Races of the Week:Coors vs. Salazar

“You do beer,” Coors brewery head and veteran conservative activist Joseph Coors told son Pete at the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, “I’ll do politics.”

The elder Coors, a founding donor to the Heritage Foundation and a supporter of more than a dozen other conservative organizations, had just watched his good friend Ronald Reagan lose the GOP nomination for President by a heart-breakingly close margin. Pete, one of Joe’s five sons and a graduate of Cornell and the University of Denver School of Business, was an alternate delegate for Reagan from the Centennial State. But the elder Coors’ admonition was quite clear: Pete would continue learning the family business and rising up the corporate ladder, while his father would devote himself to supporting Reagan’s 1980 presidential bid.

“And I did go on to the best job anyone could have,” recalled Pete Coors, now 57 and finishing his stint as chief operating officer of the generations-old brewery. But with all respect to his father, the younger Coors felt that–as one of only three in his class at Phillips Exeter Academy to support Barry Goldwater for President and as a volunteer in the re-election campaign of the late conservative Rep. Mike McKevitt (R.-Colo.), and a Reagan delegate–he intended to also “do politics” and community work himself. So Pete Coors threw himself into local GOP politics as well as such activities as the regional Boy Scouts Council, the University of Colorado Hospital Board, and Ducks Unlimited (of which the Coloradan was national president).

And this year, with the surprise retirement of Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Pete Coors is the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate. In a tough, spirited primary, first-time candidate Coors captured the nomination with 60% of the vote.

The identity of the Democrat who stands between Coors and the Senate goes a long way toward explaining why the businessman-civic leader became a candidate in the first place. In his words, “Kenneth Salazar has been state attorney general for six years and he symbolizes everything I have opposed in politics. In fact, this is almost a proxy of the presidential race–a liberal Democratic lawyer and career office-holder opposing a conservative Republican who has an MBA degree and ran a business.”

Specifically, Coors notes, “My opponent said he would have opposed President Bush’s tax cuts and wants to roll them back. I would vote to make them permanent, and fight to completely abolish the Alternative Minimum Tax, the Estate Tax, the Capital Gains Tax, and any remaining tax on dividends. Why handcuff ourselves and our potential for creativity with taxes like this? He’s a lawyer who is against tort reform–I’m a businessman who has dealt with litigation first hand and I’m for tort reform. He says he’s pro-life, but qualifies it.–I’m pro-life across the board. He says he favors the war on terrorism, but we should go to the UN and get it involved. I say that’s the last place we should go–let’s stay the course and fight terrorism as we’ve been doing!”

Not since Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas meet in a string of public encounters in Illinois in 1858 have voters in a state had the opportunity for a such a rich discussion of issues as they will in Colorado this fall. Coors and Salazar began squaring off in a series of at least 12 debates on September 11.

Inevitably, many conservatives who express admiration for Pete Coors and his views assume that the fledgling candidate can just deploy his own wealth and thus doesn’t need their support. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Coors, recalling that while he spent about $400,000 of his personal money to win a heated primary, he also raised another $1.8 million from supporters. “I know something about politics and you just can’t reach out to people unless you ask them for a commitment other than just voting. It’s going to take many contributors and volunteers to overcome my opponent, who has twice won statewide. It’s going to take teamwork.”