The GOP primary for U.S. Senate began with no one wanting to run. It ends with no one knowing who will win.
As the rollicking Republican race that captured national attention comes to a close Tuesday, it has been described in recent days as a “crapshoot” and “anyone’s game.”
That’s in part because there has been no public polling in this race between lower-tier Republican candidates, each of whom, in his own unique style, has been trying desperately to elbow his way to the front of the pack.
“We did not touch this,” said Tim Malloy, a spokesman for the Quinnipiac University polling operation that checks in on races around the country. Asked why this Senate primary wasn’t on the poll’s radar, he didn’t have an answer except that Quinnipiac has been focusing a lot on the presidential race in major swing states.
“We have paid a lot of attention to Colorado in the past and will again,” he said, apologizing for not checking the pulse in this sprawling, topsy-turvy race.
Even private polling conducted by campaigns has left plugged-in politicos mystified about who will prevail in Tuesday’s primary.
Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House says he has seen about four polls from campaigns in the race and each of them had someone else in the lead. He declined to indicate who was ahead in the last private poll he saw about 10 days ago, but says he’s clueless as to who might win Tuesday night.
“It’s just a strange thing,” he told The Colorado Independent. “The good news is everybody has traction because everybody’s doing a fairly good job.”
Still, the prospect of taking on Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet— who had $5.7 million to spend on the race as of mid-June and is already airing TV ads— was a challenge Colorado’s crop of top-tier Republicans turned down.
Congressman Mike Coffman chose to stick with a tough re-election fight to hold onto his U.S. House seat in the 6th District, which wraps around the south of Denver to include Littleton, Centennial and a suburban chunk to the east and northeast. High-profile Denver-area District Attorney George Brauchler, who prosecuted the Aurora theater shooting and was wooed by Republicans to run, also passed.
But even without them, this race has been anything but a snoozer.
Those on the B-team who did choose to run did so in an unusual fashion, starting with a herd of some 15 candidates who split into two camps when deciding how best to get on the ballot. Half went through the grassroots caucus-assembly process, while the other half “petitioned” onto the ballot by trying to gather enough signatures to qualify from Republican voters across the state.
The decision by so many candidates to use the petition process resulted in a major meltdown when three of the four who gathered petitions — Jon Keyser, Robert Blaha and Ryan Frazier — were initially told by the GOP Secretary of State that they hadn’t gathered enough. So all three sued, and a courtroom drama swallowed a good chunk of oxygen in the race. Jack Graham made it onto the ballot clean with signatures to spare.
For Peg Cage, the chairwoman of the Boulder County GOP, the whole process just showed how out of whack the party’s early nomination contests have become in Colorado.
“I am becoming less a fan of primaries because of the shenanigans that have gone on with the people who primaried on,” she says. “You have ‘This person doesn’t qualify,’ ‘Oh, yes he does,’ ‘Oh, no he doesn’t,’ ‘Yes he does.’ In the meantime you have the caucus process, and we chose a candidate — and now that candidate has to go through and spend a bunch more money in order to run again.”
She’s talking about the period after the convention, but before the four other candidates petitioned on and qualified for the June 28 ballot. It was then that the drama started: allegations of fraud and dead voters’ names being found on petitions, a call for the resignation of Secretary of State Wayne Williams, and even one candidate’s case bouncing up to the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who succumbed to Donald Trump’s electoral might and dropped out of the presidential race in May, chose Colorado to jumpstart his political comeback. He endorsed one of the candidates in the race, a once obscure El Paso County commissioner named Darryl Glenn, and campaigned for him. Glenn also racked up the endorsements of Sarah Palin, conservative commentator and RedState founder Erick Erickson, and others like U.S. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. The Senate Conservative Action PAC that helps far-right underdogs in U.S. Senate races across the country is also running TV ads for Glenn.
But still, there is no clear frontrunner. And there are plenty of reasons why.
Each of these candidates — Darryl Glenn, Jack Graham, Robert Blaha, Jon Keyser and Ryan Frazier — are vying for different paths to a potential win by looking to crack somewhere around 30 percent of the vote in this five way race. (Mathematically, one of them could actually win with as little as 21 percent in the most balanced scenario, which is unlikely but still possible.)
How they each plan to get there is the 997,631 voter question — should all registered Republicans actually vote, which they won’t. On the day before the election, only about 24 percent of of GOP voters had turned in their ballots, showing a lack of enthusiasm for this race.
In fact, one of those Republicans who did vote in the race, Claudine Kappius, who chairs the Sedgewick County Republican Party, said in an interview that she couldn’t even recall who got her vote.
“I don’t even remember who was on the list,” she told The Independent.
To get to the magic percentage number Tuesday, however low it might be, Glenn is relying on his winner-take-all grassroots victory at the state assembly combined with his backing from national leaders in the Tea Party, liberty and anti-establishment movements. Blaha is likely hoping to consolidate whatever percentage of the Colorado GOP base favors Donald Trump, and he has already tried to drive a wedge between those voters and Glenn. Graham, a moderate, pro-choice Republican, is saturating the TV airwaves with ads trying to appeal to mainstream Republicans. Keyser was hoping for establishment support that might have faded, and Frazier is well known in the densely populated Denver metropolitical area.
“In this race I think the problem is that there’s no sense of where the Republicans are going to go,” says Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli. “It just seems like a very wide open race … we honestly don’t know. This is going to be kind of wild out there.”
Despite the race’s inability to draw attention from outside polling firms, one candidate has recently been able to attract plenty of outside interest from groups and personalities and has caught fire with the state’s conservative grassroots base. Glenn was the only one to emerge from a seven-candidate cage match at the state GOP assembly in April. Since then he has rounded up Tea Party support and national endorsements from conservative rockstars.
Between Graham, a former NFL quarterback, and Blaha, a Colorado Springs businessman, the two are spending the most money at nearly a million dollars apiece airing TV commercials. Blaha has also snagged the coveted endorsement of the conservative editorial board at The Gazette in Colorado Springs, which called him “nothing like a traditional politician.”
Keyser, a once-perceived front runner who resigned a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives for a chance in the U.S. Senate, is now perhaps most well known for the way he handled a scandal involving petition fraud allegations leading to the arrest of one of his campaign subcontractors. Other memorable Keyser campaign moments include a reference about his “very protective” dog Duke to a reporter, and a “Marco Rubio moment” that gained national attention. He is running almost entirely on his military record, but his once glittering star seems to have faded. He is not holding an election night party.
For Frazier, a former Aurora City Councilman, Tuesday’s election could make or break his political future as a Republican rising star. In his own TV ads, Frazier calls himself the “zombie hunter” who is looking to take on a Washington, DC full of elite “takers” whom he calls the “walking deadheads” that are “devouring our freedoms and tax dollars.”
Throughout the campaign, all five of these Republicans have been yoked to the presidential candidacy of Trump, forced in debates to defend The Donald’s most controversial statements and policy proposals, and asked time and again why they continue to support him.
Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, writes that If Donald Trump winds up as unpopular in November as he appears now, “that will drag down other Republicans, including Colorado’s Republican Senate nominee.”
Add into the mix that 2016 is a presidential year that will broaden the electorate in a state that has been trending blue in statewide elections — despite Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner dispatching Democrat Mark Udall in 2014 — it’s perhaps no wonder some conservatives are throwing up their hands.
“I’ve been asking myself and others: Who? Who can beat Bennet?” says David Kelly of Colorado Springs who runs a group called Liberty First in the heavily Republican county.
Though Kelly has already turned in his ballot (he voted for Blaha), he says he’s just not sure 2016 is the year a Republican can win against a well-funded Democratic incumbent in a presidential year.
“You and I both know over a third of the voters out there that are going to be active don’t have an allegiance to any particular party,” he says.
And so Tuesday’s primary might be anyone’s game, but whoever wins, the November general election won’t likely be his to lose.
*A previous version of this story misstated towns in a congressional district.
[Photo credit: Dave Gough vie Creative Commons in Flickr]