What’s up with this messy GOP US Senate primary in Colorado?

NCVO London

Talk to enough county GOP chairs across Colorado about the U.S. Senate primary, and themes emerge: Darryl Glenn is everywhere, things are quieter than usual, and the drama that has brought public attention to this race is also hurting Republicans.

Indeed, one county party chair interviewed — we’re withholding his name for his own sake — couldn’t immediately recall the names of all five GOP candidates on the June 28 primary ballot vying to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in the fall.

Asked what she’s been hearing lately about Colorado’s top statewide race, Joy Hoffman, chair of the Arapahoe County Republicans, said, “Not a damn thing. It’s eerie. It’s just very odd. Everybody’s waiting to see what the courts are going to say.”

With just a few weeks before ballots drop, that’s likely not something the five candidates want to hear. After all, it’s already been a turbulent race.

The Colorado Republican U.S. Senate primary turned into a courtroom drama when the Secretary of State blocked three candidates trying to petition their way onto the ballot for not having gathered enough signatures. The race had already been unusual for Colorado in that so many candidates skipped the traditional caucus-assembly process to petition onto the ballot.

The four of them were ex-NFL quarterback Jack Graham who was a registered Democrat just 18 months before announcing his candidacy; former lawmaker Jon Keyser who quit his first term in the legislature to run for U.S. Senate; businessman Robert Blaha who was found to have accepted excessive campaign contributions; and ex-Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, who is on the ballot with the provision that he might have to withdraw from the race.

Only one candidate, El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, earned his way onto the ballot by going through the caucus-assembly process where he knocked out six others after delivering a rousing speech at the GOP’s April 9 state assembly.

Since then the primary has ripped apart at the seams, earning national ridicule and rankling Republican officials in Colorado.

In March, Graham, who seeded his campaign with $1 million, turned in more than enough petition signatures to get on the ballot. But those who followed — Keyser, Blaha and Frazier — did not, according to the Secretary of State. So what’s a blocked candidate to do? Sue the Republican Secretary of State, Wayne Williams, which they did, successfully lawyering their way onto the ballot. One candidate, Frazier, has taken his case to the State Supreme Court where he is attacking Colorado’s strict rules that govern the signature-gathering process. In an unusual move, a judge put the candidate on the ballot provisionally, ruling Frazier must drop out if he fails to persuade the high court.

That was not the worst of it.

“One fiasco after another,” is how Richard Hollabaugh, chairman of the Fremont County GOP, described the turn of events in a recent interview.

Once the three Senate candidates were out of the courtroom, one of them, Keyser, wilted under the glare of TV lights after reporter Marshall Zelinger found at least 13 forged signatures on petitions that helped him get on the ballot. Making matters worse, the Secretary of State announced his office had found the name of a dead voter among Keyser’s petitions, and also that election officials there had known about the issue for a month before it became public. 

What has all this meant for some Republicans in Colorado who are following this race?

“It turns me off,” says La Plata County GOP chair Travis Oliger. “I don’t think that’s a good thing to have. Sounds to me like something the Democrats do. I don’t care for that, just having signatures from people who are dead. It doesn’t turn me on, that’s for sure. It’s not that hard to get that many signatures.”

But apparently it is.

Candidate campaigns are allowed to pay private companies that hire subcontracted workers to gather signatures to get a candidate on the ballot. That’s 1,500 signatures of registered Republican voters in each of the state’s seven congressional districts. A voter may only sign for one candidate. If one person’s signature is found on multiple candidates’ petitions, the first one counted by the Secretary of State is the only one that counts.

The candidate petition process came in with progressive-era reforms at the beginning of the 20th Century. But in recent years, a cottage industry of petition-gathering firms on both sides of the partisan divide in Colorado have sprouted up to sell their services for as much as $200,000 to candidates. Some of these companies, apparently, don’t do the best job.

“Now we have a phenomenon that did not exist at all 50 years ago where people just skip the assemblies,” says Robert Loevy, a political science professor emeritus at Colorado College.

Petitioning onto the ballot traditionally offended Colorado’s grassroots base, loyal party members who participate in the precinct caucuses, county and congressional assemblies and the state convention, and some of that resentment still remains. 

“I think there is a legitimate feeling that the petitioning process allows the money people to bypass the grassroots,” says Bob Jenkins, current chairman of the Pitkin County GOP.

In 1980, then-Secretary of State Mary Estill Buchanan successfully petitioned her way onto the Republican primary ballot. Later, Bruce Benson, a wealthy oil man who is now the president of the University of Colorado, won a three-way GOP primary for governor in 1994 through the petition process.  At the time, doing so was so unusual that a chapter in a book by Loevy about the 1994 governor’s race that deals with Benson’s decision to petition on is titled “Not Your Ordinary Candidate.”

In 2014, however, Bob Beauprez successfully petitioned onto the ballot in the GOP governor’s race. Congressman Mike Coffman and former Congressman Tom Tancredo have also used the petition process.

“It’s ramped up. I think this is actually a pretty new trend,” says Beauprez’s 2014 campaign manager Dustin Olson. “But I think it could swing back the other way.”

Fast forward to 2016, and four out of the five candidates on the U.S. Senate ballot in Colorado petitioned on. But for three of them, getting there has taken a brutal toll, and has made it likely that the real legacy of this race will be a full examination of Colorado’s petitioning system. While Frazier is fighting the state’s petition rules on constitutional grounds in the state Supreme Court, Blaha has called on Secretary of State Williams to resign because of the controversy.

Out in Montezuma County, the chair of the Republican Party there, Danny Wilkin, has been wincing at the mess this whole petition process has caused this year.

“The part of us eating our own, if we don’t pull back … it’s going to kill us in the general election,” he says.

Wilkin once tried to petition onto a local ballot himself when he ran for county commissioner, so he knows the process. He says if you want to be in politics you have to understand the game and how it’s played.

“It turns me off when people go after the system,” he said in an interview, adding later, “As Republicans we have to be responsible for our own actions.”

The grassroots and Glenn  

Walden, Colorado, is a small town about 140 miles northwest of Denver.

“It is very difficult to get any candidates here to Jackson County, a very remote ranching valley,” says the county GOP chairwoman there, Wendy Larsen. Her town has “nothing else around us.”

In Walden, Republicans are paying more attention to local races, like those for county commissioner and a local policy fight over lifting a moratorium on marijuana sales, than the big U.S. Senate race, she says.

But folks in the local Republican circles in which Larsen travels told her they’d love to see Darryl Glenn if Larsen could bring him to Walden. That was after Glenn’s winner-take-all victory and his now-famous speech at the April 9 state convention in which he earned 70 percent of the vote from Republican activists. Larsen asked Glenn if he might be interested in visiting Walden. He said he’d come to speak there on Saturday, May 21.

“For our delegation to get him here, I was actually very surprised to hear [he’d come],” Larsen says. As a county party official, she can’t support one candidate over another. When people ask her about Glenn, she says she just plays them a video of his speech.

That Glenn is willing to travel out to Walden on a Saturday to meet a handful of rural Republicans doesn’t surprise party officials across Colorado who have seen him campaigning through their own counties for more than a year.

“I think the one who has been here the most is probably Darryl Glenn,” says Richard Hollabaugh, the Fremont County Republican Party chair.

“I think Darryl Glenn is probably the favorite around here,” says Oliger in La Plata. “He’s done a good job, he’s been down here I think four times.”

Out in Mineral County, a rural part of Colorado with about 250 registered Republicans, the former mayor of Creede and the county’s current GOP chairman, Eric Grossman, isn’t afraid to speak his mind about his enthusiasm for Glenn, a candidate he has met in person at least six times.

“I appreciate the other candidates. They’re all great men, but they all got into the race late,” he told The Colorado Independent. “Why they don’t rally behind (Glenn) is astonishing to me.”

Grossman says the Republican electorate this year is fueled by the anti-establishment sentiment behind Donald Trump. Republicans are sick of mainstream politicians, he says, knocking Glenn’s four rivals for going outside the caucus-assembly process and paying companies six figures to gather signatures for them.

“I don’t have a lot of sympathy for those candidates who want to sue a Republican Secretary of State,” he said, adding later, “There’s a wave and an obvious trend happening, and the fact that the mainstream is not acknowledging that is astonishing.”

‘Is there going to be a bombshell?’

There was a time when Michael Bennet was considered the most vulnerable incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator in the country. Early in the primary, when there were some 15 candidates, Republicans said the large field proved how beatable Bennet is in the fall — and how much appetite there was to be the Colorado Republican who could do it.

That has changed.

When it came to file for the office, Colorado’s crop of top-tier Republicans decided to take a pass on the race, from Congressmen Mike Coffman and Scott Tipton to Arapahoe-area District Attorney George Brauchler.

“We don’t have a bench. We don’t even have a folding chair,” says Jon Caldara, a Republican who runs the libertarian Independence Institute.

For the candidates who did get in the race, the petition drama is widely seen as a drag on this primary as the five-person field comes into focus for the June ballot. “Are Republicans blowing their chance in the Colorado Senate race?” asked The Washington Post in a recent headline. Roll Call ran a piece titled “How Michael Bennet got lucky.”

Add into this mix the chaotic aftermath of the Colorado Republican state convention on April 9 in which Ted Cruz swept the state’s delegates. That led Donald Trump to breath fire at the state party, claiming they ran a rigged election. For some, such focus on that chaos dimmed excitement for down-ballot races like the one for U.S. Senate.

“It seems to me that the presidential campaign had sucked so much air out of the room that people now are just starting to look at the Senate candidates,” says Jeremy Weathers, an executive committeeman for the Colorado GOP and chair of the Yuma County Republican Party.

“At this point I think there’s just kind of a lot of uncertainty,” says Phillips County Republican Party Chairman Steve Young. “We still don’t know a lot about some of the candidates.”  

In Garfield County, the GOP chairman there, David Merritt, says Republicans he talks to are following the Senate race.

“I would say that as a group they haven’t gravitated toward any one candidate,” he says. “Some folks prefer different individuals.”  

How exactly Republicans will decide on who can beat Michael Bennet might come into sharper focus in the next few weeks. Ballots begin dropping June 6th, and the election will be June 28.

Big bucks candidates like Graham and Blaha are likely to run TV spots.

But out in some counties, which aren’t served by the Front Range TV markets, candidates would have to air ads in New Mexico to get them in front of Republican Colorado voters. Voters in La Plata, for instance, won’t see the televised debates on their TVs, either.

This will also be the first big contested Republican primary for U.S. Senate in which voters will be able to cast their ballots entirely by mail. Arapahoe County’s GOP chair Joy Hoffman says Republicans will hold onto their ballots longer than they might if it were a general election. They’ll want to see if something is going to happen between June 6 and June 28 before voting and mailing their ballots in.

Their thought will be, “Is there going to be a bombshell?” Hoffman said in an ominous tone.

Given the current state of the Republican U.S. Senate primary in Colorado, that is one very good question.

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