On a Friday afternoon in July, dozens of Republicans in the most heavily Republican county in Colorado crowded into an industrial park office building on the outskirts of Colorado Springs.
They were there for a glimpse of Darryl Glenn, a black lawyer, local county commissioner and a deeply conservative Air Force veteran who cut his way through 15 primary challengers in an underfunded underdog campaign to become the GOP’s 2016 nominee for the U.S. Senate.
Next to Glenn, in a back room of the El Paso County Republican Party headquarters, stood Cory Gardner, the beaming, baby-faced Colorado Republican U.S. senator who has reached near godlike status in Colorado Republican politics. In 2014 he achieved what seemed like the impossible by toppling incumbent Mark Udall— a lone hiccup in the state’s decade-long trend toward deep blue in statewide elections.
Speaking to the assembled crowd, Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House introduced Gardner and Glenn to loud cheers.
“Cory, there’s a theme going on here,” House said, gesturing to Glenn. “He gets more applause than you.”
“Rightfully so!” Gardner shot back to laughter.
Unity was the theme of the day. Glenn had just won a primary against four other Republicans in a contest that included lawsuits, ballot SNAFUs, official probes into petition fraud, and even allegations of dead voters. The messy race was enough for one county Republican Party chair to call it “one fiasco after another.”
In the end, Glenn finished a year-long ground game to beat former NFL quarterback Jack Graham, who funded his campaign with $1 million, Colorado Springs businessman Robert Blaha (another millionaire self-funder), a 34-year-old former lawmaker named Jon Keyser, and ex-Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier. After the brutal campaign, Glenn and Gardner embarked on a “unity tour” of the state to bring Republicans together.
The scene — and the primary bloodbath leading to it — couldn’t have been more different than the start of Gardner’s successful race for U.S. Senate two years ago.
And in that difference might lie a few lessons for both parties that could inform how their respective nominees run in a race that could potentially reshape Colorado’s image as a battleground swing state in the years to come.
A different year, a different candidate
If anything, 2016 is shaping up to be a wild election cycle everywhere, including in Colorado, a purple state traditionally viewed as a bellwether and a battleground. Lately, though, Colorado’s swing state stature has been losing its luster.
The state’s top pollster definitively stated that Colorado is no longer a battleground.
The race between incumbent U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Republican challenger Glenn slid from the toss-up category by national election handicappers into the “safe Democratic” category. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has pulled back her TV advertising after polls showed her with a comfortable lead over Republican Donald Trump.
The focus from big-money outside groups and D.C. party operatives has recently shifted from the Colorado Senate race toward two competitive Colorado U.S. House seats up for grabs.
So, what happened to such a marquee race in Colorado? For one, the Republicans didn’t follow the Cory Gardner playbook from 2014.
That year, each potential GOP candidate dutifully bowed out of the primary to clear a path for the then-congressman from Yuma so Republicans throughout the state could unite behind him early. He didn’t get beaten up in a divisive primary or have to say far-right things to get the nomination.
Gardner had been a rising star in the Colorado House before he won a seat in Congress in 2011, and it was his turn in 2014 for a shot at one of the biggest jobs in national politics.
But Gardner was also the right candidate. When he entered the race, he basically froze the field. He came in with a sizable war chest held over from a previous congressional campaign. No one but an obscure state senator wanted to compete against him, and even he didn’t make the primary ballot. This time around, no such star power was on display and so a field of some 15 candidates— the Colorado Republican B Team— made a free-for-all play for the primary. (GOP party officials called the large field evidence of the enthusiasm among Republicans in Colorado to take on what was then perceived as a vulnerable Michael Bennet.)
“Cory Gardner is so unique,” GOP state party chairman House said in a recent interview about the difference two years can make. “Was there a Cory Gardner in the [primary] field? I don’t think there was.”
The timing for Gardner’s ascension was right, too. It was both an off-year midterm election, which is a typically poor year for the party of an incumbent president, and the sixth year of Obama’s presidency, which was a great year for Republicans overall.
Early on in the campaigns, around this time two years ago, internal polls were showing Udall in the lead. But by the fall, Gardner, a masterful campaigner, overtook him.
Gardner’s win was a major coup for Colorado Republicans who, after two presidential and gubernatorial election cycles, had gotten used to Democrats winning on top-line ballots.
“A state that President Obama carried twice is no longer reliably blue,” read the opener to a Nov. 4, 2014 story in The Daily Beast.
Not only that, but Gardner became the first U.S. Senate candidate to beat an incumbent in Colorado in nearly 40 years.
On election night, Gardner addressed his cheering supporters. “It finally happened,” he said to loud applause.
So, what was learned then?
Talk to enough politicos in Colorado on both sides of the ideological divide about how 2016 is shaping up compared to two years ago and the theme emerges: It’s a different year with a much different candidate.
But there still might be some lessons for both parties from The Great Republican Interruption of 2014.
“I think that one of the most important things was message discipline,” House says for the Republican side. “It’s a different message this year than it was in 2014, but you have to go out there and have message discipline.”
Indeed, Gardner is still remembered, even by Democrats, as being the most tightly scripted candidate some had ever seen. A November 2014 interview Gardner did during the heat of the campaign with then-KDVR TV reporter Eli Stokols, in which Stokols asked Gardner multiple times why he supported a federal personhood bill but didn’t support a similar state measure, will likely be used in candidate boot camps to show how to stick to talking points in the face of intense questioning by other candidates or members of the press.
When it comes to discipline, Glenn might be adapting the Gardner script. As a primary candidate he was candid, accessible, and the authentic everyman. As a general election candidate he has been more guarded with the press. Stories without official comment from him are beginning to appear more regularly.
On the Democrats’ side of things, a major post-election critique was Udall’s laser focus on a single issue.
In 2014, Udall’s campaign hammered almost exclusively on women’s reproductive health, in particular, personhood and abortion. The campaign saturated the airwaves with negative ads against Gardner to the point where even the press became annoyed. In an oft-cited editorial, the The Denver Post wrote of Udall’s “obnoxious one-issue campaign.” The candidate got tagged with the nickname “Mark Uterus.”
But campaign insiders defend the strategy as right for the time.
Internal polling showed Gardner’s hardline anti-abortion stance was a solid negative hit for the Udall campaign and third-party groups. The issue was the top thing that moved voters when tested in private polls.
“It wasn’t just our number one in testing, it was number one, number two and number three,” says James Owens, Udall’s former spokesman who now works for the pro-choice group NARAL in Washington, DC. “When you’re hearing that in polls night after night from voters, it would be political malpractice not to act on it.”
Mike Saccone, a former adviser to Udall who now works at the Keystone Policy Center, echoed that thought.
“When the polling and metrics are telling you that’s the only avenue, I’m not sure it was the wrong decision,” he says.
Craig Hughes, a Democratic consultant in Denver who is working for Bennet, says one thing the campaign might do differently than what Dems did in 2014 is go heavier on consistent positive messaging.
“I think in retrospect it’s important to not only to point out where you disagree with your opponent,” he says, but also focus on the positives and what the incumbent has done and is doing for Colorado in Washington, D.C.
It’s still relatively early in the current U.S. Senate race, but so far Democrats and the Bennet campaign have not shown the inclination to make women’s reproductive rights a centerpiece— though Glenn has left himself open to such an opportunity.
Glenn, who describes himself as a pro-life politician, began a now-famous speech given at the state Republican Party convention in April by saying he would be “a strong defender of the rights of the unborn.” However, he hasn’t yet clarified his exact stance on some reproductive rights issues, including whether a fetus has protected individual rights.
Bennet’s tactic thus far has been to focus on Bennet. He’s talked about how he fought federal regulations to help Colorado brewers and farmers, and how he’s tackling student debt by pushing a re-financing law.
There has, however, been one pattern so far of Democratic attacks on Glenn: tying him to Donald Trump, for whom he is campaigning.
But still, a high-minded race could still emerge. Just this week the state Democratic Party arranged a news conference with a solar energy company in Colorado Springs in which they discussed Bennet’s support for federal renewable energy tax credits and Glenn’s opposition to them. Ironically, support for such tax credits is one issue upon which Democrat Bennet and his Republican counterpart Gardner, both agree.
This is not a (real) test
Much has been made in recent weeks about whether Colorado is still a battleground state, and the Senate race features plenty into that question. But if 2014 was an anomaly for Republicans in Colorado, then this year could be shaping up to be just as much as one for Democrats.
In the era of Trumpism, which helped fuel the nomination of a tea party flashback in Darryl Glenn, the answer to whether Colorado is still in play statewide for Republicans— a question raised by Gardner’s 2014 win— likely won’t be settled this November. It’s just a weird year.
No top-tier candidates like Congressmen Mike Coffman or Scott Tipton, or Denver-area District Attorney George Brauchler, who had been wooed to run, stepped up for this year’s U.S. Senate race. That leaves them fresh for the next open statewide seat two years down the road.
In 2018, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper will leave office — and perhaps that will give Republicans a real shot at another competitive off-year election to see if they can win again.