Colorado GOP primaries: Divisive or unifying?

BOULDER — Republicans are set for a relatively long primary ballot on June 24 and the potential for accompanying nasty infighting such GOP races are known for.

A four-way gubernatorial primary is likely, with at least a three-way primary in the 4th Congressional District and challenges to two congressional incumbents.

Then there are up to a dozen Republican legislative primaries, compared with only a handful for Democrats.

Republican leaders and laypeople at Saturday’s GOP assembly differed on whether so many competitive primaries are a good thing.

Tom Tancredo, who’s already petitioned his way onto the gubernatorial ballot, was grinning as he left Coors Events Center a couple of hours before results were announced.

“I feel great,” he said. “It’s especially good for me. I’ve got a base that stays strong. The rest of these folks have to split up the rest.”

The assembly placed former Senate minority leader Mike Kopp and Secretary of State Scott Gessler on the ballot. Bob Beauprez, the 2006 candidate who lost to Gov. Bill Ritter, is expected to have enough of his 21,000 signatures validated to make the race as well. A four-way race means one candidate needs just more than 25 percent to win.

“It’s not optimal,” said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, on Saturday morning. “The last few times it’s been a circular firing squad. ”

Four years ago, political novice Dan Maes took the most votes at the GOP assembly and narrowly won the primary after a plagiarism scandal – and Democratic-funded ads about it – damaged his opponent, former Congressman Scott McInnis. Tancredo got on the ballot in that race representing the American Constitution Party and placed a distant second to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who awaits the results of the primary.

Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call put a positive spin on the gubernatorial and congressional contests, saying they show that the party is open to letting its members make choices through the grassroots assembly process.

“This is a great exercise in ensuring that ultimately the choice of who our candidate for governor is is made by all of our Republican voters,” Call said. “That’s the reason why we have multiple routes to the primary ballot.”

The icing on the cake for Republicans is that Rep. Cory Gardner won’t face a primary race in his effort to defeat the incumbent U.S. senator, Democrat Mark Udall.

“It shows that Republicans are more united than I have seen them in many years, especially on the races that are going to drive this election cycle,” Call said.

While Republicans are uniting behind Gardner, there are clearly some divisions among the base that became apparent when challengers successfully made the ballot against incumbent Reps. Doug Lamborn in the 5th CD and Scott Tipton in the 3rd.

Both districts are relatively solid for Republicans, but spending money on fighting off a primary opponent could be costly for Lamborn and Tipton.

The 4th CD seat Gardner is leaving to run for Senate is solid for the GOP, too. But Friday morning, candidates appeared to be moving as far to the right as possible on issues such as personhood and guns.

Four years ago, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck was seen as a tea party insurgent in his successful primary for U.S. Senate. Now running for Gardner’s seat, he’s being painted by opponents state Sen. Scott Renfroe and Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer as virtually an establishment candidate.

“They have swapped now, and the tea party has become the establishment,” said state Rep. Frank McNulty, a former House speaker who was mentioned as a possible candidate in the 4th. “If it’s a fair race and it doesn’t get dirty … the candidates get better and they get sharper.”

But don’t count on a lack of dirt.

“Primaries get ugly and sometimes the residuals hurt us,” said Jen Raiffie, an Adams County delegate. “There are a lot of us who are unhappy and we need to fight for our principles.”

Does Tancredo think the governor’s race will get nasty?

“I absolutely do,” he said, adding he expects to be attacked for his support of marijuana legalization two years ago.

Call said he hopes the gubernatorial candidates will focus on the goal of winning on Nov. 4.

“I have every confidence that the candidates who are running for governor understand that the objective is not to win the primary, the objective is to preserve our ability to come together as a party and win the general,” Call said.

And he expressed confidence that the party would reunite after June 24.

“Anger and frustration might motivate but is generally not sufficient to carry the day.”

While candidates emphasized their conservative credentials aplenty Friday and Saturday, one divisive issue – marriage equality – wasn’t mentioned on Saturday’s big stage.

“We’re excited about that,” said Michael Carr, of the party’s Log Cabin Republicans, which advocates for equal rights for gays and lesbians in the party. “Most of the candidates know that the Republican voter base is becoming more diverse.”