GOP contenders line up, ‘wait and see’ whether to challenge Bennet in 2010

(Photo/Denver Public Schools)

(Photo/Denver Public Schools)

With Monday’s withdrawal from the Senate race by Attorney General John Suthers, state Republicans lack a clear front-runner to take on newly appointed Democrat Michael Bennet in 2010. Other top GOP prospects have hesitated to enter the race, weighing both their own fortunes and the emerging profile of Bennet, the former Denver Public Schools chief, who lacks a voting record and has never before run for office.

It’s a markedly different tone than state Republicans sounded last month when contenders jostled for the chance to take on an appointed senator.

Suthers — the only Republican in Colorado to hold statewide elected office — said in a statement he wants to finish his job as attorney general and couldn’t foresee how he could raise in the neighborhood of $10 million while still performing his duties. Citing his discomfort running against the governor while serving as the governor’s lawyer, Suthers also pulled himself from consideration to take on Gov. Bill Ritter next year. He plans to seek re-election to a second full, four-year term as attorney general.

Not all recent Colorado attorneys general have shared Suthers’ reticence: Suthers himself was appointed to fill out the term of Democrat Ken Salazar, who sought and won the Senate seat vacated last week when he was appointed secretary of the interior in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet. Republican Gale Norton lost a Senate bid in a primary to Wayne Allard while she was attorney general, only to win appointment herself as President George W. Bush’s first secretary of the interior a few years later. If it sounds as though top Colorado politicians are in the habit of swapping offices like so many chess pieces, take a look at those still in the wings for the Senate seat, in an article by Reid Wilson in Tuesday’s edition of The Hill.

First, count Scott McInnis out. The former congressman has flirted with a run for governor and was all but in the 2008 Senate race before dropping out in favor of another former congressman, Bob Schaffer, who went on to lose by double digits to Democrat Mark Udall. McInnis — who made waves a week before the election when he told the Colorado Independent he “would have beat Udall” — told The Denver Post’s Karen Crummy on Monday he wasn’t interested in the Senate race but was considering a run against Ritter. “You’ll know more of my interest at the appropriate time,” McInnis told the Post.

Both McInnis and Suthers lost to Bennet in hypothetical match-ups in a survey released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling (PPP), although the poll’s most salient conclusion was that Bennet is largely unknown to Colorado voters.

Former Rep. Tom Tancredo, another Republican often mentioned as a possible Senate candidate, lost to Bennet by an even wider margin in the PPP survey than the two who withdrew their names (after the poll was conducted). Tancredo, who staged an unsuccessful bid for the presidency on a platform concerned with immigration, told the Post he’s considering a run for the Senate or governor but “is also looking to anyone who is in a better position to do so.” The Hill points out his signature, anti-illegal immigration issue leads “many Republicans” to think better of a statewide Tancredo candidacy because Hispanic voters are the fastest growing bloc in Colorado.

Then there’s Bob Beauprez, who gave up a congressional seat to lose the 2006 governor’s race to Ritter in a blow-out. He has made noise recently about running for either senator or governor, though both prospects have draw much derision. Taking a measured tone, Beauprez strikes a wait-and-see posture. “The fair thing to do is to see what kind of a senator Michael Bennet is, at least,” told The Hill. “If he ends up being a low-tax, strong-national defense, pro-business kind of a senator, that would be one thing.”

Former state Senate Majority Leader and interim State Treasurer Mark Hillman — who, like Beauprez, lost a statewide race in 2006 — told The Hill he would “certainly give (the Senate race) some thought.” Hillman, a member of the Republican National Committee, said, “Colorado needs someone with deeper roots and more broad understanding of our state than Mr. Bennet,” but also added he would have to “resolve is whether it’s the right time personally for me and my family.”

The wild card could be Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, an African-American in his early 30s, who “would signal a dramatic generational shift from Beauprez, ex-Rep. Bob Schaffer and other statewide Republican candidates who have failed in recent bids for higher office,” The Hill notes. Although Frazier is touted by state party chairman Dick Wadhams as a rising star and possible Senate candidate, his lack of major fundraising experience “could be too high a bar” for a Senate race, The Hill says. Frazier’s sponsorship of a controversial right-to-work ballot measure last year makes him a polarizing figure for many. His early backing of a proposal to grant benefits to same-sex domestic partners of Aurora city employees guarantees deep schisms in a statewide Republican primary but also underlines Frazier’s potential indeed to present the dramatic shift some believe the state GOP needs.

As for the other names sometimes mentioned as Senate prospects — any of whom could take the pole position over the next year — radio talk show host Dan Caplis and former gubernatorial hopeful Marc Holtzman both merit mention by The Hill, although Holtzman has sounded recently as though he’d rather run for governor. Former U.S. Attorney Troy Eid, who left his position to mount a campaign for Suthers’ job earlier this month, told the Post he’d have to reconsider a Senate bid now that Suthers isn’t moving on. McInnis suggested the Post look out for state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, calling him an “excellent” candidate for statewide office, but Penry said he “wasn’t thinking about running for anything now.” Former Gov. Bill Owens — the only Republican to beat Bennet in the PPP survey — “has said repeatedly that he does not want to run again,” The Hill observes, leaving the field of potential challengers to wait and see. Polls don’t open for the 2010 election, after all, for another 21 months, four days, 22 hours, and counting.

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Ernest Luning

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