COLORADO SPRINGS — This week, Ted Cruz was back in Colorado where Republicans overwhelmingly favored him over Donald Trump in April, handing him all the elected delegates to next month’s national convention.
Why the Centennial State? Cruz has chosen Colorado to mount his political comeback by trying to help Darryl Glenn, another anti-establishment ultra-conservative, win the GOP primary for Colorado’s U.S. Senate race. Like Cruz, Glenn also won big in an April stunner at the Republican Party state convention following a game-changing speech. The once obscure El Paso County commissioner and Colorado Springs City Councilman earned 70 percent of the vote among about 4,000 GOP delegates that day and knocked six of his rivals out of the race.
Since then, Glenn— a lawyer and retired Air Force officer— has firmly planted himself as the conservative’s conservative in the race against four other much better-funded Republicans who petitioned onto the ballot. He has said he is not concerned with raising money. His campaign uses only volunteers, a move Roll Call described as “an unusual practice for any candidate, much less one vying for the Republican nomination of a marquee Senate race.”
If he makes it to the U.S. Senate, Glenn has vowed to brush off calls to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats, saying Republicans just need to lead. He wants to lower corporate and property taxes, and he says Democrats have declared a “war on coal.” He believes government policies should allow charities and community programs do the work of alleviating poverty. Believing the United States might have to consider closing military bases to “become more lean and efficient,” Glenn says as the only candidate to serve on a Base Closure and Realignment Commission he has the experience to help. The former weightlifter who was once on the cover of Powerlifting USA magazine in the ‘80s talks a lot about God and his faith. And he has promised to vote against Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as the Senate’s majority leader, allying himself with Senate rebels like Cruz.
As for his campaign strategy, in an interview Glenn said he believes his primary bid here in Colorado can harness the votes of those who supported presidential candidates Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. He calls his effort “the one campaign that can consolidate the conservative base.” But he also said he believes he can convince unaffiliated voters and conservative Democrats to vote for him in the general election.
In recent weeks, Glenn’s candidacy has made up for what it lacks in fundraising and campaign infrastructure with big-name endorsements among the far-right base. In addition to Cruz, who is campaigning with him in Colorado this week, Sarah Palin has come out in support of him. The Senate Conservatives Action PAC, which helps to elect anti-establishment underdogs around the country, is running a TV ad for him. This week, a PAC for the Tea Party group FreedomWorks endorsed him.
“We need more people in Washington willing to boldly take on the establishment and fight for limited government,” said FreedomWorks PAC chairman Adam Brandon in a statement. “That’s what Darryl Glenn will do, and we encourage Colorado primary voters to support him.”
In a way, the Glenn situation looks like a throwback to the Tea Party candidacies of six years ago in Colorado and elsewhere, when former U.S. Senate iconoclast Jim DeMint traveled the country backing primary candidates who couldn’t win general election votes.
That worries Republicans in Colorado like Ryan Call, former chairman of the state GOP.
“The problem is that we’ve tried that before in Colorado,” Call says, characterizing these outside groups as waging a proxy battle in this U.S. Senate race to advance a larger anti-establishment war nationwide.
In 2010, Republican primary voters here nominated hard-right Republicans — Dan Maes for governor and Ken Buck for the U.S. Senate — for statewide primaries, only to see them lose in the general elections during a year that was good for Republicans.
“I understand that some of them want more Tea Party and right-wing [candidates], but they are ignoring the political realities on the ground,” Call said of the national groups trying to air-drop some influence on Colorado’s Senate race.
Those realities include 2016 being a presidential year when more Coloradans will turn out to vote than they did in 2010, increasing the chances that moderates and center left unaffiliated voters will have more of a say in the November contest in this battleground state. And if an underfunded underdog with an unconventional campaign wins in the primary, Call says it could be a devastating pyrrhic victory for the party.
But Jeff Crank, a conservative talk radio host in Colorado Springs, former congressional candidate and ex-state director of Americans for Prosperity, doesn’t exactly buy the that line on Glenn’s candidacy.
“If you’re trying to win a primary and you win it without [spending money on ads and consultants and staff] then wasn’t it a good use of your resources?” he asks rhetorically.
Crank is friends with Glenn, but says he doesn’t have a dog in the fight.
Now in its final week before the primary, the election become a test of what kind of Republican campaign can work in Colorado: a year-long grassroots effort or a compressed air war played out largely during the commercial breaks on TV screens.
“I think in Colorado we’re unique in that way that it’s easier to be a grassroots candidate in Colorado and go through the process of the caucus and the assembly and build a campaign off of it,” Crank offers.
Glenn is the only candidate on the June 28 ballot who built a grassroots base. His four rivals— businessman Robert Blaha, ex-lawmaker Jon Keyser, former Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier and former NFL quarterback Jack Graham— gathered signatures to qualify for the primary ballot. All but Graham had to file lawsuits to stay viable because the GOP Secretary of State initially said they didn’t collect enough signatures. The process tipped the Republican race into turmoil, generated scandal, and Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet’s name slid from the “toss up” category on national handicapping sites.
Bennet’s name appears unopposed on ballots that are out right now. Green Party candidate Arn Menconi and Libertarian Lilly Williams were nominated by conventions in their own parties and will appear on the November ballot, too.
In the Republican primary, “by and large, Darryl Glenn has gotten most of the lion’s share of the Tea Party [support] in Colorado,” says Regina Thomson, a Tea Party leader on the Front Range. “They see him as being the most constitutionally conservative in the group.”
But Glenn’s lack of a traditional campaign is worrisome to her, too.
“He’s definitely a powerful little candidate,” she says. “He packs a punch and he articulates his message well, but that fact that he doesn’t have an infrastructure and fundraising is a legitimate question. … that concerns me as someone who is around politics a lot and as someone who knows what it takes to win campaigns.”
That Cruz has planted a flag in Colorado with his endorsement of Glenn is hard to overstate. The move is his first in a quest for a political comeback since he dropped out of the presidential race on May 3. In an interview with The Denver Post, Cruz said Colorado represents “one of the best pickup opportunities across the country to replace a liberal Democrat with a principled constitutionalist conservative,” adding, “In this race we are blessed to have an extraordinary candidate.”
Colorado does not have runoff elections for U.S. Senate primaries. So with five names of the ballot, the largest vote getter could still win with a relatively small percent of the vote. If the Cruz effect and other factors mean a nomination for Glenn, then next week will be an unconventional end to what has already been a very unconventional race.
“To me it’s fascinating to watch,” Thomson said, “because it’s nontraditional.”
Photo credit: Corey Hutchins