What’s in a name?
When it’s an endorsement in the Colorado GOP gubernatorial primary, it’s a direct line to some voters.
In a race with seven Republican candidates vying to challenge Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, stances on issues don’t provide much help distinguishing between candidates. So endorsements matter.
“When you’re talking about a primary, most voters don’t have a ton of information about the candidates. The party label is meaningless. They’re looking for some kind of clues as to what this person stands for and how this person will behave in office,” said University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket.
The entry of 2006 GOP gubernatorial nominee Bob Beauprez into the already crowded race changed the playing field. Some Republican heavy hitters – see specifics below — switched their loyalties from Secretary of State Scott Gessler to Beauprez.
Now, Gessler is portraying Beauprez as the “establishment” candidate. There’s some irony in that, since Gessler is the only gubernatorial contender who has won a statewide election.
GOP political consultant Katy Atkinson agrees that endorsements matter more in primaries than in general elections.
“It kind of legitimizes your candidacy,” she said. “When you’ve got this many people running, you don’t have to take a big slice of the pie to win a primary.”
In fact, the ultimate winner for the Republican nomination could end up with less than 30 percent of the vote in the June 24 primary, she said. Appealing to more conservative voters is a key strategy, Atkinson said, because they are more likely to vote in primaries than more moderate Republicans.
An emphasis on conservative values during the primary season could pose a problem in the general election race between June and Election Day on Nov. 4. Masket pointed to the 2010 nominations of Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck for U.S. Senate and virtually unknown businessman Dan Maes for governor. Both had backing from conservative tea party groups and defeated “establishment” Republicans in the primary.
“You had people who wouldn’t normally win a primary, but because of the unusual dynamics of the tea party, they pulled it off,” Masket said. “That probably cost the party those seats.”
Here’s a look at some of the endorsers backing different Republican gubernatorial candidates:
Bob Beauprez: Former congressional candidates Pete Coors and Bob Greenlee donated to Gessler last year. But they’re now on the Beauprez team, along with former GOP Gov. Bill Owens, former Colorado Attorney General and U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton and former U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard. These names do, in fact, say “establishment.”
Greg Brophy: The big names here are two powerful gun groups — Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and Gun Rights Across America. More conservative than the National Rifle Association, those groups authenticate the bike-riding state senator’s gun-toting creds among the conservative base.
Scott Gessler: Former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer is Gessler’s biggest name backer. But Gessler’s endorsement list is long, with a variety of current and former state lawmakers and county commissioners. Those lower-tier names may show a level of grassroots support not shared by some of of Gessler’s primary opponents.
Steve House: The former Adams County GOP chairman doesn’t list any endorsements on his site.
Mike Kopp: Former GOP U.S. Sens. Hank Brown and Bill Armstrong endorsed Kopp, as did Beauprez’s 2006 running mate Janet Rowland and former Lt. Gov. (and Buck’s 2010 Senate opponent) Jane Norton. Those are weighty endorsements for Republicans following the party’s old-school leadership. Still, the former state senator is not often mentioned in the top tier of candidates.
Roni Bell Sylvester: Another latecomer to the race, with no history as a candidate, Sylvester’s site doesn’t list any endorsements.
Tom Tancredo: The runner-up to Hickenlooper in 2010 (running for the American Constitution Party) doesn’t list endorsements on his site. Instead, he has boasted backing (along with a gun giveaway) from rock star Ted Nugent and Arizona’s anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Their backing will help among certain voters on the far right-fringe of the party. But they could backfire among Republicans uncomfortable with Tancredo’s firebrand style of politics.
Not all these candidates will make the June 24 primary ballot.
Beauprez, House, Sylvester and Tancredo are gathering signatures to meet the March 31 deadline to petition on to the ballot. Party members’ votes at the April 12 state assembly in Boulder will determine whether Gessler, Brophy and Kopp make the ballot.
Once the primary lineup is set, look for more endorsement realignment as candidates try to define themselves on GOP wedge issues to distinguish themselves to primary voters.
[ Image from left: Mike Kopp, Tom Tancredo, Bob Beauprez, Scott Gessler, Greg Brophy ]