A few minutes into my interview with Pete Coors, I asked him the question that mattered most. “So what’s your favorite beer?”
Judging from the look he gave me, Mr. Mile High Taste must have thought I was the biggest dork this side of the Rockies. “I like all our brands,” he said.
An insight! The man is a born politician–a trait that will serve him well as he runs for the Senate in Colorado.
I wasn’t going to let him off the hook so easily. “Of course,” I said. “But what kind of beer do you drink?”
He barely paused. In the amount of time it would have taken to crack open a cold one, he declared his allegiance. “Coors Original,” he said. “It has more flavor and more of what a beer should taste like. Besides, I’m a traditionalist.”
Pete Coors is tall, handsome, and plainspoken. His hair is as silver as a can of Coors Light. In person, he’s just like the character he plays on TV, in those beer commercials we’ve seen for years.
Can you also picture him in the well of the Senate talking about taxes and defense spending? That’s where Coors aims to be less than a year from now, after beating former congressman Bob Schaffer in a GOP primary on August 10 and the Democrats’ likely nominee, attorney general Ken Salazar, on November 2.
“I’ve always wanted to serve my country in some capacity,” says Coors. “But many years ago, my father said he wanted me to run the brewery and he’d do politics.”
Pete’s father, Joe Coors, was one of the most important conservative philanthropists of the 20th century. He died a little more than a year ago. (Read my obituary for him in the Wall Street Journal here.)
Now it’s the son’s turn to do politics by running for the seat of retiring Republican senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
Coors starts out with some enormous advantages, beginning with his personal wealth and that great brand name. Virtually everybody in the state knows of him: 96 percent, says one survey. Only former Denver Broncos superhero John Elway scores higher.
Yet this has not translated into universal political acclaim. Two polls show Salazar beating Coors, by margins of 16 points (according to the Rocky Mountain News) and 6 points (according to Rasmussen). For a candidate whose main draw is his supposed electability, that’s a problem. So is the fact that the Rocky Mountain News poll shows Schaffer outperforming Coors against Salazar, even as Rasmussen reports the opposite.
“I’ve only been at this for a couple of weeks,” says Coors. He’s right about that: After Campbell announced his surprise retirement in March, the GOP reviewed a parade of potential successors, including the governor, lieutenant governor, current and former members of Congress, and the zillionaire founder of Remax, the real-estate company. All of them declined to jump in–except for Schaffer, who suddenly looked like the nominee by default.
Gov. Bill Owens at last endorsed Schaffer, despite leading a semi-public “anybody but Bob” recruitment campaign.
Then Coors announced his intentions–to the astonishment of just about everybody.
“I supported Bob Schaffer’s three races for Congress,” says Coors. “But we all had concerns about whether he could win statewide. Then my wife suggested that I get it.”
And so he got in. Owens switched his support to Coors. The beer magnate also has won endorsements from several other key Republicans, including Campbell, lieutenant governor Jane Norton, and Rep. Scott McInnis. Schaffer retains the backing of Sen. Wayne Allard, former senators Bill Armstrong and Hank Brown, and Rep. Tom Tancredo.
“There isn’t an ideological difference between me and Bob,” says Coors, a convert to Catholicism who describes himself as a pro-lifer in favor of tax cuts, school choice, and free trade and opposed to the recent Medicare bill. He’s also an advocate of gun rights who used to appear in those “I’m the NRA” ads for the National Rifle Association.
On a number of issues, however, Coors has not settled into firm positions. These include the Bush immigration plan and the No Child Left Behind Act. Let’s just say the fermentation process isn’t complete.
Some conservatives grumble that his company supports gay rights. “We’ve got gays working there,” he says. “If they can demonstrate long-term relationships, we make same-sex benefits available just as we do with common-law marriages. Gays are productive people. Some fly airplanes, some work in breweries.”
He hasn’t made up his mind about a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. “I’m a little skeptical about using the Constitution this way, but I also believe marriage is between a man and a woman and that the courts shouldn’t legislate this matter.”
For a fellow whose political career is measured in days rather than years, perhaps this imprecision is acceptable, at least in the near term. But Coors will have to define himself more clearly or he’ll look positively green against Schaffer, a policy maven who can speak in detail on any number of subjects. Expect Schaffer to demand a series of debates and Coors to demur.
The good news for GOP’s nominee, whether it’s Coors or Schaffer, is that Salazar’s current lead is bound to erode over the summer. Polls show him attracting unusually strong support in Republican suburbs–in short, he’s probably overperforming there and will lose many of these voters as the race intensifies.
Salazar recently declared, for example, that if his wife wanted an abortion, he’d support her choice–a startling statement for a supposedly moderate Hispanic who might otherwise have uttered the Democratic platitude about personal opposition to abortion but believing the decision should be made between a woman and her doctor. This blunder will hurt him in the barrios, to say nothing of Colorado Springs.
Which means that Colorado ought to have quite a Senate race this fall. Perhaps we can all drink to that.