Millions of fans know Denver author and entrepreneur Ben Higgins as the titular bachelor who told two women he loved them on the 20th season of ABC-TV's popular match-making reality show — but to Denver Republicans, he'll always be the one that got away.
For a few weeks in the summer of 2016, hot on the heels of that spring's finale of "The Bachelor," the newly engaged fan favorite laid the groundwork for a run for office in North Denver's House District 4, where the Republican would have faced state Rep. Dan Pabon, a Democrat serving his third term.
Local Democrats scoffed, perhaps accurately predicting that no amount of fame and star power could overcome the district's heavily Democratic electorate, even in a year when another reality star was upending politics as usual on his way to seizing the Republican presidential nomination and remaking the GOP in his image.
But veteran Republican consultant Dustin Olson, whose Olson Strategies and Advertising was set to run Higgins' campaign, says to this day that there was a good chance the "sincere, thoughtful and humble" business analyst originally from Indiana could have surprised people.
“Ben’s definitely not a politician and his positivity is a breath of fresh air,” Olson said after Colorado Politics' predecessor publication broke the story about Higgins' imminent candidacy.
Take Higgins' enormous and dedicated following on social media — these days, he has 1.3 million Instagram followers — and throw in plans for a reality show about the race (a "Bachelor" spinoff set to air that fall, before voters finished casting ballots), and Olson says the old rules might go out the window.
"I think it would’ve been a real possibility he could’ve pulled it off," Olson told Colorado Politics this week, adding, "The No. 1 thing in politics is you have to get people’s attention; otherwise, you can’t deliver your message."
“This may be the best Bachelor we’ve ever had,” the show's creator Mike Fleiss told E! News when Higgins' season premiered. "He’s sweet, sincere and he’s got a sense of humor. He’s a great guy.”
Within days of Higgins officially entering the race that summer, however, his political plans came crashing down, when, as one participant put it, "the fit hit the shan."
Disney, the corporate parent of ABC, it turned out, pulled the plug on the reality show about Higgins' campaign once they gave it some thought, and "put extreme pressure" on Higgins to end his campaign, one politico with an up-close view of events told Colorado Politics, even though that had been the whole idea behind the show.
Since producers of "The Bachelor" basically owned the rights to his upcoming wedding, Higgins was in a tough spot and decided to withdraw from the race — Pabon won a fourth term comfortably, despite taking flak for a drunk-driving arrest that spring — and film a different reality show that summer and fall, examining his day-to-day life as he and then-fiancee Lauren Bushnell planned their nuptials.
Higgins and Bushnell called off their engagement the next year — she's married now with a kid on the way — and, meanwhile, Higgins proposed a year ago to gym owner Jessica Clarke. After pushing back the date because of the pandemic, they plan to get married this year.
After founding and running Generous Coffee, a sustainably sourced company that donates its profits, and hosting several popular podcasts, Higgins has released a memoir, "Alone in Plain Sight," about the insights he's gleaned from living much of his life in public the last five years.
On Feb. 9, the 31-year-old Higgins joined Olson and his partner, Sean Bartley, for a live-streamed interview on "Political Trade Secrets," their long-running political-themed podcast, to talk about Higgins' new book and the intersection of celebrity and politics.
Olson told Colorado Politics he plans to recommend Higgins' new book to potential candidates and some elected officials he works with.
"It’s about basically being in public but not being known, not comfortable putting your authentic self out," he said. "I think most anyone who puts their name on a ballot will deal with the things he did — being in the spotlight, under the microscope, facing tremendous scrutiny."
Higgins, Olson said, went through a "transformative process," and has emerged with some useful insights.
In the interview, Higgins said his experience — suddenly rocketing from obscurity, working as a tech writer "in a cubicle, to six months later, I’m ‘The Bachelor' " — made him ponder a run for office, and ever since then to explore other avenues where he can try to make a difference.
"I think that’s what empowerment is — it’s giving people in all parts of the world, every place, the ability and opportunity to thrive," he said.
"I don’t want to be 'The Bachelor' forever," he said. "I don’t want to be 60 years old and somebody goes, 'Oh, he was The Bachelor when he was 26; that was the defining moment of his life.'"
That's when he decided to use the platform he's been given — "for no reason," he noted — to be involved in human stories.
"I don’t know how many books I’ll be given the opportunity to write in my life," Higgins said. "You hear the stories of others, the chaos and confusion of others. You might feel that way, and that’s OK, but how are you going to navigate that?"
He said his approach is similar to the one they take at Generous Coffee, where the slogan is, "We have a lot of work to do in this world, but if one person’s life is changed, then it’s worth it."
Said Higgins: "'Alone in Plain Sight' is part of that. If one person picks this up and reads this and thinks, 'No, I’m not alone,' then it’s worth it."
Olson asked Higgins to offer advice about talking to the media for people thinking about running for office.
Saying he’s still not used to the loss of privacy, Higgins said he's made it a habit to engage in some quiet contemplation before anything challenging, including media appearances. "Think through what you’ll be speaking on and pray through it — have a little purpose behind what you’re speaking of. As soon as it hits, it’s hard to keep your thoughts together — I don’t care how smart you are, it’s really hard to do."
Be sure to listen, he advised: "Be curious about what the other person is saying. Ask questions."
That, Higgins said, makes it easier to say, “'I don’t know, let me do some research on that' — then actually get back to them on that." He added, "Taking a step back, take a deep breath and say 'I don’t know,' that never creates a story," a point Olson seconded.
Also keep in mind that "this interview’s a lot less important than you’re internally making it. It’s important to you, but it’s probably not the biggest thing for the interviewer, and it’s definitely not the biggest thing to the viewer."
That way, he concluded, you won't "suffocate with the burden of the interview" and can keep your head on straight.
Most importantly, though, Higgins said: "Never forget why you’re doing it. There are moments when it feels really great to be known, to be talked about, to be celebrated, but that’s not why you’re doing it. It's to be a part of people’s stories and try to fight injustice around the world, because I’ve been given the opportunity. Anything that strays away from, I’m unprepared for, I’m inauthentic and I start to become a lesser version of myself."
Near the end of the 90-minute show, Olson posed a question from a viewer who wanted to know if Higgins plans to try a run for office again.
"It’s a different political sphere than it was," he said, shaking his head. "I'm not great at yelling. I don’t feel like I could be an effective candidate today."
He added: "I’m processing a lot right now when it comes to what I think is right. When it comes to politics, the pursuit for me has to stay the same, which is what do I believe is best, why am I doing it? Right now, I don’t have a clear answer to that.
"Right now, I'm in a place of learning, of searching, of processing, of trying to figure it all out — which isn’t a bad place to be — but right now, I'm not there."