Jared Polis: The Gaymer Democrats Need?
It wouldn’t be quite accurate to describe Jared Polis as a “normie,” in the parlance of our times. In fact, he’s kind of a weird cat.
He’s a gaymer who has reached Anivia Main status on League of Legends (whatever that means). A redditor who is an active poster on the “Denver Circle Jerk” and “Rock Tumbling” subreddits. A child prodigy who went to Princeton at age 16 and was a self-made millionaire by 23. A dad whose cringey sartorial aesthetic often includes wearing bright blue sneakers with suits and led him to cosplay in a judge’s robe as a young member of the Colorado State Board of Education when asked to rule on charter school accreditations.
When Polis and I hung out in his office at the Colorado State Capitol last week, surrounded by a mix of Western and anime art, he maintained a comfortable interpersonal manner, but throughout the conversation you could sense that it was a learned comfort. That he was really working for it and had prepped a few lines of banter about Jeb! memes and our kids. At times you’d suspect that beneath his pleasant demeanor was a guy who would rather be alone with a headset in front of a big computer screen.
Yet despite any, uh, eccentricities, it has been Polis, more than maybe any other Democrat in the country, who has succeeded at delivering for Colorado on the central promise of the Joe Biden presidency—one that has consistently flummoxed the president himself: returning a bit of normalcy to our tumultuous partisan politics.
Polis has brought down the temperature, brought politicians from across the aisle into the fold, and governed in a way that appeals to (or at least earns grudging acknowledgement from) many Republican voters.
In a midterm year looking ugly for Democrats, Polis is running for re-election—and that normalcy is paying big dividends for him.
On the surface, Jared Polis and I have kind of a lot in common. While I was not, in any sense of the term, a child prodigy, we both are white political nerds from Colorado who came out of the closet in our twenties, and are now living the double-dad life. We are both very much of the South Park generation and carry the associated libertarian streak of our Casa Bonita-loving brethren.
Despite this, as Polis’s career blossomed back in my home state, I never really felt any sort of special connection to him. From a distance he gave off the vibe of a cookie-cutter Colorado Democrat, in the mold of Michael Bennet or Mark Udall. Outside of his status as the only openly gay male governor in U.S. history, Polis’s career didn’t seem to merit much more examination than that of Tony Evers or Ned Lamont or (for the old school heads) Roy Romer.
But then last November, while spending too much time on Twitter, I realized that I had been missing something about Polis. A video of a press conference flashed across my screen, during which the governor was vigorously pushing back on the media horde peppering him with questions about his decision to not reinstate the statewide mask mandate. He ended the mask mandate in May 2021, and refused to bring it back as the Delta wave crested and then receded and as the Omicron wave approached. During the Q&A, Polis repeatedly pointed out that for vaccinated and boosted individuals COVID is little risk; that double-vaxed Coloradans’ patience for mandatory mask-wearing was “wearing thin”; and that in neighboring New Mexico, where a mask mandate had been in place, the level of COVID spread and the hospitalization rate were virtually identical with the levels in Colorado.
Watching this methodical defense of a position that was downright countercultural in liberal environs, I let out a little yelp: Finally, a politician who’s not afraid to say the obvious in the face of social pressure from his tribe.
When I asked Polis what precipitated his heterodox pandemic moves, he referenced his libertarian streak. “The government telling people what to wear is a very, very extreme step,” he said. “Saying you have to wear polka dots or a certain kind of shoe or a pearl necklace—you need a very, very very high bar for that. And frankly in the early days of the pandemic that was appropriate. There was no vaccine, people were dying . . . but we got past that stage and it didn’t reach that high bar” any longer.
While other states took anti-science and anti-liberty postures, “We really tried to follow the science here,” Polis said. “I read almost every study. We never had an outdoor mask requirement in Colorado; some places did, I never could figure it out. . . . And by the way there’s even a lot of GOP governors that took a lot of anti-liberty measures, telling business[es that they] are not allowed to require vaccines. That’s up to the business! You had the government trying to say [they] are not allowed to do that.”
Polis’s attempt to balance public health with protecting freedoms was logical and prudent—but given the politics of the pandemic, it inevitably came under attack from members of Polis’s own party. Democrats like former state representative Joe Salazar grumbled about their “disappointment” in Polis’s refusal to reinstate a mask mandate. The governor of New Mexico clapped back at the negative comparison. Some left-wing media and activist types went after Polis.
Meanwhile, some national outlets began to ask whether he was “the only Democrat who figured out COVID.”
But Polis, in his slightly aloof manner, just ignored the noise. He “didn’t really focus on the narrative in the party,” he told me. He “just focused on the data.”
Polis’s independent streak extended beyond the mask debate. He focused on getting restaurants back open almost immediately in spring 2020 and did what he could to keep schools open starting in fall 2020. Colorado was rare in offering a plan for “return to work” bonuses and rarer still when it came to competently paying out those bonuses to people who earned them. Colorado sent free rapid COVID tests to residents long before the feds got around to it. And his office embarked on a bilingual PR campaign that attempted to combat anti-vaccine conspiracies, a campaign in which Polis was determined to treat those who had succumbed to anti-vax mania with “compassion” rather than ridicule.
The data suggests that this combination of policies basically worked. Colorado, California, and Minnesota have essentially identical COVID deaths per capita, ranking between 38th and 40th lowest in the country—50 percent fewer deaths per capita than Florida—but Colorado did that without the other states’ extended disruptions to schools and businesses.
In a refreshing change of pace this competence seems like it will be rewarded politically.
A January poll showed Polis with a 53 percent favorable and 40 percent unfavorable rating, a whopping 24 points better than President Biden’s 42/53 spread. An early March survey of Republican voters provided to The Bulwark revealed that crossover voters were a big part of that spread. That poll found nearly 90 percent of Republicans in the state had a “very unfavorable” view of President Biden while less than 5 percent view him favorably. Meanwhile Polis was viewed favorably by 20 percent of Republicans and had only half as many Republicans view him “very unfavorably” as Biden.
This lack of intensity of opposition is part of Polis’s secret sauce. These days—when for most partisans the opposite party is seen as barely indistinguishable from Hitler—Polis just is not driving that type of animus.
When I asked him why he thinks he is succeeding in this area while Biden languishes, Polis points to both policy decisions and being intentional about how he communicates with voters on the right.
“I think the president needs to, first of all, communicate and speak with conservatives and Republicans,” Polis said. “For me, I go on Fox News, I visit conservative areas of our state—but whatever way he wants to engage he should authentically engage with conservatives.”
When we get around to discussing policy, Polis demonstrates why his engagement with the right comes quite a bit more naturally to him than to many other Democrats. At a recent conference hosted by the Steamboat Institute, Polis explained the rationale behind his proposal to eliminate the income tax and replace it with a tax on carbon and luxury products. When I asked him why he sounded a bit like Maggie Thatcher, he used the lingua franca of the left to defend a fiscally conservative position: “If you look to science for guidance, that means you don’t just look at climate, you don’t just look at epidemiology, but you also look at economics for prosperity. . . . Income is a good thing. You want people to earn income. You shouldn’t penalize it.”
He followed that capitalistic ode with some Wall Street Journal-style negging of his interlocutor, telling me that if I “start making a lot of money,” I might want to move back home to Colorado to avoid paying California’s tax rates. (Ouch.)
While reaching out to conservatives, Polis has avoided alienating the Democratic base by being more adept than Washington Democrats at advancing items on the liberal policy agenda that Democratic voters support. Colorado is implementing a new universal pre-K program—one of the provisions of the federal Build Back Better legislation that is stuck in the Senate. Polis is making the state a safe haven for families of trans kids who want to leave Texas. And he has repeatedly bragged about refugee acceptance in a way that the Biden administration has weirdly avoided.
Polis has also been a throwback to a bygone era of comity when it comes to dealing with his former opponents. After he defeated Walker Stapleton—the 2018 GOP nominee and a second cousin to George W. and Jeb! Bush—Polis wooed his former rival in the hopes that he’d lend his expertise in business and government to Polis’s administration. This year Stapleton agreed, accepting an appointment to the state’s Economic Development Commission.
Over breakfast, Stapleton, the state’s former treasurer, was effusive in his praise for Polis, calling him “refreshing” and a “rare” example of someone willing to buck pressure from his own side in order to get things done.
“He was always someone who made time to see me, back when he was in Congress,” Stapleton said. “At the State of the State [address], I sat next to Marlon [Polis’s husband], got better parking, better treatment than I ever did when I was treasurer.”
Stapleton sees their relationship as a return to the way politics should work. “This could and should be a model for the nation,” he said. “We desperately need to get back to that kind of collaboration.”
It isn’t just Stapleton whom Polis has won over.
Cole Wist, a former state representative who served as GOP assistant minority leader, observed that Polis “sounded like a Republican at times” and “takes great pride in his libertarian streak . . . intentionally putting it out there.” Jack Tate, a former Republican state senator, has worked with Polis on several initiatives and praised his willingness to genuinely engage with conservatives. “You might have different priorities or values than the governor,” Tate said, “but when you meet with him you find that he is fully researched on all sides of the issue. My experience has been that he is always willing to find win-wins when goals align. I enjoy working with him.”
Several of my Republican friends and former colleagues in the state, even those who voted for Trump, shared similar sentiments with me. While most weren’t planning to vote for Polis this November, they grant that he has “common sense” and have a hard time when I ask them to list issues or decisions that draw their ire.
The one exception has been when it comes to energy and natural gas. Polis is a staunch climate advocate and has found himself in the crosshairs of the state’s powerful oil and gas lobby. Republican consultant Josh Penry flagged how Polis has been “slowing down permits in Weld County, where they want more drilling” and said he thinks this has particularly harmed Polis with the “hard-hat set,” both in energy and manufacturing.
When I presented that criticism to Polis, his reply sounded not like the rhetoric you might hear from an environmental activist, but again like what you might expect of a pragmatic businessman:
There’s people who want oil and gas development everywhere, they’re mad at us. I think what most people want is just a common-sense approach to it. Meaning, of course, when there’s resources in the ground, you tap them—but not right next to people’s homes and subdevelopments. Move it further out. If you’re doing it even close to where people live, add a lot of additional protections in there to reduce emissions, make sure it’s done efficiently. . . .
I don’t think we should go the way some socialist Republicans are saying—that there should be a centralized economy and we should force them to drill. It’s really up to the free market.
Socialist Republicans, you say? It’s almost as if this guy knows how to make the Red Dogs’ legs tingle.
Does this make Polis a model for Democrats nationally? Or is he a rare, unreplicable political animal with the freedom to buck traditional norms because of his wealth and position leading a state that rewards unconventional politics?
A little of both, it seems.
A Republican operative in Colorado points out that while Polis has been “competent”, he’s not exactly “the working-class hero Democrats need.” And it’s true that his across-the-aisle outreach will only get him so far once campaign season heats up and his opponents start trying to redefine him as a limousine liberal out of touch with “real ’muricans.” The nature of his culturally liberal independent streak offers a more natural appeal for Romney–>Biden voters—or maybe some of the younger men in the Joe Rogan demo—but is unlikely to extend to the rural and non-college voters who have abandoned the Democrats in droves.
But for Democrats looking to improve their standing this fall the perfect needn’t be the enemy of the just fine.
If the party wants to blunt the losses that seem certain to come this November, it sure would help to have an across-the-board boost with college-educated swing voters and something like Polis’s laser-focused message on pocketbook issues.
And the playbook isn’t very complicated. Polis’s advice to national Democrats is pretty, dare I say, normal-sounding:
Focus on results rather than ideology. People care about certain issues for a reason, and it’s not politics or pandering to respond to that; it’s doing our job as elected officials. . . .
Saving people money would be good. You should center that. People care about that. We should center saving people money. That’s what we’re doing here. It comes out of my mouth ten times a day, with every press release.
Care about what voters care about. Talk to Republican and swing voters with authenticity. And give people results rather than pandering to ideologues. Revolutionary!
Why hasn’t anyone thought of that?
If things stay on the current trajectory and national Democrats fail to heed that normie advice while Polis wins an easy victory in a purple state in November, things might get really interesting for the governor.
Come winter, the punditocracy’s lonely eyes could start to turn West. Gamers for Polis may start leetspeaking a Zelda of their own into the kingdom. Leading Democrats may have to start asking themselves if Polis is what’s normal now. And as for Polis himself, as his old adversary Walker Stapleton puts it, the question becomes “Why not me?”
It may be a little hard to envision Polis rallying tens of thousands in front of Greek columns, but maybe his brand of weird is exactly what Democrats need. After all, is anyone as strange as a normal person?