Lucky Buck: Stephens’ struggle with GOP base not likely to ease

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]eld County District Attorney Ken Buck, who is running for U.S. Senate, likely thinks things are going according to plan. Not a vote has been cast yet, but he seems to be winning this year’s Republican primary contest the same way he won the U.S. Senate Republican primary contest in 2010.

That year he defeated Jane Norton, a former Lt Governor, who came out of the gate strong, with greater name recognition than he enjoyed and much deeper establishment ties. Buck leaned on the grassroots conservative voters, who that year were galvanized by the Tea Party movement. Despite steering farther right with every campaign stop, Norton couldn’t stop the race from running away from her. That summer, afraid of losing to Buck at the state-GOP’s intense delegate assembly, she bypassed it, choosing to petition onto the primary ballot, signaling that she had effectively given up on the activists. She argued she was the better general-election candidate, but she never got the chance to prove it.

A few months after defeating Norton in the primary, Buck lost the general election in a nail-biter to Democrat Michael Bennet. He’ll want to change that part of the story in his run this year against incumbent Mark Udall. But he knows he ran a strong primary campaign that he’d surely be happy to repeat.

The new Jane

This year, so far, state Representative Amy Stephens from Monument, one-time House majority leader, is Buck’s top opponent. State Republican Senators Owen Hill and Randy Baumgardner are also running, but few see little in their campaigns at this point to suggest they’ll last beyond the preliminary stages of the race.

Stephens has lined up endorsements from high-profile establishment figures such as former U.S. Senator Hank Brown, former Colorado First Lady Frances Owen and, unsurprisingly, Jane Norton. Stephens is pitching herself as a better general election candidate and she has already signaled that she will bypass the assembly, as Norton did.

“Petitioning on is strategically the best move,” Stephens told the Denver Post in November.

Candidates can “petition onto the ballot” by collecting a minimum number of signatures in congressional districts around the state. It means not having to win over hardcore delegates with hardline positions often stated in tones that seem radical and unattractive to the state’s key one-third non-Republican non-Democrat voter bloc.

“If you’re going to win a general election, you have to appeal to a wider audience, and that starts with the primary,” Stephens said.

It’s a risky but candid early admission that her name is tainted with the base, despite a long record of solid-right policy positions — tainted because Stephens in 2011 sponsored the bill that established the state’s “Obamacare” insurance exchanges.

“I felt, and still do feel, Colorado knows how to do health care better than the federal government,” she said. She was right. The state’s Colorado Connect for Health marketplace has run much better than the federal marketplace. But Obamacare has been made kryptonite for Republicans by the years-long nonstop conservative assault on it as an economy-wrecking socialist’s wicked spell. Obamacare is the worst of the worst for the far right, and the far right in Colorado branded the Colorado health marketplace “Amycare” almost from the moment it was proposed, forcing Stephens to battle back repeat attacks on her conservative credibility, which show no sign of diminishing.

Pinon Canyon blues

It’s in that context that, when Udall announced at the end of last year that he had helped negotiate the end to the rough eight-year battle around the U.S. Army’s proposal to expand its Pinon Canyon training site in southeastern Colorado, the Stephens campaign must have breathed a sigh of relief. Because, as far as conservative Colorado voters go, Stephens was on the wrong side of that litmus-test issue, too.

Ranchers have worked the wide brushland around Pinon Canyon for generations. And for nearly a decade, they watched with grave concern and growing anger as the Army sought to acquire enormous swaths of the area for its expansion plans. The ranchers had good reason to be wary.

The existing 240,000-acre maneuvering ground was seized by the Army in the 1980s through eminent domain from residents who refused to sell. It was a bitter pill to swallow at the time but it seemed only an early small dose of a larger toxic prescription when in the mid 2000s the Army floated a proposal to gobble up 7 million more acres and establish the largest training site in the country. The plan would have bought out or seized acreage from an estimated 17,000 landowners, according to government documents.

Locals turned to civilian officials and lawmakers for help and the politics of Pinon Canyon began to play in local, state and congressional elections. The government was overrunning property rights! To many in that conservative region of the state, it seemed a clear big-government abuse of power. But it’s also hard to find an officeholder in that part of Colorado who doesn’t put the interests of the military high on their priority list — in El Paso County in particular, home to large military bases, academies and contractors. Due largely to the fact that most of the officeholders in the region are Republicans, Pinon Canyon became a fault-line GOP issue.

State legislators introduced bills aimed at prohibiting the Army from using eminent domain to condemn and seize land around the site. In 2009, a bill to prevent the state from even leasing land in the area split Republicans at the capitol. Stephens, an El Paso Republican, was one of only 17 members of the House to vote against the bill. She wasn’t running for statewide office then, but former Congressman Scott McInnis was, and he joined Stephens in siding with the Army, touting the proposed expansion as a job creator.

McInnis was running for governor and Pinon Canyon became a top subject of debate in the Republican primary. Then-state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry backed the landowners, defending property rights. Penry traveled to the area on several occasions, rallying support and decrying McInnis for abandoning Colorado property owners. Exchanges turned acidic. Republicans who opposed the expansion said they would not only not vote for McInnis but also actively campaign against him if he won the nomination. The Pueblo Chieftain reported that political insiders were saying they didn’t think McInnis could ever “mend fences” with southeast Colorado Republican voters.

“I think he’s pandering to El Paso County because there’s a lot of votes that he’ll get there. There’s lots more votes there than there are in the rural area,” said Rep. Ken Kester, one of the sponsors of the bill to prevent land leasing.

“There’s a lot of counties down here that oppose the expansion,” he said. “I don’t know how [McInnis] would patch that up. I question whether it could be done. They’re pretty adamant about their feelings.”

Udall’s November announcement, made with Army Secretary Katherine Hammack, that the Army wouldn’t seek to expand its Pinon Canyon footprint and would “withdraw its request for the land acquisition waiver that had been a longstanding concern for area residents,” as the release put it, was applauded by voters across the state and by Republican and Democratic politicians.

The Buck and Stephens campaigns were reluctant to weigh in on the matter for this story. Pinon Canyon, after all, is a win for Udall. Staffers generally explained that the issue had been resolved. But the fallout of the political battle over the proposed expansion on the Republican side is sure to persist on some level as a major past policy issue on which to assess candidates for office.

Her stand on Pinon Canyon won’t help Stephens gain any ground with the base.

[ Image by Bradley Gordon. ]


  1. […] Lucky Buck: Stephens' struggle with GOP base not likely to ease Stephens has lined up endorsements from high-profile establishment figures such as former U.S. Senator Hank Brown, former Colorado First Lady Frances Owen and, unsurprisingly, Jane Norton. Stephens is pitching herself as a better … It's a risky but … Read more on The Colorado Independent […]

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