4 in 5 staunch Colorado Republicans back Donald Trump. So why won’t GOP candidates for governor embrace him?

Evan Vucci, The Associated Press Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Friday, July 29, 2016, in Colorado Springs.

BRIGHTON — Mary Daubman speaks for many Republican voters in Colorado when she offers her assessment of President Donald Trump.

“Oh, I love him,” she said. “I love him.”

And when it comes to the governor’s race, the longtime Republican activist expects her party’s candidates to do the same. “If they say bad things about Trump, I’ll slap them,” she said with a laugh at the recent Adams County Republican assembly.

Trump is a defining figure in the 2018 election in Colorado, particularly in Republican primary contests, where a poll shows support for the president among the party’s likely voters holds at 80 percent.

But many of the state’s Republican candidates remain reluctant to embrace Trump. The two most prominent contenders for governor — state Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman — won’t say whether they will accept the president’s endorsement or campaign with him. And most others offer conditional support.

Doug Robinson, a first-time candidate and nephew of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said he would accept Trump’s endorsement even as he bluntly acknowledged the political landscape in Colorado. “He’s very polarizing,” Robinson said.

The dynamic reflects Trump’s unpopularity among the broader electorate, particularly the middle-of-the-road voters who are expected to determine whether Colorado will elect its first Republican governor since 2002.

A plurality of the state’s registered voters are not aligned with a political party, and Trump lost by 5 percentage points in 2016. In Colorado, the president’s poor ratings mean Republican candidates start “with one strike against them,” said Dick Wadhams, a former state GOP chairman.

How to handle Trump is the big question this election year and “a difficult decision for all candidates,” said David Flaherty at Magellan Strategies, a top Republican polling firm in Colorado.

“There’s obviously opportunity for the candidates, especially Republican primary candidates, to align themselves with Trump,” he continued. “But to really embrace the president you can have some baggage.”

The issue is reflected elsewhere on the Colorado ballot, including the 6th Congressional District, where five-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Aurora survived a challenge from within his own party from Roger Edwards.

Coffman is a frequent critic of the president, and his campaign aired a television advertisement in 2016 declaring that he would “stand up” to Trump. The move helped him win a battleground seat that Democrat Hillary Clinton claimed by 9 percentage points, but it sowed discord in his own party.

Edwards failed to qualify for the primary ballot Saturday but made his support for Trump a cornerstone of his campaign. “I think it was a strategic mistake to run an ad against (Trump),” Edwards said in an interview. “My view is Trump has saved America.”

Democrats are preparing to link all the Republican candidates to Trump in 2018, even though new polling suggests the party can’t look too obstructionist. But for now, attacks on the president are a rallying cry in the party’s crowded contest for governor.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder won huge applause in a recent speech to party delegates when he emphasized that he was “very proud to be one of just a few Democratic members of Congress to vote to go forward with the articles of impeachment to remove President Trump.”

Trump is bigger player in other top contests

Elsewhere across the nation, from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, the candidates in Republican primaries for governor are eager to praise Trump and pledge loyalty to his agenda — often in an effort to win his endorsement.

Trump has picked his favored candidates in Republican primary contests in Michigan and South Carolina, but so far appears content to sit on the sidelines of the Colorado contest.

In Virginia’s race a year ago, Trump’s support nearly led to an upset in the Republican primary, where former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie was labeled as “anti-Trump” and barely eked out a win.

The party lost the swing-state contest — which is considered a bellwether for Colorado’s election — and the RNC pointed to the fact the GOP candidate refused to accept Trump’s help. The party’s leaders say they want Trump to campaign in every 2018 race.

Jeff Hays, the Colorado Republican chairman, said he wants Trump to campaign in Colorado, too. “There are a lot of people that love the president in Colorado,” he said in an interview.

But when asked whether Trump should campaign for the Republican gubernatorial candidates, Hays acknowledged the tricky politics in the state. “Each candidate is going to have to figure that out,” he said. “It probably just depends.”

Colorado candidates hedge on support for Trump

Stapleton, a two-term treasurer and relative of George W. Bush, touts his early endorsement of Trump’s tax law on the campaign trail, saying in an interview that he hoped the alignment would help him win support ahead of the June primary.

But when asked about his opinion of Trump’s record in office, he didn’t answer directly. “I think it’s the job of the governor to support whoever is in Washington if it makes life better for Coloradans, and if it doesn’t, to stand up against the administration,” he said at the recent Broomfield County GOP assembly.

Rushing to the exit to cut the interview short, Stapleton refused to say whether he would accept Trump’s endorsement or campaign with him. “I’m not doing the what-if game,” he said.

Even Coffman — who said she proudly shouted “Go Trump” on election night in 2016 — demurred on the question. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” she said.

Victor Mitchell, a former state lawmaker and businessman, is the one candidate in the race who didn’t vote for Trump, instead picking a third-party candidate. His opponents are using it against him, but Mitchell downplays the criticism. He called the president’s shadow over the race “a red herring,” but acknowledged he would “probably pass” on campaigning with Trump.

“I’ve always supported the president’s agenda. That’s never been the issue. It’s his leadership style” that is troubling, he said.

Just about all the Republican gubernatorial candidates are quick to praise elements of the White House agenda — such as Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s appointment and the tax bill. But they also offer qualifications often critical of the president’s Twitter habit and divisive nature, even as they are careful not to be too negative.

Robinson couches his praise of the president by saying he doesn’t like “the way he talks about other people and different groups — I’m more inclusive.”

Barry Farah, a wealthy businessman and newcomer to the race who touts a connection to Vice President Mike Pence and the Koch brothers political network, said he voted for Trump.

“I’m grateful for the overall willingness to be a candid disrupter of Washington ways and that’s pretty much all I have to say about it,” he said.

One candidate is the exception to the rule

The candidate most willing to cozy to Trump is long-shot Steve Barlock, a professional dart player, newcomer to the Republican Party and a former co-chairman of the president’s 2016 campaign in Colorado.

“I’m the one using the T-word. The other candidates are afraid to do it,” he said in an interview.

When he talks to primary voters, Barlock lists his unconditional support of the president as his top selling point, noting he ran Trump’s campaign office in Denver.

“I’m the only candidate (in the governor’s race) that used my sphere of influence to get Donald Trump elected,” he said in a recent speech in Adams County. “What we did … changed the outcome of a nation.”

Barlock — who counted less than $1,300 in his campaign bank account to end 2017 — is counting on his support of Trump to win him a place on the ballot at the Republican state assembly on April 14 and give his campaign a boost ahead of June.

“I think Donald Trump is really going to be a big factor,” he said.

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