DENVER — Eager to understand what sets candidates apart in the crowded field of GOP contenders vying to unseat U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet this year?
We know the feeling. But, as the candidates signaled last night, it looks like we’ll have to wait.
Seven of the 13 Republicans seeking that party’s Senate nomination gathered for their first forum in that race. Yet, when it came to what differentiates each from the others on Thursday night’s stage at the University of Denver, it was tough to tell.
At this point in the race, it’s really a game of first impressions and get-to-know-ya. The candidates, many of whom are obscure, are introducing themselves to the electorate rather than drawing sharp contrasts.
After their cursory “Hi-my-name-is X-and-I’m-a-Y-from-Z,” most in the pack took aim at Bennet, casting Colorado’s Senior Senator and the former chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as an Obama drone and partisan extremist who has made America unsafe in a dangerous world. Indeed, hammering Bennet was the M.O. of the evening – a way to toss red meat into the crowd in hopes that the Republican DU students and local activists in attendance would remember a morsel or two about who each was and why he or she would be the party’s best pick to eject Bennet from office.
The issues were general, Obama-era GOP standbys: Scrapping the Affordable Care Act, defending the Second Amendment, defeating terrorists, killing Common Core, cutting taxes and denouncing abortion rights.
On a stage before a packed crowd of students and older folks were Colorado Springs businessman Robert Blaha, computer programmer Charlie Ehler, former Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, El Paso County commissioners Darryl Glenn and Peg Littleton, former state Rep. Jon Keyser and current state Sen. Tim Neville.
At one point during the forum, Frazier jokingly thanked the moderator for putting “the two black guys with bald heads” next to each other. He was seated beside Glenn who, like Frazier, meets that description.
The forum largely revolved more around a general sense of who would help keep America safest than what each candidate would do specifically for Colorado in the U.S. Senate. Keyser, the youngest-looking of the bunch who dressed in a dark blazer, button-up and no tie, spoke early in the night about his many “capture-kill” missions in the special forces when he kicked down doors “hunting terrorists.” Bennet’s Senate vote on the Iran nuclear-arms deal was personal for Keyser, he said, because Iranian-backed insurgents killed his friends in Iraq and Afghanistan. When a question about the country’s debt came up, he quickly spun it into a national security issue.
“We need to elect a United States senator who has been to war” because people who have been to war know it’s a last resort, Keyser said.
Others tried to strike the delicate balance between sounding strong on national defense without coming off like a war monger.
“We don’t have to be the world’s policeman, but we have to be a deterrent to evil in this world,” said Frazier, a former Navy intelligence analyst.
Littleton said she’d only engage militarily if America’s vital interests were at stake. Neville spun a question about national security into a point about illegal immigration, saying he’d fight to secure the border and deport immigrants engaged in criminal activity.
“This is a foreign policy, national security election,” added Glenn, who emphasized that he was the only retired military officer on last night’s stage, having served on a team dealing with military base closures. “No one else can say that.”
Blaha — who, sporting a sweater over a collared shirt, was the only man on the stage not in a suit jacket — cast himself as the outsider and non-politician in the race. On the topic of national security, he rattled off a little jingle. “Instead of jeered,” he told the audience, he’d strive to create a country where “we’re feared, revered and we’re cheered.”
Out in the crowd, Blaha’s family members made up a block of orange, wearing matching shirts with the words “Succeed or leave” on the back, a nod to Blaha’s pledge that if he couldn’t meet his campaign promises to cut the deficit, secure the border and implement meaningful tax reform after one term, he’d give up his seat and return to Colorado Springs from Washington. He calls that pledge his “product guarantee.”
At times, the forum seemed like a contest about who loves guns the most. Littleton said she has to remember to take her firearm out of the car when visiting military bases around El Paso County.
“I own 43 guns. That’s no big deal,” said Ehler, adding he knows people who own thousands.
During their two hours on stage, the seven Republicans seemed at times to take more swipes at Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton. After a question about student loan debt, Neville and Littleton both attacked the Democratic Socialist’s plan for free college tuition.
If anything, the night was a way for the candidates to get their mugs out in front of voters and media and try to connect early with a Republican electorate that will be bombarded with mail, TV ads and media from many more candidates than they’re used to in a U.S. Senate primary in Colorado.
This election is already unusual by the state’s own standards. With so many candidates in the race — 13 in all — the field looks likely to split in half and run in two directions by the time voters cast their ballots in the June primary. One half will go through the GOP caucus-assembly process, while the other half will try to gather enough petitions to put their names directly on the ballot.
That point wasn’t lost on two of the candidates, Littleton and Neville, who threw some shade at their opponents going the petition-route by implying that technique is a scheme to bypass the caucus system and buy their way onto the ballot.
Then, as so often happens in Colorado, the conversation turned to pot.
Littleton said as a county commissioner she sees a problem with narcotics officers having to keep pot plants alive as evidence until illegal growers are convicted. “So here we found ourself as a county growing marijuana,” she said.
Keyser noted how he didn’t vote for Amendment 64, but he knows legalizing cannabis in Colorado is widely popular across plenty of demographics. He said the government should focus on making sure kids don’t get their hands on pot and on fixing the banking system so the industry isn’t a cash business in a shadow economy.
Neville said he trusts Colorado voters even though he doesn’t personally agree with legalized weed. “Colorado needs to control this experiment. We need to make sure we safeguard our children,” he said. “We have a business that is supposedly a legitimate business now. Let’s treat it accordingly.”
When it comes to pot, Glenn said Washington needs to clear up the conflict between federal and state laws.
Blaha, for his part, said Colorado’s decision to legalize recreational marijuana was “a little misguided.” But, he noted, even misguided ideas are protected by the 10th Amendment — states’ rights.
For Frazier, the people of Colorado have spoken on marijuana, and his job as a U.S. Senator would be to fight to make sure every Colorado business is treated fairly under the law.
Perhaps the most folksy of the group, Ehler, a mustachioed, straight-talker in boots and a cowboy hat, framed Colorado’s decision to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana as a punch in the nose to the federal government.
“I like that nullification idea,” he said. “I think we ought to do it more often. Hey, federal government, sod off. Just go away. We don’t want you here, and if you try to enforce your laws, we’ll throw you in jail. I love that idea. Hope you do, too.”
Candidates going throughout the caucus system will come out of the state convention by April, where each will need 30 percent to stay viable. Those who petition on the ballot directly will join the others for a primary election June 28th.
The University of Denver Undergraduate & Law College Republicans organized the Feb. 11 forum. When they scheduled the event, the college Republican group sent invitations to candidates they were aware of, which was seven of the eventual 13, said a spokesman for the state GOP. They later reached out to the six other candidates as they became aware of their intentions to run, and offered them table space in the hallway outside the forum.
*The post has been updated.