LAKEWOOD – Jefferson County Republicans set the stage Saturday for two potentially divisive state Senate primaries.
Disagreements over which candidates are the strongest supporters of gun rights, “liberty” and the pro-life movement simmered just beneath the surface during an afternoon of speeches and voting.
Democrats have an 18-17 majority in the state Senate, and Republicans hope to take it back. The JeffCo seats, currently held by Democrats, could be key to that effort.
“This is bigger than any one individual candidate this year,” former state Sen. Tim Neville, running in Senate District 16, told the assembly of almost 1,000 delegates. “Jefferson County is where it’s going to be decided, what this state’s going to look like. We can flip the state Senate this year.”
Neville’s multi-county district will set the primary lineup next month.
But Saturday, Lang Sias and Laura Woods faced off in Senate District 19 for an opportunity to face appointed Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenziner, while Mario Nicolais and Tony Sanchez competed in Senate District 22 where one of them will face incumbent Sen. Andy Kerr.
Sias, a former fighter pilot, took direct aim at Woods and her supporters, who include Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a conservative gun rights group. Sais lost to Sen. Evie Hudak by fewer than 600 votes in 2012.
But after the Democratic-controlled legislature passed several gun control laws in 2013, including tougher background checks and a limit on magazine size, two Democratic senators were recalled in September. Woods was active in those recall efforts, and was helping pursue a recall of Hudak when Hudak decided to resign instead.
“My opposition thinks I should be disqualified because I didn’t participate in the Hudak recall,” Sias said. “I did not feel it was right for the to stand up and ask for a do-over.”
Sias also noted that some of Woods’ backers are portraying him as weak on gun rights, when in the past he has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association.
“I say, shame on you and keep your divisive politics out of Jefferson County,” Sias said to applause.
“I am your candidate to defeat the Democrats because I have been battle tested and proven,” Sias said. “2013 was the first year my opponent had joined our cause. I respect her, but where was she in 2012 and before?”
Woods, a small-business owner, referred to Sias more subtly.
“I am not a professional politician, but I am a citizen activist who is fed up with the leadership we have had,” Woods said. “I have been a Republican for as long as I can remember, and I am a liberty-minded patriot.”
Both candidates will appear on the June 24 primary ballot, with Woods receiving almost 53 percent of the assembly vote and Sais almost 47 percent.
Nicolais demonstrated his conservative credentials to the District 22 assembly by waving two cards in the air.
“I’m not anti-gun. I would protect the Second Amendment,” he said. “This is my lifetime NRA member card. This is my concealed carry card.
“I will stand up for the Second Amendment without compromise.”
Sanchez talked about appealing to women, Hispanics and young people as a conservative.
“I was the first candidate in the race to sign the (Colorado Union of Taxpayers) tax pledge,” he said. “I’m not afraid to say I’m pro-life.”
Sanchez won about 60 percent of the vote to Nicolais’ 40 percent.
Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, the Colorado Christian Coalition and the Colorado Campaign for Life distributed literature supporting Sanchez, Woods and Neville.
Asked about his primary match-up, Sias replied, “What does any primary in which Rocky Mountain Gun Owners is involved look like and how well do their candidates generally do in competitive races?”
That group has been criticized in the past for supporting candidates who are too conservative to win in competitive seats.
The assembly also heard from a variety of statewide candidates, voted on platform resolutions, and nominated county candidates for the primary.
All counties must hold Democratic and Republican assemblies by the end of the month. The two parties will hold their state conventions on April 12, nominating candidates for U.S. Senate, governor and other statewide offices.