If you ask Democrats, or even some Republicans, the Colorado GOP last night handed Democrat Michael Bennet another term in the U.S. Senate by electing Darryl Glenn to run against him in the fall.
The theory goes like this: Glenn— a once obscure El Paso County commissioner who calls himself an “unapologetic Christian, constitutional conservative, pro-life, Second-Amendment-loving American”— is just too right-wing to connect with enough mainstream general election voters. Especially, they argue, in a presidential election year in a purple swing state like Colorado that has been trending blue in statewide and national elections for the past decade.
Glenn is a very religious, staunchly anti-abortion skeptic of man-made climate change. He says Republicans shouldn’t try to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats.
“I think Darryl Glenn is just going to be too extreme for Colorado,” Chris Meagher, a spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party, says bluntly.
The counter to this theory about Glenn, however, is that it discounts the unpredictable reality of this chaotic political moment in U.S. politics and across the globe. After all, a loose canon TV reality show star is the presumptive GOP nominee for president. Bernie Sanders inspired a new generation of voters with his democratic socialist message. And Britain just voted to leave the European Union.
So why would anyone figure 2016 will be a traditional election year during which Bennet will win re-election in a cakewalk?
“This is across the board burn-it-to-the-ground— [that] is what we’re hearing from voters,” says Kelly Maher, a Denver-based conservative commentator who doesn’t buy the line that Glenn’s election is somehow a lock for a Bennet victory in November.
“People are sick of these types of people” she says, calling the wealthy Democratic senator a “poster boy for insider incumbency.”
Bennet cruised to the nomination without a primary challenge, but picked up some needling on the left. The superdelegate senior senator who supports Hillary Clinton was booed during the Democratic Party’s state convention by Sanders supporters who chanted “Change your vote.”
Arn Menconi, a Green Party candidate who also will challenge Bennet in November, has latched onto the incumbent’s rejection of a universal healthcare ballot measure and is running against Bennet from the left by trying to appeal to Sanders-supporting progressives who overwhelmed the March 1 caucuses.
A Libertarian, Lily Williams, will also be on the fall ballot.
In this general election matchup, Glenn has no plans to change his message.
Just days before he won his five-way primary with 37 percent of the vote, Glenn told The Colorado Independent he would not pivot from his ultra conservative style in a general election. Instead, he said he would just put that message in front of more people and in different venues.
“We plan on being everywhere anywhere and having heartfelt discussions with people so they can ask questions, you know, ‘OK, tell me about your policy, how is this going to help me as a Democrat or as an unaffiliated voter,’” he said. “And when we’re ready to sit down and people can understand the vision we’re going to win this.”
But Glenn’s diehard conservatism comes with some baggage.
Ryan Call, a Denver lawyer and former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, has concerns that Glenn’s anti-establishment views and ties to the far-right will make him a tough sell to convince Colorado’s movable middle that he can represent them in the Senate.
Take, for example, the fact that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who wrote a book titled Going Rogue, made calls for Glenn. And that Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah— two U.S. Senate rebels who don’t play nice with others— gave Glenn an electoral bump. And that a PAC for the poke-the-bear Senate Conservatives Action Fund (which Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell once called “the worst of the worst”) went in big for Glenn, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV commercials because his own campaign couldn’t afford them.
“One of the challenges, of course, is largely what has driven the primary campaign hasn’t been Glenn’s own campaign operation, it has been these outside groups in large measure seeking to advance their own agenda,” Call says.
But that was the primary, and now Glenn is a general election candidate. As such, Call hopes he continues building a more professional campaign operation and becomes more disciplined with his message. In the past few days, Glenn has gained two new handlers from national campaigns, one of whom started answering his phone for him as soon as the race was called Tuesday night.
In 2014, Republican Cory Gardner was able to oust incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in part because of his amiability, tight message control and appeal to mainstream voters who either were unfamiliar with Udall or put off by his at-times dour countenance or over-emphasis on women’s reproductive issues.
Glenn might not have to change his far-right policy positions, Call says, but he does have to figure out a way to express some of his more religiously motivated and divisive social issues in a way that’s sensitive to Colorado’s diverse electorate.
Said Call: “In a state like Colorado you are not going to be successful if you pretend you’re in the heart of Texas.”