Colorado Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler's time in office has been, by any objective yardstick, an unqualified disaster. In only three years, Gessler has stepped into more controversy, scandalous partisan double-dealing, and outright malfeasance than any statewide Colorado officeholder in recent memory. As Colorado's chief elections officer, Gessler has come to practically embody partisan bad faith, and gaming of the system to favor his own.
But instead of getting ready to slink back to his GOP electioneering law firm at the conclusion of a term in office that made an absolute mockery of good government, Scott Gessler is now running for governor–as we first reported he would over a year ago. The story behind Gessler's unlikely "failure upward" is worth summarizing again for the record.
From the very start, Gessler made it clear that he would push the limits of the rules. Immediately after taking office in 2011, Gessler declared his intention to continue "moonlighting" for his old law firm specializing in election law, the Hackstaff Group (formerly Hackstaff Gessler). Gessler abandoned that plan after receiving an undisclosed opinion on the propriety of such an arrangement from fellow Republican Attorney General John Suthers. Gessler's office then launched headlong into a massive campaign to ferret out what he originally insisted was "thousands" of noncitizens illegally voting in Colorado elections. Three years later, that claim has fallen completely flat, with only four indictments by a friendly DA, and no evidence whatsoever of the wide-scale fraud Gessler insisted was already taking place. Meanwhile, his office lost hundreds of real, legal voter registrations after a mobile voter registration site mysteriously failed in the midst of a union-sponsored voter registration campaign.
Gessler has long claimed that Colorado campaign finance law is "too strict." In practice, that has led to a dramatic weakening of enforcement of campaign finance disclosure laws, and eye-popping moments of unacceptable partisan favoritism. After the Larimer County GOP chairman was busted for embezzling party funds and failing to file proper disclosures of party finances, Gessler slashed the fines owed by the county party from $50,000 to $16,000, then held a fundraiser for Larimer County Republicans to help raise the balance. Gessler's original plan to appear in a dunk tank to raise money for the Larimer County GOP was cancelled after basically every editorial board in the state freaked out about the impropriety.
In 2012, Gessler spent discretionary funds from his office account to attend numerous partisan events, including a partisan vote
suppression "watchdog" event in Washington DC hosted by True the Vote, and the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. Gessler attempted to cover for the trip to the RNC by claiming an event immediately prior to the convention, the Republican National Lawyers Association's conference, was a permissibly "nonpartisan" use of the funds. The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission rejected Gessler's arguments, and ruled that Gessler had "violated the public trust for private gain." Gessler was assessed the maximum fine allowable for this infraction, which he is now appealing in court.
In 2013, Gessler's conduct as secretary of state has been no less dubious. Gessler led the opposition to this year's successful voting modernization law, House Bill 1303, which had the support of the vast majority of county clerks in the state from both parties. During litigation pertaining to the recall elections held this summer, Gessler's office at first stood with Democrats to protect the delivery of mail ballots to voters–but then abandoned them before an appeal was filed to the district judge's decision. Gessler then attempted to blame House Bill 1303 for the conflict in the law that prevented the delivery of mail ballots, even though that was false–at issue was a 1912 constitutional provision in conflict with a statute on the books prior to this year. Most objective analysis agrees that the halting of mail ballot delivery can entirely account for the 300-vote margin of defeat for ex-Senate President John Morse in the Senate District 11 recall election.
There is more to the story of Gessler's role in the pre-recall litigation that hasn't yet been reported, but may well come out if Gessler's gubernatorial campaign gains traction. We've heard rumors of a longstanding close relationship between Gessler and eccentric former Aspen mayoral candidate Marilyn Marks, a major player in the lawsuit that halted mail ballots in the recall, that has not been disclosed to the public.
For all of the tawdry spectacle and open disdain for the rules displayed by Gessler during his time in office, for which he richly earned the nickname "Honey Badger," he remains popular among an influential class of insider Republicans–who have no ethical compunction about anything Gessler has done, and fully support the guiding philosophical declaration of conservative icon Paul Weyrich: "I don't want everybody to vote." With that said, we have always been clear in our view that the available campaign material against Gessler makes him unelectable to higher office. The kinds of ads that can be made from Gessler's record as Secretary of State, highlighting rank partisanship, naked vote suppression, incompetence, and the ethics commissions' finding of misuse of state funds, are just not survivable by any political candidate. At the very least, it will require a risky counter investment that is difficult to justify. It's possible there is some understanding of that among rank-and-file Republicans, which could help explain why Gessler is way behind primary opponent Tom Tancredo in early polls.
In the end, the last person to realize Gessler's toxicity may be the "Honey Badger" himself.