DENVER — In his broad steady smile polished with camera light and in a rolling victory speech prepared on and off for years, former Congressman Bob Beauprez on Tuesday night captured the feeling in the room at the Denver Athletic Club packed with Colorado’s Republican elite. He looked and sounded like relief and redemption.
He and the state party had made a great leap forward together.
“This has been a team effort… We are unified,” he said referring to his opponents, everyone in the room and primary voters across the state. “We’re Republicans.”
Beauprez looks like an elder statesman now, but just eight years ago, he was the rising star humiliated in a stunning 17-point loss in a race for governor against low-key District Attorney Bill Ritter. By all accounts, Beauprez ran a hapless campaign that saw him flying back and forth from Washington where he was still serving as a member of Congress. State memory of his message that year rests mostly in an image from a television ad in which he lingered leaning on a pitchfork at the wrong end of a horse.
But this year, the party establishment turned to him, in effect, to rescue Colorado Republicans from former GOP Congressman Tom Tancredo, a divisive hardline figure known for his single-minded and to many offensive decades-long campaign against illegal immigration. Beauprez has done that. His opponents told primary voters not to support him because he was a loser. They all lost to him on Tuesday.
No sealed deal
It was no sealed deal. Right before the polls closed at 7 p.m., few could have called the race. Tancredo was running ahead in the polls up until last week.
And the party, this year as in years past, remains fractious. The far-right wing steered by Rocky Mountain Gun Owner Executive Director Dudley Brown left its stamp on the primaries Tuesday by winning two key state Senate races in Jefferson County, districts 19 and 22. Moderate candidates Mario Nicolais and Lang Sias lost to RMGO-backed tea party candidates Tony Sanchez and Laura Woods. Those wins are a victory for conservative activists but they may end in a loss for conservative policymaking. Democrats now own both seats and control the chamber by only one vote. Suburban Jefferson County unaffiliated voters likely would have been more easily won over by moderates like Nicolais and Sias than by hardline social conservatives and gun-rights activists like Sanchez and Woods.
Still, the Republican-insider-orchestrated deals criticized as undemocratic when they were reported in February have succeeded at shaping the top of the party ticket. The party brass picked the candidates it wanted to win at the top of the ticket and, this time, primary voters played along: Beauprez, in his finely cut pin-striped suit and perfect necktie, has won the party nomination for governor; Weld County D.A. Ken Buck, a proven team player who has paid his dues, won the primary for the conservative fourth congressional district; and up-and-comer party favorite incumbent fourth district Congressman Cory Gardner, who surrendered his seat to Buck, is now the nominee for a U.S. Senate seat.
All of that is a major strategic advance. Last midterm election, at this stage, the state Republican party was swimming in a morass of division and plagued with amateur campaigns.
Political novice Dan Maes rode the crest of the tea party wave to defeat former Republican Congressman Scott McInnis and win the party’s nomination for governor. Ken Buck, a rough-edged novice statewide politician that year, defeated K-Street favorite former Lt. Governor Jane Norton in the U.S. Senate primary.
Energized tea partiers cheered. Shell-shocked establishment figures groaned.
Buck went on to lose the Senate seat in a nail-biter to first-time candidate Michael Bennet after a series of primetime missteps. Buck couldn’t persuasively explain why he had decided against prosecuting a rape case while dismissing the victim’s accusations as mere “buyer’s remorse.” He embraced Oklahoma U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe’s “climate-change as hoax” theory, even though Colorado is the center of the western renewable-energy industry and an international hub of climate research. And in an appearance on Meet the Press in the final stretch of the campaign, he compared homosexuality to alcoholism.
The Maes candidacy fared even worse. Soon after the primary, it unraveled in comic conspiracy-theory gaffes and revelations of resume padding, prodding Tancredo to make a mockery of the party machinery by announcing he would run on the American Constitution Party ticket as the true conservative in the race. In the three-way contest for governor that followed, and with the vote split on the right, popular Democratic Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper sailed into office with a 14-point lead and a smile.
As this year’s midterm campaign season got underway in earnest in the fall, Republican power brokers feared a repeat. “Clown cars” — as political operatives around the capitol referred to them — filled with second-tier candidates lined up to run for the two top open seats. No clear leader emerged at the front of either the U.S. Senate race against Mark Udall or the governor’s race against Hickenlooper.
“Not this time,” said Monument Republican state Representative Amy Stephens, shaking her head, after Beauprez’s victory was announced Tuesday night.
Stephens was one of the candidates running for U.S. Senate this spring before Gardner called to ask her to exit the race to make way for him to enter it. She did, referring to Gardner in an op-ed for the Colorado Springs Gazette as a “great unifier,” the party’s “beloved son” and “the candidate who can take on Mark Udall and make this happen.”
“We’ve all been watching this [governor’s primary] unfold for months,” she told the Independent. “The public tuned in late, but when they did, they said ‘no way’ [to Tancredo]. They paid attention and they decided to throw their votes to Beauprez.”
By most accounts, Tancredo’s name at the top of the ticket would have been a disaster for the party, setting this year’s Republican candidates back by association and signaling for years to come that the party was hopelessly out of step with the mainstream. The state’s 20 percent Latino population likely would have voted in even greater majorities for Democrats than they have in recent elections. In 2010, 81 percent of Latinos voted for Michael Bennet over Ken Buck, and Buck that year out-polled Tancredo among Latino voters.
The party got what it wanted. Its top two candidates have experience and name recognition and money.
Beauprez is in a fortunate position.
Hick has always been popular, a naturally likable politician. That has always been a rare thing and is now almost unheard of. In the age of prepackaged public figures who seem to want nothing more than to only recite poll-tested talking points to friendly audiences, Hickenlooper’s popularity has long been based on what appears to be a genuinely thoughtful unscripted relationship with the public.
This year, however, those qualities have at times appeared as much a weakness as a strength. His poll ratings dropped after the fraught 2013 legislative session, where he seemed a reticent and soft leader as ugly battles over modest gun-control laws made national headlines and clogged the legislative works with partisan rancor. Months later he seemed to take a controversial but principled stand against capital punishment by granting murderer Nathan Dunlap a temporary reprieve — but he was ridiculed on the right for not signing off on the jury’s death sentence and on the left for not doing making a stronger stand and suspending or ending capital punishment in the state. This month, Hickenlooper tried to mend fences with state sheriffs angry with the gun laws only to be criticized for waffling on the laws and appearing to backpedal on his support for them. And he is struggling mightily this summer to wring support for a compromise bill that would grant greater regulatory control to local authorities over oil and gas drilling. It’s a bill that by design is sure to satisfy almost no one and just as sure to enrage many, again, on the left and the right.
Steep climb ahead
But the Beauprez campaign has a steep road to climb in the short weeks before November. The odds are with Hickenlooper. He has always been a good campaigner. He is a prodigious fundraiser with more than a million-and-half dollars to spend already. And he is an incumbent. No incumbent governor of has lost in the state in decades.
What’s more, Beauprez will have to run hard to the middle beginning today, and there will be teams of opposition campaign people working to trip him up every step of the way. They will have no shortage of material to work with.
In his years out of office, Beauprez has left a trail of the kind of red-meat punditry that has characterized the right in the tea party era. Taken out of the conservative-media silo, where religious programs and talk radio dominate, and placed before general election voters, Beauprez’s positions will appear as flapping flags of the wing-nut fringe.
Does he really believe as he has written and as he has told interviewers — all available online — that the Obama administration has been infiltrated by Islamists? That sharia law is “creeping in” here in Colorado? That climate change is a hoax? There is much more along those lines that he will have to explain to Colorado’s one-third unaffiliated moderate voting bloc– the bloc that in the end decides all statewide elections in the Centennial State.