Colorado Senate Majority Leader Josh Penry is now campaign manager for GOP U.S. Senate candidate Jane Norton. He replaces Norm Cummings, the campaign announced today. The move reported by the Denver Post “The Spot” blog Wednesday afternoon is both startling and unsurprising. (*Update: Penry talked to the Colorado Independent about the announcement here.)
There are three weeks left in what has been a heated and historic legislative session. Lawmakers are fighting local battles over issues that are echoing in state houses around the country and in Washington– issues such as health insurance and payday loan regulation, extending lines of credit to small businesses to create jobs during the recession and getting a hold of the runaway medical marijuana industry. They are also battling through an historic budget crisis, slashing programs, ending tax credits for businesses and now even considering lifting revered Taxpayer Bill of Rights restrictions on education funding. It’s surprising that the Senate Minority Leader would shift focus to Norton’s campaign politics as the legislative session comes racing toward its end.
Norton, however, the one-time frontrunner on the Republican side in the hotly contested race, clearly needed to shake things up in a way that would shore up grassroots voters. She lost the caucus strawpoll voting in March to Tea Party favorite Ken Buck and then, back on her heels, announced she would skip the GOP state convention in May, a decision that brought condemnation from state conservative voters and convention delegates as well as from state Republican Party leaders.
Buck, meantime, has won endorsements from hard-line conservative issue groups, which have forked out hundreds of thousands in advertising for him. Last week came news that South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a leading national voice for Republican voters unhappy with the status quo, endorsed Buck. He joined Eric Erickson of the national grassroots RedState blog, the two men intent to support Buck through their Conservative Senate Fund. The once tremendous gap in fundraising Norton enjoyed over Buck now seems threatened.
Penry is a popular figure among conservative grassroots voters here and he seems at very least to be disaffected with the state senate. He ran for governor last year before stepping aside in November for six-term Congressman Scott McInnis, for whom Penry worked for years as a staffer. Penry has been touring the state on and off with McInnis ever since and also waging what sometimes seems a campaign for McInnis from the senate floor, taking stabs at McInnis rivals Gov. Bill Ritter, then Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, when his name was floated as a possible Democratic candidate for governor, and now Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who announced his candidacy in January.
Progressive online activist organization ProgressNow, which has blasted Norton since she entered the race for her close ties to big money corporate lobbyists, critiqued the staff shakeup as desperate but thought the two made a good match.
“Jane Norton has hit the panic button. Her campaign is hemorrhaging grassroots support even though she’s raising a lot of money from her lobbyist connections and she thinks Josh Penry can repair the damage. But Penry isn’t going to help – his close relationship with industry groups like the oil companies shines even more of a light on Norton’s lobbyist ties.”
Penry has been a longtime ardent opponent of environmentally friendly regulations on the oil and gas industry in the state. He blasted the regulations put in place last year by Ritter as “job killers,” a claim many analysts view skeptically, pointing to the natural boom-and-bust cycle of the industry generally and low gas prices in particular.
Penry told the Post that he didn’t plan to resign from the Senate. He’ll be working both jobs. It’s not clear exactly what his credentials are to run a U.S. Senate campaign.