It didn't take Peter H. Coors long to learn his first brass-knuckle political lesson. Scarcely six weeks after launching his bid for the U.S. Senate, the 58-year-old scion of the beermaking dynasty walked into a haymaker named Bob Schaffer. In debates leading up to the Republican primary, Coors stumbled badly as Schaffer, a Christian fundamentalist and former three-term representative, lambasted him about a 1997 interview in which he said he could support lowering the drinking age. Another time, Coors didn't recognize the name of Canada's Prime Minister, even though his company was negotiating a merger with Canadian brewer Molson Inc.
Yet Coors trounced Schaffer the old-fashioned way -- with tons of cash. In the last two weeks of the primary race, he lent his campaign $400,000, which helped pay for 400 red-white-and-blue billboards and a TV ad blitz that described his humble beginnings -- if sweeping floors at the family brewery qualifies as humble. Endorsements streamed in from GOP luminaries such as Jack Kemp and ex-Senator Alan K. Simpson (Wy.). Governor Bill Owens, who first backed Schaffer, climbed aboard the Coors train, too.
The outpouring of GOP support for a neophyte candidate with zero experience and a halting speaking style underscores how important Colorado has become to Republican chances of maintaining a slim 51-48 margin in the Senate (there is one independent). Polls show that Coors -- on leave from his $1 million-a-year job as chairman of Adolph Coors Co. (RKY ) -- has closed the gap with popular state Attorney General Ken Salazar in the race to succeed retiring Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
But with the revival of John Kerry's Presidential campaign and no guarantee of a coattail ride from George W. Bush, the selling of Pete Coors is suddenly more important than ever. "We're not going to let him lose," says Senator George F. Allen Jr. (R-Va.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). To help its candidate, the NRSC has promised Coors $507,000, the maximum allowable under Federal Election Commission rules. And on Oct. 11, President Bush showed up to stump for Coors, even though on Meet the Press the day before Coors said Congress would not have authorized the invasion of Iraq if it had known "what we know now."
With the Coors name on everything from Denver's baseball stadium to music pavilions around the state -- including the amphitheater where Salazar held a fund-raiser -- the tax-averse Republican has recognition to burn. But the brand name can work against him, too: One in three Coloradans think brew when asked their opinion of Pete Coors, says pollster Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies. "He's still the guy who does the [beer] commercials...to those folks."
"TOO MANY LAWYERS"
In a recent debate before a business group at a downtown Denver hotel, a more seasoned Coors looks every bit the candidate. Under the tutelage of NRSC staffers, his delivery is better -- though he still stumbled on Meet the Press -- and his grasp of numbers surer. "Litigation is a 3% hidden tax on business, and I'll work to get tort reform passed," he told the Colorado Association of Commerce & Industry. In a none-too-subtle reference to Salazar, a onetime private attorney, he added: "There are too many lawyers in the Senate as it is."
In Salazar, Coors faces his polar opposite, a populist who polishes his man of the people image by holding ice cream socials, touring the state in a dusty green pickup, and talking about growing up poor in a farmhouse with no electricity. With a résumé that includes securing water for rural communities, Salazar is strong in Colorado's usually reliable Republican countryside. His tough record on environmental crimes has won the approval of greenish independents, who make up nearly one-third of the state's some 3 million registered voters. And as a fourth-generation Hispanic, he appeals to the state's fastest-growing demographic group -- an estimated 15% of the electorate. "He's the Republicans' biggest nightmare," says Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer.
The candidates, both devout Catholics, pledged a clean race. But in recent weeks, the gloves have come off. On Sept. 30, Salazar accused Coors of "fronting for his drug-company backers" by opposing imports of lower-cost pharmaceuticals from Canada. The next day, a TV ad sponsored by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee blasted Coors Brewing's environmental record, calling it "one of Colorado's biggest polluters" and claiming that it shed 900 jobs in the eight years that Pete Coors was CEO. (A company spokeswoman says that Coors has extensive environmental cleanup programs and that jobs were lost through mergers, not layoffs.) The DSCC also e-mailed articles to reporters about the beer company's sponsorship of an annual gay festival in Montreal that features a male nude revue.
Unlike the early days of his campaign when he froze in the face of attack, Coors has hit back. He has aired ads questioning Salazar's defense of polluters while a private attorney and charged that the Democrat would vote to slash the defense budget -- a hot-button issue for the many military personnel in Colorado. And he shows no signs of letting up: With financial backers such as former football star John Elway and Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, Coors will spend a record $10 million -- twice what it took to elect Senator Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) in 2002 -- says campaign manager Sean Tonner. Salazar expects to spend about $8 million. If the race remains close, Coors says he won't be afraid to pump in more of his own cash. Money talks is one of the lessons he has learned in the School of Political Brass Knuckles.
By Ronald Grover in Denver