DENVER ― Rep. Jared Polis won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Colorado on Tuesday, giving him a chance to become the first openly gay man elected governor in the United States.
Polis, who sold two internet startups and is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, spent $11 million of his own money to win the primary. He defeated former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, state Sen. Mike Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne.
The five-term House member faces Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a Bush family cousin, in the Nov. 6 general election. Stapleton won his party’s primary in part by tying himself to President Donald Trump and promising to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities that limit cooperation with federal officials in enforcing immigration laws.
Colorado’s current governor, Democrat John Hickenlooper, is term-limited.
A Polis win over Stapleton would shatter a barrier for gay politicians and represent a major advancement for the nation’s LGBTQ community. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat who is bisexual, assumed the chief executive post when the previous governor was forced to resign. She then became the first LGBTQ person to win a gubernatorial race in a 2016 special election.
In New Jersey, Democrat Jim McGreevey was a closeted gay man when he won the governorship in 2001. He came out as gay in August 2004 amid a scandal stemming from his sexuality, which made him the first openly LGBTQ person to serve as a governor in U.S. history. He then resigned his office in November 2004.
Polis’ sexual orientation isn’t expected to be in a major issue in his state’s general election campaign, and it wasn’t a focus of his TV advertising or messaging in his primary race. But earlier this month, it took center stage as a cowboy-hatted Polis marched in Denver’s Pride parade alongside Annise Parker, the former president of the Victory Fund political action committee that focuses on electing LGBTQ people to office.
The 100 or so Polis supporters marching with him in the parade wore pink shirts emblazoned with the phrase “TAKE THAT, MIKE PENCE,” referring to the vice president’s record of opposing gay rights. The marchers also handed out fliers promoting a chance to “MAKE HISTORY.”
The Colorado race will be one of 2018′s marquee contests for other reasons, as well ― it offers Democrats a chance to retain the governor’s mansion in a key swing state, while for Republicans it’s one of the few opportunities to pick up a Democratic-held seat. (There are more than two dozen governorships up for grabs in November, and most are held by Republicans.)
Polis starts as a slight favorite over Stapleton ― the outgoing Hickenlooper is popular, and Colorado has been trending Democratic in recent years. Barack Obama carried it in both of his presidential races, and Hillary Clinton won it by roughly five percentage points over Donald Trump in 2016.
The 43-year-old Polis, who represents a Boulder-area district and is a member of both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the more centrist New Democrat Coalition, is to the left of most other successful Democrats in Colorado, including Hickenlooper. In his TV spots in the primary, Polis promised to fund full-day pre-school and kindergarten and move the state to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040.
His main primary opponents ― Johnston and Kennedy ― each had major outside backing. A super PAC backing Johnston received $2 million from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who admired the state lawmaker’s support for school choice and gun control. Kennedy was the preferred candidate of the state and national teacher’s unions, which spent millions promoting her stances on education and attacking Polis and Johnston.