Jeb Bush stumps at state GOP rally; Gardner still the star

“This really smells like Colorado!” Ken Buck exclaimed upon taking the podium Wednesday night at the Douglas County Fairground event center in Castle Rock. Packed into a barnhouse lined with hay barrels and horse stables, the crowd roared in agreement.

The lineup was stacked — basically the entire Republican ticket was there (save Rep. Doug Lamborn from Colorado’s 5th Congressional District, who had a scheduling conflict). Jetting in from out of town was Jeb Bush — potential 2016 presidential candidate, former Florida governor and younger but brainier brother of former President George W. Bush — who came to show his support for the Colorado Republicans in close races.

State GOP chairman Ryan Call took to the stage first, quieting the barnhouse buzz before announcing with a grin, “Hey, I’ve got good news: We’re winning!” The crowd exploded with applause and cheers. That set the tone for the rest of the evening — it was like a high school pep rally before the big rivalry game.

Down-ticket candidates were first to speak, following Call’s introduction.

El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams, who’s running for secretary of state, kicked things off. He started in a positive tone, remarking on the palpable level of excitement in the barnhouse, before veering into more foreboding territory. “I had two elections in my county decided by a single vote,” he told the crowd, urging them to mark and turn in every last ballot. Williams also mentioned the possibility of voter fraud opened up by the new election-reform laws passed by the Democratic majority and signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2013. His closing remarks assured the crowd that as secretary of state, he would make election integrity his top priority. After leaving the stage, nervous murmuring accompanied the usual applause from the crowd. One woman whispered to her husband: “But what if they get away with fraud? How will we ever know?”

Cynthia Coffman, candidate for state attorney general who came on after Williams, started by acknowledging that no one in attendance needed convincing and had probably already voted (for her, no less). “These are the hardcore activists who are turning out the vote,” she said praisingly. Coffman took her role as cheerleader more literally than the rest, whipping out a hand-drawn sign to match her slogan of the stump speech — “Because it matters!” — which she got the crowd to yell along with her on cue. Some women in the audience were giddy with admiration when Coffman left the stage.

The down-ticket candidates also included state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who delivered a loud, emphatic rant full of run-on sentences and obscure statistics. Then, the congressional candidates took their turn at the mic.

Martin Walsh, who’s running against entrenched Denver Democrat Diana DeGette, had only to speak his opponent’s name to elicit a drawn-out “boooo!” from the crowd. Likewise, 2nd Congressional District candidate George Leing used the crowd’s enmity for his incumbent opponent to fire up the crowd. The defining the primary mission of his campaign — “to fire Jared Polis!” — was met with a guttural “Yeah! Come on!” from one particularly passionate audience member. Nancy Pelosi served as a foolproof bogey(wo)man for U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, whose claim that his opponent — Democrat Andrew Romanoff — was recruited by the House minority leader was met with audible vehemence from the crowd.

Sports metaphors abounded the whole evening, with one of the most elaborate coming from Walsh. He likened the Republicans to the Denver Broncos, who, like a football team inches from the end zone, have to barrel through the last line of Democratic defense in the last days before Tuesday. “Let’s go out and win!” he finished to raucous applause. Buck, remarking on the final stretch leading up to Nov. 4, also riffed on the sports theme: “As my football coach said back in the day: Leave it all on the field.” After the get-out-the-vote effort before Tuesday, “you shouldn’t have an ounce of energy left,” he said in the stern but motivational tone of a coach delivering a do-or-die pep talk.

Mike Coffman, from Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, got the loudest ovation of all the congressional candidates when he took the stage like a seasoned veteran. He opened by pointing out that his race in the 6th is being characterised by the punditry as one of tightest in the country. For Coffman and his agreeable fans in the audience, the difference between him and his opponent comes down to character. “I served in the Army and Marine Corps; Romanoff went to Harvard and Yale,” he said to guffaws from the crowd, “so who do you want to represent you?”

After Coffman came Jeb Bush, who self-identified his slot as “halftime” before the heavy hitters — Bob Beauprez and Cory Gardner — would clean up. The first half of Bush’s stump speech consisted of policy generalities: Obamacare is stifling job creation; Democratic energy policy increases dependency on foreign oil; big government squanders freedom. Immigration reform never once came up.

He paced across the stage as he spoke to the audience, periodically addressing the assembly of supporters on a set of bleachers that served as the speakers’ backdrop. (This assembly featured a diverse mix of races and ages, in contrast to the standing audience, which was predominantly — if not entirely — Caucasian and on the older side.) Segueing away from his narration about the bleak state of things, Bush was adamantly optimistic about the country’s prospects if Republicans take back the reins of government. “We need to look forward, not back,” he said, co-opting a characteristically Democratic line. “I hope you’ll do everything you can to get your friends, family members, neighbors and loved ones to the polls,” he said in closing, to moderate applause.

Bush’s only subtle nod toward a possible 2016 presidential bid came in the form of a jab at Hillary Clinton, the presumed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, for a comment she made at a rally with Sen. Elizabeth Warren last week. Clinton advised her audience not to “let them tell you that businesses create jobs,” Bush recounted incredulously, eliciting outrage from his audience. “Well, the problem in America today is that not enough jobs are being created, but they are created by business,” he responded. It was the faintest of stirrings in what might turn out to be a Clinton-vs.-Bush reprise down the road.

Though Bush was supposedly the star power of the evening, he was noticeably outshined by those he came to stump for. Gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez, with his wife in tow, worked the stage for a full minute — smiling, waving and pointing at the audience — before settling into his speech. Beauprez’s language was slightly more poetic than the other speakers, punctuated by pauses and imploring gazes as he paced along the front edge of the stage. The combined effect captivated his listeners. The content of his speech mostly centered on the role of government in people’s lives, which he says should be minimal. The human potential to create is stifled only by the imposition of laws, regulations and oversight, he said to nods and noises of approval issuing from the audience. It’s a governor’s job to govern the government, not the people, he said. To make that a reality, Beauprez said, now’s the time to “make Colorado a red state again!”

The clear crowd favorite of the evening was U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, the U.S. Senate candidate who walked out on stage beaming his signature boyish grin. Speaking generally about American virtues such as freedom and opportunity, Gardner built excitement with dramatic enunciation and deliberate cadence. Transitioning into get-out-the-vote mode, he playfully asked people in the audience to raise their hands if they had already cast their ballots. Everyone in the barnhouse raised their hands except for the reporters in the back, who kept their hands on their cameras. Gardner then asked people to raise their hands if they hadn’t voted. One brave soul raised his hand. “OK, it’s peer-pressure time,” Gardner said to laughs. Toward the end, he got more serious: “We’re running out of next elections. We have to get it this election. Six more days. Let’s get this done.”

After the rally disbanded, Gardner — not Bush — was the topic of most of the breathless conversations taking place. Many in the audience sported an oversize “Cory Gardner for Senate” button featuring an image of his face superimposed on a red, white and blue background. “He’s got it,” said Dirk Owens, 26, of Colorado Springs during the afterglow. “He’s so got it.” When asked whether he hopes Bush will run for president in 2016, Owens shrugged, saying it depends who else is running.

For state Democrats as of late, celebrity bumps have been the name of the game. Progressive heroine Elizabeth Warren has come to Colorado to plug for U.S. Sen. Mark Udall twice now, most recently at a rally at the University of Colorado at Boulder where her idolizing fans turned up en masse. Former Secretary of State and former first lady Hillary Clinton also lent her muscle to Colorado Democrats at a comparable event last week in Denver, the thrust of which centered on the candidates’ positions on women’s issues. Clinton has a kind of sway over voters that Bush — who has also made it known he’s considering a run, but in a field that lacks a clear consensus — just doesn’t. Current first lady Michelle Obama also made a stop in Colorado as part of her nationwide get-out-the-vote tour, urging people to get to the polls and get friends to the polls to vote for the Democratic ticket.

In these cases, the big-name pols dominated the spotlight, while the candidates — namely Udall and Hickenlooper — were the beneficiaries. But on the Republican side of things, Bush’s celebrity paled in comparison to that of the statewide candidates, especially Gardner. Republicans are excited and confident about Gardner’s prospects — and perhaps rightly so. Polling shows the race in a dead heat, but it seems Gardner has sparked a raw enthusiasm among supporters not paralleled by the we-just-need-to-hang-on attitude among Democrats. Bush or no Bush, Republicans are so amped that they very well may pull off the upset that flips the Senate.