US Senate candidates swing at Colorado’s GOP Convention

COLORADO SPRINGS —Republicans of every stripe in Colorado have flocked to a sports arena in the shadow of Pikes Peak Saturday to help choose which Senate candidates can beat Democratic U.S Sen. Michael Bennet this fall.

Yesterday, it was presidential politics that took center stage in Colorado Springs as Republicans selected delegates to represent them at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland July 18. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz ran the table, securing all the delegates at four congressional assemblies, effectively winning Colorado.

Related: Ted Cruz racks up Colorado’s delegates at Donald Trump’s expense

But on Saturday, thousands of conservative activists decked out in all manner of right-wing chic packed the Broadmoor World Arena to focus on the statewide election. Here, seven candidates for U.S. Senate were feeding themselves through the grassroots meat grinder of a convention, trying to pick up 30 percent of the vote to make it out alive.

These seven convention candidates aren’t the entire field. Four others are vying for a spot on the June GOP primary ballot by having gathered and submitted enough signatures to petition themselves on, sidestepping the convention process altogether. Doing so is less risky if a candidate has the money and confidence to gather enough petitions in each congressional district. The Secretary of State’s office is in the process of checking their signatures to see if they qualify.

But that hasn’t kept them from the convention. One petitioning candidate, Robert Blaha, was posted up behind a booth in the hallway where he’s had to explain to Republicans why he isn’t giving a speech like his seven rivals. He tells those who ask that it’s just how the process works, and that’s why he’s here making his case in the hallway instead from the convention stage.

Related: Why this big U.S. Senate race for Colorado is so unusual this year

The seven candidates choosing to run through the state convention process face a much risker scenario. They are state Sen. Tim Neville, El Paso County commissioners Peg Littleton and Darryl Glenn, computer programmer Charlie Ehler, disabled vet Jerry Eller, Hispanic businessman Jerry Natividad, and write-in candidate Eric Underwood.

Because of Colorado’s rules that candidates must crack a 30-percent threshold, only three of them could possibly emerge.

From a stage in the convention hall, each of them were allowed to speak for about 10 to 15 minutes to the thousands of assembled Republican activists who roared at the red meat and booed at the mention of Hillary Clinton, Obamacare, Common Core and the main target Michael Bennet.

Of all of the speeches, none drew a louder more raucous response than Glenn, who started off by thanking his mom for giving him life, positioning himself as a strong defender of the unborn.

“Listen up, Planned Parenthood,” he said, promising to defund the women’s health organization that provides abortions if any tax money goes toward — his words— the dismemberment of babies. He railed, like others, against the Iran nuclear arms deal and got a roaring applause when he said he hoped media reported this line: “All lives matter.” Glenn then took aim at the potential Democratic nominee for president, saying he wanted to see Hillary Clinton out of her pants suit and into an orange jumpsuit.

Neville is one candidate who has expressed confidence for his chances at the convention where he has much grassroots support among a network of gun-rights groups like the state-based Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and national Colorado-based Gun Owners of America. Members of those groups make up a potent political force among Colorado’s activist Republican base and put numbers on the board at GOP conventions and assemblies.

Neville talked about his personal biography peppered with conservative talking points on issues like Planned Parenthood providing abortions and selling the body parts of babies “for profit.” He pitched his hardcore conservative record in the legislature, and promised to cut off all funding for illegal immigrants. Neville touted his support for fossil fuels like coal and said he’d scrap the EPA. Obamacare “needs to go,” he said. Unlike Bennet, Neville said, he pledged to fight forced-unionization. And, of course, he gabbed about gun-rights and noted how he pushed for Constitutional Carry as a lawmaker, which would end the need for permits to carry concealed weapons in Colorado.

Outside the arena, no one could have missed Natividad for Senate signs. Hundreds of them lined the streets leading to the convention in an obvious — and impressive — play for name recognition. (The day before, it was signs for his rival Littleton that stood out around the convention. Those were missing today, and in an interview Littelton said she wouldn’t blame any candidate’s campaign for uprooting them, but said it wasn’t her campaign that removed her signs.)

“I’m the right person for the job,” the only Hispanic candidate in the field told the crowd. If he had a dollar every time he was asked what his last named meant, he said, he could actually “buy Harry Reid a soul.” Natividad said he didn’t even think the Anti-Christ would appreciate the tax policy of President Barack Obama. At one point, he asked reporters to cover their ears. “These reporters are so lame,” he said, adding that they keep asking him about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In another swat at the media, Natividad slammed Bennet for having a brother who runs the editorial page of The New York Times. “My story couldn’t be any different than his,” he said of Bennet’s upbringing, adding that the Senator grew up thinking to summer was a verb while Natividad picked cantaloupes to help support his family. “Michael Bennet was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,” he said. “I was born to a working family.”

El Paso County Commissioner Peg Littleton kicked off her speech with a video from her website, before launching into an attack, dubbing Bennet a liberal Obama puppet. “I am pro-life, pro-gun and pro-God,” she said, adding that she’d work to secure the border. She asked the assembled Republicans to help her repeal Obamacare, and to “vote no on Amendment 69 in Colorado,” a ballot measure for universal healthcare.

Related: What you need to know about the big, U.S. Senate race in Colorado 

Wearing a cowboy hat and sporting a grey Fu Manchu mustache, Colorado Springs computer programmer Ehler hollered at the crowd about the failures of the federal government and regulatory agencies that he described as the fourth branch of government.

Disabled veteran Eller stood out by attacking Colorado’s legalized marijuana effort, saying he didn’t like seeing advertising for it or kids growing up thinking pot is good for them.

Underwood talked about his personal biography, the beauty of Colorado, and said “We need a lion in the United States Senate that will fight for our values.” He asked the crowd to write him in on their ballot for U.S. Senate.

Republicans at the convention will spend the day voting. (UPDATE: Glenn won the contest outright.)