Waiting for the shakeout

The big political money is so far steering clear of Colorado’s crowded GOP primary races

Waiting for the shakeout

 
There are people in Big Money Republican circles eyeing campaign races around the country, looking to unseat Democratic governors and pick off Democratic incumbents in the U.S. Senate, where strategic spending on good candidates this year could flip the chamber.

Incredibly, those money people so far don’t see anything worth spending on in swing-state Colorado, despite the fact that Colorado’s top two Democrats, Sen. Mark Udall and Gov. John Hickenlooper are running for reelection and the additional fact that mediocre approval ratings for both men and the successful conservative state Senate recall movement this summer have the party in power feeling vulnerable.

Perhaps the money people are waiting for the crowded Republican primary fields in the top races to shake out on the ground, either looking for clear and promising frontrunners to rise or waiting for the moment when better candidates step up.

There are now eight Republican candidates running for Udall’s seat and there are six running to replace Hickenlooper. The Colorado election season officially kicks off with caucuses scheduled for March 4. Republicans have until the June 24 primaries to land on the best of the bunch.

Trouble keeping it all straight? Here’s some beta to help you handicap the GOP races.

The frontrunners

There may be a surfeit of candidates, but the perceived frontrunners in each race say 2010 all over again.

Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck wants a shot at Udall this time around after a narrow loss to appointed Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010.

Former congressman Tom Tancredo returns to the GOP fold after running on the American Constitution Party ticket and finishing second to Hickenlooper in 2010, drawing votes from a weak Republican nominee originally backed by tea party insurgents.

The two lead their challengers in fundraising, and they’re the only Republican candidates Quinnipiac University is polling about favorability so far.

But the “2010 all over again” is a problem. Just ask Dick Wadhams, who was the Republican Party chairman when Buck and Tancredo last ran. The two lost, despite the fact that the GOP took back the state House, two congressional seats and the secretary of state and treasurers’ offices in Colorado, and despite a Republican wave nationwide.

“If we nominate Tom Tancredo for governor and Ken Buck for the United States Senate, they will not only lose the 2014 election, they will put a permanent stigma on Republicans,” Wadhams said.

Buck and Tancredo certainly have their negatives.

In 2010, Buck performed poorly with women after gaffes about his primary opponent’s high heels, gays and rape victims. This year, Buck is promoting a series of “Ken Cares” videos featuring people he’s helped as a prosecutor.

Tancredo, meanwhile, is best known for the anti-immigrant stance that was his signature issue as a congressman. His 2010 gubernatorial campaign featured a fundraiser with anti-immigration Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is still supporting him (along with Ted Nugent). But four years later, Tancredo is airing ads in Spanish, which he’d previously vowed never to do, and has a bilingual website.

In 2009, Buck raised more than $530,000 running up to the 2010 election year while his ultimate primary opponent, Jane Norton, raised more than $1 million. In 2013, Buck raised about $383,000 – the highest among the current field.

But that won’t go far against the $5 million plus Udall has raised so far.

Similarly, Tancredo raised $410, 396 in 2013, a fraction of Hickenlooper’s almost $1.7 million.

The contenders

So who are the alternatives?

In the Senate race:

  • State Sen. Owen Hill, of Colorado Springs, is a close second to Buck in fundraising and garnered an endorsement from the Tea Party Express and Ron Paul. He’s only in his first two years in political office and has low name recognition statewide, but his conservative credentials could make him a contender.

  • State Rep. Amy Stephens, of Monument, is the former House majority leader and polls better against Hickenlooper than Hill. Stephens’ 2013 fundraising was anemic at best – only about $52,000, plus her campaign owes nearly $60,000 to vendors. And she sponsored a bill setting up Colorado’s health insurance exchange, nicknamed “Amycare” by her conservative foes. An endorsement from Buck’s 2010 foe, Jane Norton, may or may not be helpful.

  • State Sen. Randy Baumgardner, Floyd Truillo, Mark Aspiri and Stephen Lafley also have filed to run for the seat with the Federal Election Commission. Tom Janich is listed as a candidate on the GOP website. Jaime McMillan has very recently announced he’s dropping out of the race. Only Trujillo reported significant fundraising in 2013, but $90,000 of his $103,000 came from his own pockets. Do any of these candidates have a shot at making the primary ballot?

In the governor’s race:

  • Secretary of State Scott Gessler raised almost $315,000 to Tancredo’s $410,396 in 2013. He’s campaigning on having won statewide office four years ago and his experience running a statewide office. Yet, Gessler carries some baggage, including an ethics investigation in which he repaid the state for expenses and a fight with lawmakers over his budget, which went from a surplus to a potential deficit in four years.

  • State Sen. Greg Brophy has the endorsement of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, who played a key role in last fall’s state Senate recall elections. Brophy is currently trying to raise money with a gun giveaway to add to the $157,000 he raised last year. But he performs the worst in polls against Hickenlooper among the top four candidates. And he had to walk back a false statement made in a recent debate about the state funding abortions.

  • Former state Sen. Mike Kopp, former Adams County GOP chairman Steve House and businessman Jason Clark are also in the competition. Roni Bell Sylvester has just announced she’s entering the governor’s race and says she plans to petition on the ballot rather than go through the caucus process.

Nevertheless, the caucuses, followed by county assemblies and the statewide assembly on April 12, should narrow the two lists before the primary. Candidates must get 30 percent of the state assembly vote to make the ballot, so only three candidates can make it out of that process.

But not all the candidates are going the caucus route. Stephens, Hill and Aspiri will try to petition on to the U.S. Senate primary ballot, while Tancredo and House are going the petition route in the governor’s race. Tancredo has indicated he’ll also participate in the caucus process, though his Facebook page is seeking volunteers to gather petition signatures.

Those petitions are due at the end of March, and gathering 1,500 valid signatures from each of the state’s seven congressional districts tripped up Republican Marc Holtzman in 2006. Despite pouring lots of money into his own campaign, the millionaire investor’s campaign team failed to get the right number of signatures, leaving the nomination to Bob Beauprez.

The wildcard

And eight years after he lost to Democrat Bill Ritter, the wildcard during the next couple of weeks is Beauprez, another former state GOP chairman, former congressman and the 2006 Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Will he or won’t he enter, say, the governor’s race? Beauprez has said he’s considering challenging either Udall or Hickenlooper. He’s been making the rounds of Lincoln Day dinners held by county Republican organizations, a hint that he’s testing the waters.

Folks with memories that go back to 2006 will recall the TV ad in which the Republican wore a black hat, standing next to a horse’s hind end. Democrats branded him “Both Ways Bob” for his seeming ability to take different stances on the same issues.

But there are plenty of Colorado voters who may not recall that ad or other issues from 2006. A former banker, Beauprez didn’t hesitate to spend his own money in his congressional or gubernatorial races. He’d offer an alternative with more money and name recognition than other GOP gubernatorial candidates.

Colorado GOP spokesman Owen Loftus said the crowded fields are a positive for Republicans.

“There are a lot of candidates, and I think it just shows how vulnerable Mark Udall and John Hickenlooper are,” said Loftus, who worked on Buck’s campaign four years ago. “If people thought these races were a done deal for the Democrats, then there wouldn’t be so many people interested in running.”

The race to November

Colorado is considered by many to be a red state that turned to purple to blue in 2004, 2006 and 2008.

But as Wadhams points out, the only Republican governor since 1975 was Blll Owens from 1999 through 2006.

In the Senate, three Republicans – Bill Armstrong, Hank Brown and Wayne Allard, held Udall’s seat from 1979 to 2009, while the seat held by Bennet has been in Democratic hands since 1975, except for the 10 years when Ben Nighthorse Campbell switched parties while in office to represent Republicans.

Registration in the state is relatively evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

And despite the lack of clear candidates, the Colorado GOP and conservative groups are on the attack against Udall and Hickenlooper, sending out news releases touting Udall’s support of Obamacare and attacking Hickenlooper on the economy.

While Coloradans expressed opposition to health care reform in a recent Quinnipiac poll, a majority approve of how Hickenlooper is handling the economy.

A recent Denver Post debate among gubernatorial candidates – sans Tancredo and Gessler – offered indicators of other issues where Hickenlooper might be vulnerable, including the death penalty and gun control. All four candidates at the debate said they supported executing convicted murderer Nathan Dunlap, which Hickenlooper temporarily has postponed.

And all four said they’d support repealing a law requiring background checks on virtually all gun purchases and transfers in the state. While that background check extension was cited in last fall’s recall elections, polls indicate more than 80 percent of Coloradans support the background checks.

Brophy and Kopp said they supported a personhood amendment, which Clark and House oppose. And all four said they would not sign a bill repealing civil unions for gay couples.

Conservative stances on social issues could pose problems in a general election, where Wadhams said the GOP needs to attract suburban women, Hispanics and  younger independent voters.

The unsettled GOP field isn’t just a problem for Republicans, but for Democrats, who don’t have a clear opponent to target as they did Beauprez in 2006.

“I think Democrats, just by watching what they’re doing, they’re nervous, as they should be,” said Katy Atkinson, a Republican political consultant. If the election were held today, they’d probably have some problems.”

Four years ago, outside groups on both sides spend some $30 million on the race between Buck and Bennet. This year’s Senate race could draw similar outside interest if Udall is still considered vulnerable after Republicans elect his opponent.

Atkinson noted that big Republican money appears to be sitting on the sidelines in both the Senate and governor’s races for now.

“There’s major uncertainty out there among major donors about who’s going to win primaries and who’s electable,” Atkinson said. “What people will look at is who gets the nomination and what do the polls look like.”

Meanwhile, many Republicans are hoping to prevent a repeat of races in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Perhaps most devastating was the 2010 nomination of Dan Maes for governor and Tancredo’s third-party run, effectively handing the race to Hickenlooper.

Said Atkinson: “The Republicans have shown themselves fully capable of shooting themselves in the foot, backing up and reloading and shooting themselves in the other foot.”

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About the Author

Sandra Fish

has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, Colorado - swing states, baby! She has worked for newspapers large and small.
sandrafish@comcast.net | @fishnette

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