Crowded Field Makes for Tough Colo. GOP Senate Primary

Crowded Field Makes for Tough Colo. GOP Senate Primary
Luke Walker/The Coloradoan via AP
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In 2014, then-Rep. Cory Gardner entered the Republican primary for the Colorado Senate race late, clearing the field and ultimately knocking off incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. This year, several big-name candidates declined to try to repeat that feat, leaving the 2016 Senate race without a challenger of Gardner’s stature.

Now, Republicans have more than a dozen candidates ranging from little recognized to completely unknown competing for the prize of challenging Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in the fall.

It’s a race that could prove critical to which party controls the Senate. Republicans have a four-seat majority and are defending seats in seven states President Obama won twice – Colorado is one of the few chances to flip a Democratic seat. Unseating Bennet could provide a buffer for Republicans to retain the majority.

But with an unwieldy and unknown field of candidates, it remains an open question whether the GOP has what it takes to pull off back-to-back Senate wins.

“The race itself is totally wide open,” Republican strategist Josh Penry said of the primary. “It’s undefined in the minds of even the most active of the most active. There are a number of them I think have appeal, but none of them really have a base, so the thing is just totally wide open. It’s a book yet to be written."

THE CANDIDATES

The candidates represent a broad range of ages, experiences and political backgrounds. A number of businesspeople are running, some of whom have run for office previously and others who haven’t. There are county commissioners and state lawmakers, and several military veterans.

What there isn’t, however, is a runaway favorite.

This week, starting with the first televised debate of the race on Tuesday night, will prove critical to determining the direction of the contest ahead of the June primary.

By next week, the field will be more than cut in half. There are two ways for candidates to get on the June ballot: through acquiring petitions, or through the state convention on Saturday.

Four candidates turned in petitions: businessman Rob Blaha, former state Rep. Jon Keyser, former Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, and former Colorado State University Athletic Director Jack Graham.

The remaining candidates will fight it out on Saturday. A candidate must get above 30 percent at the state convention to appear on the ballot, meaning at most three candidates will come out of it. But with so many running, observers expect only one or two to hit the threshold.

State Sen. Tim Neville is viewed as one of the more formidable candidates and is expected to be able to break 30 percent on Saturday. Penry, the GOP strategist, is informally supporting businessman and activist Jerry Natividad, and said he thought Natividad and Neville were the most likely to reach the ballot through the convention.

Darryl Glenn, a county commissioner, told RCP he feels “very confident” heading into Saturday. He said he’s been traveling Colorado for months, running a grassroots campaign aimed at those who will be at the convention in the hopes of garnering support. He also said he’ll have “home field advantage” since he represents Colorado Springs, where the convention will be held.

Even after the field narrows, five or six is still a crowded primary. Penry said the race will come down to two things: who can find an issue as a dividing line and who can boost his name ID the most.

With that in mind, each of the five candidates who spoke with RCP laid out something that set them apart from the field.

Frazier said education and criminal justice reform are two of the most critical issues to him. He also said he starts with better name ID than other candidates because he was a local lawmaker in the state’s third-largest city, Aurora, and a political analyst on a local TV station.

An internal poll conducted for Frazier by Harper Polling showed him with the highest name ID among the candidates and a double-digit lead over his opponents – though with 60 percent undecided. There has been little to no public polling in the race.

Blaha told RCP he learned from his failed primary challenge to Rep. Doug Lamborn in 2012, a race he lost by double digits. He called the experience a “root canal without the Novocaine.” This time around, the businessman said he’s hired more experienced staff to run a more streamlined campaign. He’s running on three planks: cutting the deficit, securing the border and reforming the tax code.

Keyser cited his record as an intelligence officer serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and said he presents a clear contrast with Bennet on national security. On Monday, the day before the first televised debate, a four-star general endorsed the former state representative.

Glenn, also a military veteran, said national security and the debt are the two most important issues to him. He cited his experience as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force as an asset for both, talking about the need for an internal review to streamline military spending.

Graham, the former football star and athletic director at Colorado State, said he’s the only candidate who supports holding hearings for Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, though he added he doesn’t necessarily support Garland, and wants a conservative to replace Scalia.

“If we end up with a nominee in front of us who doesn’t meet that, we’re in a position to decline that” nominee, he said. “In the process, the people get to listen to us interview him and make a decision around hearing that process instead of us standing up and coming across as obstructionist.”

But a group of candidates fighting for name ID could lead to a potentially divisive process, resulting in a roughed-up candidate who is financially strapped heading into the general election.

Most refrained from attacking their opponents, setting their sights instead on Bennet. Others, however, were less reserved. Blaha singled out Keyser, calling him a “nice young kid,” but saying his own son was more accomplished than Keyser, whom he didn’t think was qualified for the Senate.

Asked about Blaha’s criticism, Keyser didn’t fire back, instead saying he had plenty of experience on the battlefield and is proud of his service in the military, which gave him national security understanding. He then pivoted to attack Bennet as weak on the issue.

If the candidates do turn negative, however, the winner of the primary could enter the summer a wounded candidate, according to former state GOP chairman Ryan Call.

After the primary, “we’ll be beginning in July with a candidate who may limp across the finish line with maybe 35 percent of the vote and will likely be flat broke with a political environment where it will be difficult to get out of the shadow of the presidential race,” Call said.

THE POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT

The top of the ticket presents a potentially serious problem for the GOP. If Donald Trump is the party’s presidential nominee, odds are he will be in Colorado often to win the swing state. That could leave the Republican Senate candidate with a difficult question: whether to campaign with Trump.

While all of the five candidates RCP spoke to said they would support the nominee, and none of the others have publicly disavowed him, they all said they would run their own race, seeking out independent voters while distancing, or potentially criticizing, their front-runner if he made offensive or controversial statements.

Most also said Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee made the decision simpler.

“I look forward to supporting the Republican nominee,” Keyser said. “I know they will be better than an avowed socialist or a woman being actively investigated by the FBI,” he said, adding, “My focus is on Michael Bennet.”

Steve House, the Colorado Republican chairman, said it’s unclear at this point how Trump as the nominee would affect down-ballot races in the state.

“I can’t explain the phenomenon,” House said when asked about some of Trump’s controversial comments about women and minorities. “He has said those things and won primaries after that … Maybe it ignites enough other people that it doesn’t end up hurting total turnout for the party.”

Democrats, for their part, are bullish on Bennet’s chances against the current GOP field.

“There are now 13 barely known Republicans running in the country’s most crowded and divisive primary, and if elected each would join D.C. Republicans in making Washington more dysfunctional,” Colorado Democratic Party spokesman Andrew Zucker said in a statement.

Even if the top of the ticket doesn’t hurt Republicans, however, there are other concerns in the race. Both Penry, the GOP strategist, and Call, the former state party chairman, said there’s the potential it will mirror the 2014 gubernatorial contest. Four candidates made it onto the primary ballot, and after Rep. Bob Beauprez won, Call said he struggled to unite the party. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper was re-elected.

“In a year that was Republicans to lose, we did,” Call said. “It became divisive, expensive, and the candidate who ultimately won struggled to unify the party and we had different factions in the party and different candidates working against the party in the cycle."

Still, with three months to go before voters pick their candidates – and the ballot not set until later this week – plenty remains up in the air.

“It’s fair to say all of them are untested for anything of this magnitude,” Penry said. “We’ll have a lot to learn about who’s ready for prime time.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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