Littwin: A GOP primary election doomed to end on the rocks

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HIS is the day on which Republicans should be nominating someone in the race for governor who could reasonably challenge incumbent John Hickenlooper.

But, of course, they won’t. Because there’s no one in the four-way field who can.

Here are the possible scenarios for the Republican nominee: It could be a disaster (Tom Tancredo) or a snooze (Bob Beauprez) or possibly a long shot’s long shot (Scott Gessler) or maybe (nah, it can’t be him).

You see a winner there?

And what’s remarkable is that we say this with such confidence so soon after Hickenlooper’s Aspen gaffe-fest, which just shows how vulnerable Hickenlooper could be — but isn’t. That’s because the real political story of the gaffe-fest is less about Hickenlooper’s misstep than it is about the inability of the weak Republican field to exploit it.

[pullquote]A statewide Republican primary demands a candidate who veers hard to the right. But to win in Colorado, you have run somewhere near the middle. There are four Republican candidates in the race and not one of them is a moderate.[/pullquote]

The Aspen story is shocking and, at the same time, not shocking at all. It’s shocking that Hickenlooper could get himself in such trouble on an issue that seemed to be slipping from the collective consciousness. What’s not shocking is the fact of Hick’s unforced error. We’ve seen it before.

He met with county sheriffs in order to talk about/apologize for last year’s controversial gun legislation that nearly all the sheriffs opposed. Why was he doing this? Why now? Because he’s Hickenlooper, and he can’t stand the fact that some people, like the sheriffs, don’t actually like him.

So, he meets with the sheriffs and apologizes with a non-apology about the 15-round magazine limit in one of the great pander performances of all time. And we know this only because someone secretly recorded it. This was to the apparent surprise of Hickenlooper, who must not have realized it is 2014 and that everything is recorded.

In the process of not knowing he was being recorded, Hickenlooper throws his legislation, Democratic legislators and a key staffer under a parade of buses and then has to explain he was just being “candid,” when, in fact, that may not be the best word for it.

Was the bill worth signing or wasn’t it? In his apology to the sheriffs, Hickenlooper said, “If we had known it was going to divide the state so intensely, I think we probably would have thought about it twice.”

In his explanation for the apology (an apology apology?), he told Eli Stokols that he would definitely sign the bill again.

Confused? Who wouldn’t be?

In his apology apology, Hickenlooper told Stokols of his talk with the sheriffs: “I was under no illusion they would change their minds. They asked me questions, and I tried to give them honest, unscripted, candid answers. I was me.”

Hick was Hick. That’s the part that isn’t shocking. Hick being Hick is both his greatest strength and greatest weakness. It’s what makes him such an interesting character. It gives him room to make mistakes and also to overcome them. It’s Hick being Hick that, in large part, keeps him winning.

And which Republican candidate can overcome that? I don’t know who’s going to win tonight. I think Gessler might do a little better than people think, if simply because Republicans can’t really want Tancredo or Beauprez again. If Gessler does well, that’s bad news for Beauprez, who is now seen as slightly ahead, and good news for Tancredo, who’s seen as slightly behind. Beauprez is the party establishment choice. And it’s not because GOP leaders think he can beat Hickenlooper. It’s because they’re scared that Tancredo is so toxic with Latino voters that he would hurt Cory Gardner in his run against Mark Udall.

Did I mention Mike Kopp? OK, I didn’t. He’s for freedom. That’s his campaign. He’s for freedom and for riding a bike.

That this is such a weak field has little to do with Hickenlooper. Last year, after the gun legislation, after the recalls, all the talk was about how Hickenlooper looked vulnerable and that someone would go after him. The problem was, there wasn’t anyone to do it. And after the quiet legislative session, Hickenlooper’s numbers rose and suddenly he didn’t look all that vulnerable. And the biggest Republican concern wasn’t about Hick, but about Tancredo, who has fed on party weakness.

It has been noted, repeatedly, that Democrats have won every top-of-the-ballot election in Colorado for the last 10 years. You can put it down to demographics or to social issues or to political mood swings. But the strangest thing, especially in a purple state, is that during these wilderness years the Republicans have been unable to build any kind of bench for statewide elections. There’s Cory Gardner and that’s it.

There’s a reason for this, of course. A statewide Republican primary demands a candidate who veers hard to the right. Ask Jane Norton. But to win in Colorado, you have be somewhere near the middle. Ask anyone who voted against Maes/Tancredo/Buck/Coors/Beauprez/Schaffer.

Even with four candidates, there is no Republican moderate in this race. The closest thing is the hyper-partisan Gessler. There’s little space between the candidates on the issues. The big issue, in fact, is who can win. And yet Republicans will likely choose between 15-point-loser Tancredo (who’s running for governor on the promise of fighting the feds) and 17-point-loser Beauprez (who’s running on the promise of doing better than he did last time).

And here’s the best guess: Whoever wins, it won’t be Hickenlooper who has to apologize for the result.

[ Image of the shipwrecked USS Booth by Greg Bishop. ]