In case you didn’t notice it, last week was not a particularly good one for Gov. Jared Polis. Let us count the ways.
1. ProPublica published an article the other day about rich-guy politicians paying little to no federal tax and cited Gov. Jared Polis — who has called for an elimination of the state income tax — as its prime example. It was headline material across the state, and The Colorado Sun printed the article in its entirety. The key number is that Polis’ federal income tax rate from 2010 to 2018 was a paltry 8.2 percent, which is less than I paid, and I’m guessing, less than you paid. Polis is the first to admit that the rich need to be taxed at a much higher rate, but it doesn’t ring quite as forcefully when, at the same time, you pay accountants generously so that your taxes are as low as possible. Or, for that matter, when you fight fellow Democrats in the Legislature about the closing of some tax breaks for the wealthy.
2. In a pique of frustration over the rapid rise of COVID cases in Colorado — we’re now No. 5 in the nation by percentage — Polis said he doesn’t much care what happens to the hardcore anti-vax refuseniks/death wishers, only that they need to stop crowding the state’s hospitals, which could be approaching a crisis point, experts say, over the next few months.
3. The governor must have watched in horror, as presumably all Democratic politicians did, at the shellacking Dems took on Nov. 2. For Polis, the Virginia shellacking has to be of particular interest. Virginia is the state where change over the past 15 years or so, from red to purple to mostly blue, has most resembled Colorado’s. And if the conventional wisdom is that the governor’s race — which Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost to neophyte Republican Glenn Youngkin — was decided in the suburbs, that has to be a flashing red sign for Colorado, where all statewide elections are decided in the suburbs.
So, let’s start with ProPublica. We already knew Polis was extremely rich, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And no one has suggested that Polis did anything illegal in using the tax system, with its myriad loopholes for the wealthy, to his advantage.
But here’s what it does mean. Polis is basically a self-funder, throwing more than $23 million at his campaign for governor in 2018, which he won handily. He did not release his tax returns — even though he had earlier urged Donald Trump to do so — because, he said, his opponent, Walker Stapleton, didn’t release his. That’s a poor excuse. Colorado voters have a right to know about a statewide candidate’s finances and particularly from a self-funder, whose wealth and willingness to spend vast amounts of money are central to his campaign, regardless of what anyone’s opponent does.
And now to COVID, which has come to many Western states, including Colorado, which has a reasonably high vaccination rate. The question is what to do about the problem, and Polis’ answer is hardly an answer at all, except for adding some emergency regulations for hospitals.
He says he has no plan to return to a statewide mask mandate. He has no plan to require state workers or those whose companies deal with the state to mandate vaccines for their employees (as Denver, for one, has done quite successfully). He says those questions are best left to localities, which makes little to no sense when you’re talking about a pandemic.
Here’s what Polis did say: “The 20 percent that haven’t yet chosen to get protected are putting themselves at risk — which you can certainly argue is their own business, and I have no qualm if they have a death wish — but they are clogging our hospitals.”
It sounded a lot like Polis doesn’t care what happens to the 20 percent, which I’m guessing is not exactly the impression he meant to leave. In any case, it’s not as simple as Polis suggests. Those who are unvaccinated do not put only themselves at risk. Many of the vaccinated — particularly among the elderly — are still at risk of getting COVID, being hospitalized and even dying.
Vaccine mandates work, but they are politically problematic. And if they were problematic for Democrats before Tuesday’s election, you can guess how the issue looks now. But how else do you get the 20 percent to 30 percent to vaccinate? Polis gives a long defense of his reasoning on both vaccines and taxes in a revealing Colorado Public Radio interview with Ryan Warner (tinyurl.com/Polis-cpr).
And now to politics, where the Democratic hold in Colorado has never been stronger than it is now. In the midterms next year, that hold will be mightily tested. History tells us that the midterms almost always favor the party not in power. In Colorado, Polis is up for reelection as are some of the other Democrats who hold statewide offices. Michael Bennet will have to defend his Senate seat. The new 8th CD is set to be a tossup. And the state Legislature seats are up for grabs, with Republicans hoping to retake the Senate.
After the news from Virginia — the first Republican governor elected since 2009, the apparent loss of the House of Delegates — Larry Sabato’s respected Crystal Ball has downgraded Bennet’s seat from “Safe Democrat” to “Likely Democrat.” Likely means he would be reelected except in the case of a national tsunami, which is not out of the question. In Virginia, Biden won by 10 percentage points last year. In New Jersey, where the Democratic governor barely scraped by, Biden won by 16. Biden won by 13 in Colorado.
The problem for Colorado Republicans is that they don’t yet have a self-funder like Glenn Youngkin — who pulled off the neat trick of managing not to embrace Trump and his Big Lie while also not rejecting Trump or the Big Lie — running for governor or senator. And no one will be able to match the money Polis will pour into the race. Plus, the GOP bench is extraordinarily weak in the state, and Colorado Republicans have had a great deal of difficulty separating themselves from Trump.
Virginia and Colorado are as much different as they are alike. But they’re both highly educated states with large suburban populations. Democratic gains in the suburbs, particularly among women, have pushed the electorate in both states from Republican to Democrat. Does this election portend something different or is it an anomaly? In Virginia, the issue of race (played out in debate over the bogus issue of critical race theory) has a stronger residual influence in the former capital of the Confederacy.
But then there is the issue of Biden’s fast-faltering approval ratings — which are a key indicator, particularly in federal races — and whether they’ll recover by next year. Will Democrats ever pass the safety-net bill? What will the economy look like? What will COVID look like? What will a dozen other issues, of which we now have no inkling, look like?
Polis and Bennet may be favored today, but after a rough week, Democrats might want to start looking a little harder to come up with solutions — unless they have a political death wish of their own.
Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at coloradosun.com.