GILL, Colo. — In Gill, Colorado — far from the halls of the Colorado State Capitol — it’s easy to tune out all the political chatter, even during an election year. However, dotted along Interstate 76 are billboards talking about Governor Jared Polis and asking people to vote Republican in November.
“Polis hijacked the criminal justice system,” one of the billboards reads. Others talk about gas prices, inflation, cocaine, porch pirates, small businesses, schools, churches and even meat.
All of the billboards are black and yellow with "Vote Republican" highlighted in red. Some feature a picture of Polis with President Joe Biden, while others show Polis with a crown photoshopped onto his head.
In an election year, political ads are to be expected. These ones, however, are unique. It’s not some candidate or big political group behind the billboards, but a single man.
Steve Wells is a rancher whose family has lived in the area and worked the land since 1888. These days, that ranch is now up to 40,000 acres and features some cattle operations, some farming and a lot of oil and gas operations.
Wells says he started gaining interest in politics around 2009 when Noble Energy started drilling on his land and he began attending Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission meetings.
“I came home and realized that the people in charge have no clue what's going on,” Wells said.
Over the years, Wells has occasionally donated to political campaigns, like a committee to recall former state Rep. Rochelle Galindo in 2019, one to reelect Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams in 2021 and one to reelect then-Sheriff John Cooke in 2010. All of those contributions were relatively small, between $2,500 and $25,000. He also spent about $400,000 supporting a committee focused on energy in 2018.
Those contributions, however, pale in comparison to the amount of money Wells is now spending on these anti-Polis ads.
In late June, Wells formed his own Super PAC called Deep Colorado Wells. He has already dumped more than $11 million of his own money into it with one mission in mind — to get Polis out of the governor’s mansion.
“I've been very blessed with the money I've made since 2009. And I thought, you know, it's time I do something. We can't continue down this road, we just can't,” Wells said.
The rancher says he doesn’t necessarily like all of the money being spent on politics these days, but with candidates like Polis spending millions of their own money to support their campaigns, he doesn’t see another choice.
Part of his motivations have to do with new oil and gas regulations that have been imposed ever since Polis took office.
“Before Governor Polis, a drilling permit took maybe, at the longest, six months. Now, a drilling permit takes at least two years,” Wells said.
In the meantime, he says the public and landowners like him are losing out on money. At one point, Wells says he had nearly 900 wells on his property. These days, drilling on his land is winding down, but there are still oil and gas operations happening, along with reclamation.
Wells is also upset with how Polis has handled crime and fentanyl’s prevalence in the state.
“Things have gotten progressively worse. I've watched the crime. I've got two friends that have lost adult children to fentanyl,” he said.
Wells blames Democrats for letting people too far to the left control the state’s direction, but he also blames Republicans for not doing enough about it. Without some sort of change, he worries Colorado could become like Portland or Seattle.
Beyond that, Wells is also worried about what’s happening in schools, saying he wants kids to focus on the basics and for adults to leave the politics out of it.
“I look at all this, the transgender stuff and all the stuff they're pushing in grade schools, and I'm just like, "We need to teach the kids to read and write and math and science,"” he said.
However, Wells doesn’t have any kids in school himself. He does have a grandchild, though, who is in pre-school and will be entering kindergarten.
Wells thought about working with other campaign committees, saying he’s received a lot of calls from people trying to tell him how to spend his money and which political races to focus on. But he says he’d rather spend his money his way.
“Everybody knows how to spend your money better than you,” Wells said.
Along with the billboard, Wells has purchased digital ads and two television commercials featured on different television stations, including Denver7.
He insists he’s not trying to do what other political ads have done in the past and spin facts. Instead, he says he’s just trying to highlight facts. Of that $11 million, there is still about $9 million that has not been spent.
Despite all of this spending, Polis is still ahead in most polls, and a recent FiveThirtyEight forecast gave Polis a 97 in 100 chance of winning in November. Nevertheless, Wells says he isn’t paying attention to the polling because it has been wrong in the past, so he will continue with his mission and his spending.
Wells is keeping his plans regarding how he will spend the money close to the vest for now, but says he is planning on making some moves in coming weeks.
It’s not only about opposing Polis, however. Wells says he has met with Republican candidate Heidi Ganahl and was able to ask her some tough questions about her plans. He sees Ganahl as a solid candidate. Even so, he doesn’t see this campaign or his political spending as being about him, or even Ganahl. Wells believes this election is about the people who call Colorado home.
“At the end of the day, whatever happens, I still win because I'm giving this 100%. I know I'm doing the right thing,” he said.
Agree with his ideas or not, in politics, money talks, and with the amount Wells is spending, political insiders on both sides are certainly paying attention.