Jared Polis has a chance to make history on Tuesday as Colorado goes to the polls and not just because he has poured more than $5 million of his own money into one of the country's costliest primary campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives. If he wins Tuesday's closely contested race for the seat Senate-contender Mark Udall is vacating in Colorado's second congressional district, the 33-year-old Internet mogul will almost assuredly join Tammy Baldwin and Barney Frank as just the third openly gay member of Congress and become the first openly gay freshman elected to the House.
"Sexual orientation shouldn't be a barrier to participation in the public sphere," says Polis, who has received encouragement from gays and lesbians from around the country. "It's a difficult issue for my opponents to try to use against me overtly without a backlash," he says, "but there have been some jabs, insinuations and whisper campaigns."
Polis, who has served for six years on the Colorado State Board of Education and founded schools both for the homeless and for immigrants, has received endorsements from a number of environmentalists and prominent local politicians. But he faces two tough opponents: Joan Fitz-Gerald, who has been in the Colorado state senate since 2000, and Will Shafroth, former executive director of the Colorado Conservation Trust, who has been endorsed by the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. In one of the most liberal districts in the state, the campaign has focused primarily on the economy, Iraq, the environment and education. [Full disclosure: the writer attended college with Polis].
Whoever wins the August 12th primary will face little opposition in the general election. "The chances of a Republican winning in this district are zero," says Bob Loevy, a professor of political science at Colorado College. Loevy and other experts say the race remains close enough that any of the three Democratic candidates could win, though Fitz-Gerald may have an organizing advantage, given her two decades in state politics, and Shafroth is considered an underdog in the campaign's waning days. "The deciding factor will be whether $5 million is enough to swing the district," says Loevy. He says Polis' sexual orientation is unlikely to influence the race's outcome. "There aren't many anti-gay votes to be found in this election."
Indeed, the politics aren't cut and dried. Multi-millionaire Coloradan Tim Gill, whose Gill Foundation funds programs that support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, is backing Fitz-Gerald because of her long history of LGBT support. The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, on the other hand, is supporting Polis. Both of Polis' opponents say his sexual orientation has not been a central issue in the race. "No. Irrelevant," says Matt Moseley, Fitz-Gerald's spokesman. "We haven't heard a lot about it either positive or negative," says Shafroth campaign manager Lynea Hansen. "Polis hasn't made it an issue either, which is why it hasn't been raised much."
Fitz-Gerald's campaign has, instead, been sharply critical of Polis for using so much of his own money. "Voters are not responding to Jared's desperate attempts to buy this election," says Moseley. "The fact that he's put in so much of his own money has energized our supporters more than ever. We want to send a signal that money can't buy you love."
Polis counters that he has had to spend significantly to buy costly TV ads to explain his positions and to defend himself against misleading attacks. He says Fitz-Gerald is beholden to special interests, given the significant support she has received from oil, gas and mining companies. "I'm not running for Congress to be wined and dined," says Polis, who earned hundreds of millions of dollars from the sales of his Internet companies, including BlueMountain.com and ProFlowers.com. "I can wine and dine myself."
The $10 million raised collectively by Polis and his opponents reflects contemporary campaign inflation, says Kareem Crayton, associate professor of law and politics and a congressional elections expert at the University of Southern California. "It's a sign that the cost of running federal campaigns is skyrocketing and not just at the presidential level."
"There are three ways to fund campaigns, and none of them is very good," says Polis, who advocates an overhaul of the campaign finance system. "You can have rich friends; you can have support from special interests, PACs and lobbyists; or you can fund a campaign yourself. This race has all three. But money cannot buy elections. They are won by leg work, by going door to door, and by demonstrating that you can turn ideas into action."
In the campaign's waning hours, each candidate hunted for every last vote. Polis went door-to-door to meet voters, the culmination of a year of marathon days on the campaign trail. Fitz-Gerald's campaign unleashed what they dubbed a "Fitz Blitz" during the campaign's final weekend, trying to reach voters in 10 counties over four days. For his part, Shafroth says he's hoping for an election surprise. "We've really come back from my initial position, clearly third place, to where we are right there neck and neck coming down the line." With reporting by Laura Fitzpatrick