Conventional wisdom shouldn’t discourage Republicans about 2014 elections

It was late on election night 2010 when the press finally called the secretary of state’s race for Scott Gessler, a long-time election lawyer for Republicans and conservative causes. For months, the press and liberal attack groups snorted and chuckled at Gessler’s candidacy.

Gessler was a partisan, they contended, and the public would never make a partisan the state’s chief election officer. While Gessler was a weak candidate in the eyes of the purveyors of conventional wisdom, the incumbent, Grand Junction’s Bernie Buescher, was the opposite. He was the kind of affable, moderate, proven vote-getter who even a rock-solid candidate would have a hard time beating.

Buescher’s previous stint in the Legislature, representing Mesa County, proved that not only could he grab independent voters, but he also knew a thing or two about snagging Republican support, we were told.

Conventional wisdom, even in the Republican Party, put Gessler’s odds at slim.

But a funny thing happened on election night. Actually, two funny things happened. First, several members of the Denver press called the race for Buescher early in the night. Second, late that evening, by the time the ballots were counted, Gessler the Derided had won a race most people thought he never could.

Elections are funny things. Boy, howdy, did Republicans learn that in 2010. That same night, Michael Bennet won a come-from-behind victory over Ken Buck. For Republicans, that wasn’t so funny.

Still, Gessler’s win is emblematic of certain, unmistakable truth: Sometimes conventional wisdom turns out to be flat wrong.

In sports, there’s an expression used a lot when an underdog snares victory from the jaws of conventional wisdom. “That’s why they play the game,” we say. It’s true in politics, too.

All of this is, for me, prologue to the elections next fall. The authors of conventional wisdom now reluctantly admit that Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall are stumbling and weak — but not nearly weak enough, they say, to be unseated by the extraordinarily weak crop of candidates being fielded by Republicans.

Ah, those familiar snorts and chuckles. The Republican field stands not a chance, at least in the eyes of conventional wisdom.

But just like the derision directed at Gessler three years ago, that conventional wisdom has a funny tendency to look foolish in retrospect. That extraordinarily weak field isn’t weak at all.

In the U.S. Senate race, Amy Stephens has a track record of winning tough battles. One only need look back barely a year to her primary victory over Marsha Looper. Democrats, and her Republican primary contenders, would also be unwise to discount the appeal of finally breaking that glass ceiling in Colorado that has kept a woman from ever winning a U.S. Senate or governor’s race. Stephens also whipped the liberal money machine in 2010, helping Republicans seize control of the Statehouse.

Incumbent Mark Udall has had a Washington, D.C., area code for longer than most Colorado politicians have been in the state Legislature. With the throw-the-bums-out mentality the American people seemed to have embraced in the past couple of elections, newcomer Owen Hill’s fresh-faced optimism could provide a jarring counterpoint to Udall’s beltway baggage.

Buck, while certainly carrying his own baggage from his not-so-funny loss in 2010, carries with him the lessons learned from last time and a re-energized purpose. Udall must look like no challenge at all after Buck beat back a serious case of cancer earlier this year. A Buck candidacy has major challenges, but the dude is a fighter.

In the field for governor, a line is beginning to form around the block because our current governor has embraced a leadership philosophy defined by indecision.

Ducking tough issues has never been a complaint about the Republican gubernatorial field. Certainly no one would ever accuse Tom Tancredo of shying away from controversial issues. Nor would anyone label Greg Brophy a wilting flower in the Legislature. He is smart and shrewd and an impressively eloquent spokesperson for conservative ideals. Do yourself a favor and get to know Greg Brophy. He’s the real deal.

And then there’s the Honey Badger himself, the same Scott Gessler written off by the press and pundits at the last mid-term election, who won’t ever have to worry about being seen as weak-willed and afraid of confronting the tough issues.

For sure, all of these candidates will need to rack up that campaign cash and prove they’re up to the task. They’ll need to show Coloradans they’re ready to lead where their opponents won’t or can’t.

What they shouldn’t worry about is the chattering classes who set conventional wisdom. These self-styled political mandarins are generous with their predictions, but as Gessler proved three years ago, conventional wisdom has a funny way of turning out wrong.

Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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