How the “outdoor voter” has emerged as a potentially potent political force in Colorado
The outdoor industry chose Colorado as one of four states to plant a flag in the 2018 election
David Leinweber, the owner of Colorado Springs’ beloved Angler’s Covey flyfishing shop, asked a Republican candidate earlier this year to voice full-throated support for the state’s outdoor recreation industry.
The candidate told him, “No way. It will put a target on my back, and I’ll be labeled as green,’” Leinweber recalled. “And he lost my vote.”
Leinweber has long voted Republican. But he’s worried about the direction of his party as its leaders remain curiously silent during what he sees as attacks on public lands, the environment and the role of outdoor recreation as a vital economic engine for the Pikes Peak region and all of Colorado.
“Protecting our outdoor environment is and always has been a Republican issue,” Leinweber said. “Parks were founded by Roosevelt. Nixon developed the EPA. How this became a Democrat issue I have no clue. The silence from the Republican Party that doesn’t recognize the value of these critical points — it’s just baffling.”
The outdoor industry is hoping to make Leinweber and others like him a potent new segment of the Colorado electorate. This election, outdoor industry leaders will try to communicate how much is at stake in the current political landscape and target a group of voters that is traditionally less engaged. Call them the “outdoor voters.”
The Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Association is making candidate endorsements — backing mostly Democrats — and reinforcing its picks with a six-figure digital advertising campaign, the boldest political foray to date for the organization. Colorado is one of four states where it plans to be active with the association endorsing Democrat Jared Polis in the governor’s race.
The industry’s plans to flex its economic muscle, feeling empowered by earlier efforts to spotlight public policy issues such as public lands and climate change.
“This strategy really is about taking that next step into the electoral side of things, the more political side of things, and cultivating and supporting candidates for elected office up and down the ticket,” said Alex Boian, who is the association’s political director. “We think if we can inject the issues of the outdoor recreation economy and support for protecting public lands and waters … into some of these key races it will be a deciding factor.”
A tipping point for political activism
The backbone of the campaign is an economic report showing Americans spending $887 billion a year on outdoor play — that’s more than what’s spent on cars and pharmaceuticals — and a unified campaign to protect public lands.
Kim Miller, a Colorado stalwart in the outdoor industry who captains Boulder-based bootmaker SCARPA North America, has had “a lot of conversations” about the looming tipping point that may send a cascade of voters across the aisle as they seek sound policy on public lands and environmental protection.
Miller, a member of the Outdoor Industry Association’s board, sees Colorado leading a pending political shift as more residents absorb the blows of a warming climate.
“That’s a tipping point for a lot of people I talk to. They are seeing how it is having a material impact on their lives. It’s just getting harder to ignore,” Miller said. “We are at that moment. More conservative people are agreeing it’s time for change.”
What gives the outdoor recreation industry clout in Colorado is its economic impact in the state with 229,000 direct jobs and $28 billion in consumer spending, according to the association’s analysis of federal data.
The relocation of the five annual Outdoor Retailer trade shows from Utah after a spat over public lands and the recent announcement that the 70,000-employee VF Corp. was relocating to Denver to anchor its five outdoor lifestyle brands, including The North Face and Smartwool, only drive home the point.
“Colorado aligns extremely well with what we intend to stand for and the change we intend to drive,” VF Corp. chief executive Steve Rendle said.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said he expects the industry to be a force in the 2018 campaign.
“I think it is going to have a political influence,” he said in a recent interview after an event touting the Colorado Classic bike race. “I think as outdoor rec grows and becomes a bigger part of our lives … it’s going to be about clean air, clean water, public lands — I think that is the mantra. They are beginning to organize themselves around those key elements, and I don’t think it’s about Democrats or Republicans.”
The Conservation in the West poll from January showed the vast majority of Colorado voters believe the outdoor recreation economy is important and public lands are an asset. Most of the people who answered the survey — which reflected a near-even split among political parties and unaffiliated voters — considered themselves outdoor recreation enthusiasts and conservationists.
Greg Felt won the largest percentage of votes for Chaffee County commissioner in 2016 running as an unaffiliated candidate against a Republican and a Democrat. He said he is hearing voters sharing concerns over the policies that threaten public lands.
“Most people who have chosen to move to this state or chosen to remain in this state have a very strong affinity to the landscape. It really speaks to them. When you start messing with that in the name of some national agenda, that bothers people in a way that seems really familial. Like you are messing with their kids,” said Felt, who owns a flyfishing guide service in Salida.
“I’m hearing people say this has gone too far, especially in terms of rolling back decades of good work with the environment,” he added. “I can’t believe we are actually arguing over whether to restore the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That used to be nonpartisan and recognized as just a really good idea.”
But Felt does worry if Democrats find traction in the upcoming midterm election, they will see that as a call to move even further to the left.
“When really they should move to the center and own what most people are thinking,” Felt said. “I feel like candidates who are sticking to their party line no matter what are just representative of this widening gap. It takes courage to push back on your own party.”
Where the candidates for governor stand on outdoor issues
The Outdoor Industry Association’s election work in Colorado — run through Vote the Outdoors Action Fund, a political nonprofit that doesn’t need to disclose its donors — will emphasize the recreation economy and public lands, as well as climate change.
The decision to back Polis is not a surprise. The Boulder congressman is co-chairman and co-founder of the U.S. House Outdoor Recreation Caucus, a group committed to promoting policies that help the industry. Most of his 2nd District is government-owned land.
Polis issued a “Keep Colorado Wild” plan that states he opposes energy development on public land and attempts to sell the lands. He also wants to boost spending on parks, though it’s not clear how he would pay for it, and he supports regulations requiring habitat restoration for areas damaged by development.
Republican rival Walker Stapleton opposed a move to shrink the size of three national monuments in Colorado, but he made clear that local communities should determine their boundaries, not the federal government. The Republican said he also supports oil and gas drilling on federal lands if it can be done with safeguards.
The stance aligns him with President Donald Trump’s administration and Utah, which pushed to reduce the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, in part to access oil, gas and coal reserves. The decision is what prompted the Outdoor Industry Association to move its Outdoor Retailer show from Salt Lake City to Denver.
The association said Stapleton understands the outdoor recreation industry’s importance to the state’s economy but called his position on public lands “disappointing.”
Outdoor interests collide with political realities
For voters, though, the decision about which candidate to support is more complicated.
Just because flyshop owner Leinweber is angry with Republicans, don’t think he will be checking all Democrats on his ballot in November.
He was happy with Hickenlooper, but he’s not sure he could lean so far left to vote for Polis. He wants to hear more from Stapleton.
“Walker hasn’t come out and said he will not allow oil wells in Rocky Mountain National Park. And because he hasn’t said that, other people say he wants to drill in a national park,” Leinweber said. “He needs to speak up. He needs to have a position that says he will protect our most treasured spaces. His silence is allowing other people to say whatever they want.”
Mike Juran is not in the recreation business. But his Altia software company relies on myriad recreational opportunities around its hometown of Colorado Springs when it comes to recruiting skilled workers.
“The outdoors are an integral part of our growth strategy, and it’s very important to us on a business level, so yes, I’m very concerned about our natural resources in Colorado and our public lands, our recreation spaces and broader environmental issues,” said Juran, Altia’s CEO and co-founder, who counts environmental protection and national debt as his two largest long-term concerns when he votes. “The permanent damage we are doing on both those fronts will take decades and decades to unwind. We have the worst of both worlds right now, with leaders unconcerned about balancing the budget and unconcerned with the environment.”