State GOP candidates warm-up Fort Collins faithful for 2010

State Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Yuma). (Photo/Bob Spencer, The Colorado Independent).
State Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Yuma). (Photo/Bob Spencer, The Colorado Independent).
Republican leaders addressing the crowd at Friday night’s second-annual Larimer County GOP shrimp-boil fundraiser and straw poll event in Fort Collins steered clear of social issues like abortion and gay marriage that have featured prominently in Larimer County politics of the past. They focused instead on calls to rein in government spending and pass more pro-business legislation.

That message, peppered throughout with references to Ronald Reagan and aimed chiefly against the Obama administration, suggested the steep challenge these candidates face in winning office in 2010.

After eight years of Bush administration deficit spending, however, and in light of the relative fiscally conservative approach taken by local Democrats like U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey of the 4th Congressional District, the old Reagan battle lines might not deliver the same punch as they once did, especially beyond the shrimp-boil faithful among the increasing number of swing voters in the state, including young people who never lived through the Reagan years and feel no nostalgia for them.

“The country is on the verge of spending itself out of existence,” said an animated state Rep. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Yuma running against Markey. As the sky drizzled over the shrimp boil hosts’ well-manicured backyard in the tony Warren Lake neighborhood, Gardner railed against taxes and fees as the “enemy of liberty and freedom.” He said he had “sold tractors [his] whole life” and urged the crowd to avoid sending any more “fat cats and bureaucrats” to Washington.

Gardner was unabashedly channeling Reagan and he was stretching. For all of his adult life Gardner has been a lawyer and a legislator. He owns and runs no businesses. His family sells the tractors.

Likewise, Tom Lucero, who is also running against Markey, has pinned his candidacy on the message that he would advance business interests by leaning on the hard-won knowledge he has gained in “creating more than 50 jobs” and having to “meet payroll each week.” By 2010, however, long-time restaurateur Lucero will also have held elected office as a University of Colorado regent for 12 years — making campaign trail digs that he’s a career politician a hard critique to shake.

Notably, when not talking about themselves, Gardner and Lucero stayed abstract. They talked about the country and freedom. Neither man mentioned Markey. Neither man made any reference to her voting record.

As voters know, Markey enjoys solid business credentials. She founded the communications tech company SysCom in the 1980s and in the mid-1990s bought the popular, local Huckleberry’s cafe. In a political teflon-coating vote in this conservative district, Markey did not support Obama’s landmark budget, saying at the time that she was “elected to bring fiscal responsibility back to Washington” and that she believed “Congress must be more aggressive in cutting the deficit.”

Short-hand monikers, therefore, like “fat cat” or “big government tax-and-spend liberal” may be hard to pin on the Fort Collins Democrat.

The Ken Buck brand

Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck is taking a different tack in his run against what he called the state’s “accidental senator” Democrat Michael Bennet, who was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter to fill the seat of Ken Salazar, who was tapped for Interior secretary by the Obama White House.

Buck didn’t dwell on fiscal policy Friday night and he didn’t hit on social issues. He hit an emotional chord with the crowd by stressing immigration enforcement and gun rights.

“We’re going to win this city and we’re going to win Northern Colorado. The folks in this state are fed up,” he said. “… We have to secure the border and prevent illegal immigrants from coming up here and taking our identities and our jobs.”

Buck made a media splash recently for winning a groundbreaking hate-crimes conviction but also for seizing thousands of confidential records from an income tax office in Greeley in a search for illegal immigrants. The seizure was later declared unconstitutional, a ruling Buck has challenged. His actions in the immigration case have been wildly popular with conservatives but have also been deeply divisive in the heavily Latino Northern Colorado town, which was also the site of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in 2006 that saw hundreds of workers rounded up for deportation.

“You’re fed up with infringements on individual liberties,” he said later. “I want to say it clear: Obama can take my gun out of my cold dead hand,” in an homage to the defiant statement by former NRA chairman Charlton Heston.

But Buck’s political brand — the independent-minded law-and-order immigration warrior — will be challenged in the next year and a half. Even an opponent as untested as Bennet will likely run repeated fact-check campaigns against Buck’s statements on disappearing gun rights and point out the fact at each campaign stop that Obama-era Coloradans own as many guns as they have ever owned and as many as they want to own.

Strident immigration enforcement rhetoric like Buck’s is also under attack — from Colorado Latinos and the left, of course, but also from the right. Influential local conservatives like Archbishop Charles Chaput are already speaking out for immigration policy reform. Speaking at an immigration forum with liberal U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of the 2nd Congressional District this week, Chaput said:

The Catholic commitment to the dignity of the immigrant comes from exactly the same roots as our commitment to the dignity of the unborn child…

Despite all of the heated public argument over the past few years, Americans still find themselves stuck with an immigration system that adequately serves no one. We urgently need the kind of reform that will address our economic and security needs, but will also regularize the status of the many decent undocumented immigrants who help our society to grow.

The Buck campaign will find Chaput difficult to dismiss. Through years of outspoken pro-life advocacy and by essentially campaigning against Obama last year — calling him the most pro-abortion presidential candidate in history — Chaput has more than established his conservative credentials across the state.