At times, Peter Coors has stuck out like a sore thumb in his conservative family. He once sat down with a union to iron out problems at the Coors brewery and later helped secure benefits for gay employees. The Republican heir to the Colorado-based beer empire is bucking family tradition again, this time with a U.S. Senate campaign expected to be one of the most expensive and closely watched in the nation. Coors agreed to run when another wealthy candidate, real estate magnate Dave Liniger, dropped out last month. He remembers asking his wife, Marilyn, what he should do when GOP leaders came calling. "She said, 'If not now, when?' " Coors said with a laugh.
The brewery was in the headlines previously when it started requiring lie detector tests for employees, including questions about religious, sexual, and political beliefs. Peter Coors ended up backing benefits for gay workers and promoting the family beer in gay bars. "We have benefits for common-law husbands and wives, and I don't see why we should discriminate against gay employees who have long-term, committed relationships," he said. "There aren't that many." Michael Brewer, public-policy director for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Colorado in Denver, said he does not believe the policies were a marketing ploy. "I've referred other businesses to Coors as a model," Brewer said.
Wealthy candidates from Democratic U.S. senator Jon Corzine of New Jersey to Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California have greased their campaigns with millions of dollars of personal wealth. Coors may need to do the same thing. He faces former U.S. representative Bob Schaffer in what is shaping up as a tough GOP primary, with the winner expected to face a formidable Democrat this fall in Attorney General Ken Salazar. All are trying to replace GOP senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who is retiring because of health concerns. The race could determine the control of the Senate, where Republicans hold a 51-48 majority with one Democratic-leaning independent.
Coors opposes abortion without exception, as does Schaffer. He supports President Bush in the war on Iraq--so does Schaffer--and said the president was right to link Saddam Hussein to terrorism. He breaks with Bush on illegal immigration, saying the nation has done a poor job policing its borders and needs to crack down. But he has disagreed with his family's conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, by supporting renewable energy. Coors said he believes marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman, but he is not sure a gay marriage ban belongs in the Constitution, as proposed by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave and Sen. Wayne Allard, both Colorado Republicans, and backed by Bush. "[As for] whether we need an amendment to maintain that definition, many people think we do. Obviously, the president thinks we do," Coors said. "I need to read the amendment and then I'll make my decision."
Pundits suggest Coors is a more attractive candidate not just because of his wealth--he estimated his personal worth at about $25 million--but because he will be perceived as less conservative than Schaffer. State Democratic Party chairman Chris Gates said Coors is trying to repackage himself as a moderate but that voters will not be fooled. "Democrats are not going to let Peter get away with characterizing himself as Coors Light," Gates said. "The only difference between Bob Schaffer and Peter Coors is that Peter Coors has money."
Because Coors has no voting record, voters will have to make their decisions based mostly on his business record, said Eric Sondermann, a nonpartisan political analyst based in Denver. Sondermann said the challenge for Coors is to present himself as a Colorado legend, like Salazar, and not as a rich businessman trying to jump to the head of the line. "If he's just another businessman in a dark suit, I don't know if that resonates," Sondermann said