news reporter in a recent broadcast segment about him.
Dick Wadhams, a former state Republican Party chairman and longtime GOP political consultant who is neutral in the race, says while Robinson isn’t getting as much attention as Stapleton, he has authentically connected with Republicans in his bid.
“I do think that virtually everyone who has met him on the campaign trail, whether they support him or not, have found him to be somebody who is easy to like,” he says. “And I think that is a very powerful commodity in politics.”