Will the former Republican congressman find the path to victory on a third-party ticket?

By W. James Antle III

There’s only one state where the Republican gubernatorial candidate is polling in the single digits less than a week before the election but conservatives remain hopeful that one of their own may yet prevail. The colorful race for governor of Colorado has become a contest between Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a liberal Democrat, and former Congressman Tom Tancredo.

Tancredo served five terms as a Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives and was an appointee in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Today, however, Tancredo is running for governor as the nominee of the American Constitution Party, Colorado’s state affiliate of the national Constitution Party. “It’s a small party with about 9,000 members,” he says. Yet Tancredo’s campaign has reduced the official GOP nominee to the status of a mere onlooker.

For weeks, polls have consistently shown Tancredo in second place. A few have shown him nipping at the Democratic front-runner’s heels. In late October, Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, showed Hickenlooper winning 47 percent of likely voters to Tancredo’s 44 percent — well within the survey’s margin of error. Republican nominee Dan Maes received just 5 percent.

The more Republican-friendly Rasmussen Reports also showed Tancredo within striking distance of Hickenlooper, taking 38 percent to the Democrat’s 42 percent. Maes lags well behind at 12 percent, with 6 percent still undecided. Even the Denver Post, which paid for the most recent public poll (taken by Survey USA) showing Hickenlooper up by double digits, has Tancredo hovering near 40 percent and Maes at just 9 percent. The RealClearPolitics polling average has Tancredo at 40.2 percent and the official Republican at 9.4 percent, with a 6-point Democratic lead.

All this has completely flipped the usual script. Typically, Republicans dismiss conservative third-party candidates as spoilers and try to rally the right behind the GOP nominee, no matter how liberal, because third parties can’t win elections. This has been particularly pronounced this year, as Tea Party activists have resisted channeling their energies into third parties and have instead contested the Republican primaries.

Early on, this bit of conventional wisdom held the Colorado gubernatorial race as well. Local Republicans were initially cool to Tancredo’s candidacy despite Maes’s weakness, with state party chairman Dick Wadhams describing it as the GOP’s “worst nightmare” and blasting Tancredo for being “dishonest.” “I’ll bet he wishes he hadn’t said that now,” Tancredo says. Indeed, Wadhams told the Denver Post, “I think Tom is in a position to pull this off.”

Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson, writing in The American Spectator, weren’t just worried that Tancredo would cost Republicans a chance at retaking the governorship. They feared he would doom Republicans up and down the ballot. “But it’s not just the governor’s office that could slip away from the GOP,” they argued. “The dispute between Tancredo and Maes could significantly undermine Republicans throughout Colorado and, in fact, the nation.”

How quickly things change. Republicans have been abandoning Maes in droves and endorsing Tancredo. The Colorado Senate race, which Republican Ken Buck narrowly leads, seems to be unaffected. And many conservatives have been calling on the GOP standard-bearer to drop out of the race so the third-party candidate can win. Tancredo hasn’t been shy about exploiting this sentiment. “You’re not going to win, hello! Hello?! You’re not going to make it, you know? So what’s the purpose?” he said in an interview with Fox News, pretending to speak to Maes through a megaphone. “Uh, if you stay in, what is the purpose? What are you trying to accomplish?”

In fact, Fox political blogger Alicia Acuna went so far as to say that Maes was the real third-party candidate in this race, not Tancredo. That could wind up being literally true: under Colorado state law, the Republicans could lose their major-party status if Maes fails to win 10 percent of the vote next week. The GOP would then have to wait two election cycles to regain top billing on the ballot and be allowed to raise as much money as the Democrats. (Many observers believe the law will be changed to prevent this from happening even if Maes can’t.)

A Tancredo victory would be predicated on his ability to become the de facto Republican candidate. “If I can get about 65 percent of the Republican vote, I can win,” he told me in an interview. “If I can’t, Hickenlooper will win.” The situation is similar to last year’s special election for New York’s 23rd congressional district, where Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman ended up winning more GOP and conservative support than the official Republican nominee, liberal state legislator Dede Scozzafava. Conservatives ended up losing that election because of the Republican’s intransigence: Scozzafava didn’t drop out until after her name couldn’t be removed from the ballot and she endorsed the Democrat.

Unlike Scozzafava, Maes’s problem isn’t liberalism as much as shaky finances and odd pronouncements. A Republican donor in the state said she gave Maes $300 to help pay his mortgage. He claimed it was a campaign contribution. Taking a cash contribution would appear to be a violation of campaign-finance laws. Maes has already been fined $17,500 for such transgressions.

Maes has dismissed these charges as “nonsense.” He has also called Tancredo an “illegal immigrant” and fretted about the United Nations gaining control of the state via bike paths. Few people gave Maes any chance of winning the GOP gubernatorial primary, until Republican front-runner Scott McInnis was beset by a plagiarism scandal from which his campaign never recovered.

Before the campaign, Tancredo urged both McInnis and Maes to drop out for the good of the party and allow the Republican state committee to choose an acceptable candidate instead. Tancredo pledged to support the committee’s choice but said if either McInnis or Maes won the primary, he would be forced to run for governor as a third-party candidate. Both McInnis and Maes refused Tancredo’s ultimatum, contending he should have entered the primary if he felt he was the more viable conservative.

Tancredo has made good on both his promise to run and provide conservatives with a realistic alternative. His success may also benefit the Constitution Party, which has struggled since the early 1990s to capitalize on conservative discontent with the GOP. The Constitution Party has also been looking for a big-name Republican defector for about that long, courting Pat Buchanan, former Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, and “Ten Commandments Judge” Roy Moore.

Constitution Party leaders finally thought they had what they were looking for when Alan Keyes joined in 2008. Keyes ostensibly shared many of the party’s constitutionalist positions, was an eloquent Christian conservative, and an outspoken opponent of abortion. He also seemed to be on friendly terms with party founder Howard Phillips. But Keyes was rejected when he ran for the CP presidential nomination because of his support for the Iraq war and other neoconservative foreign-policy positions, with Phillips leading the charge against him. After his defeat, an angry Keyes left the party as abruptly as he entered it, taking part of the American Independent Party, its California chapter, with him.

Tancredo also voted for the Iraq War, as did Virgil Goode, another former Republican congressman who made common cause with the Constitution Party. But like many “Jacksonian” conservatives, Tancredo’s foreign-policy views mix hawkish nationalism with skepticism about interventionism abroad. Tancredo was a vocal opponent of the Kosovo war and a more quiet one of the surge (he publicly disagreed with the decision to send more troops to Iraq but he also voted against a nonbinding anti-surge resolution). “I’ve promised not to take us into the fight,” he says of his foreign-policy differences with the party that has nominated him for governor.

On domestic policy, Tancredo is solidly pro-life, a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, and was usually a reliable vote against big government whether it was proposed by Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. Reason admitted before the 2008 primaries that if illegal immigration into the United States were miraculously to stop, Tancredo would be a surprisingly libertarian Republican.

Of course, immigration — both legal and illegal — is Tancredo’s signature issue. He was an early proponent of the attrition through enforcement strategy of reducing the population of illegal immigrants through improved border security and actually enforcing the law. Tancredo also favors a moratorium on net legal immigration, reducing the number of new immigrants to the 200,000 to 300,000 people who annually leave the U.S. Both of these positions reflect the Constitution Party platform.

An early poll showed that Virgil Goode, who previously won his Virginia congressional district as a Democrat, independent, and Republican, could conceivably retake his House seat as a Constitution Party candidate. But Goode is backing the Republican challenger against the Democrat who beat him two years ago. He remains a member of the local GOP and doesn’t seem to want his relationship with the Constitution Party to extend beyond paying dues.

Meanwhile, Tancredo looked like he would probably ruin his political career by running as a third-party candidate so soon after leaving his House seat and running a disastrous campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Instead he is in a race where the Republican is the potential spoiler. Tancredo’s gubernatorial bid may boost the immigration issue, the Constitution Party, and his own status as a conservative leader.

If elected, Tancredo would in some respects be a Republican governor. He will side with the GOP on redistricting and probably wouldn’t let it slide into minor-party status. “Obviously, I’ll appoint conservatives to my administration, who will mostly be Republicans,” he says. But when asked if he would rejoin his old party after November, regardless of the outcome, Tancredo seems unsure.

“I don’t know,” Tancredo says. “Maybe if it moves back in a more conservative direction, I guess. Otherwise, what would be the point?”

W. James Antle III is associate editor of
The American Spectator.