GOP race for governor is wide open
Thousands of newly-buoyed conservative activists spent last Tuesday evening attending precinct caucuses in libraries, churches and schools across Colorado, their spirits lifted by fresh word that Cory Gardner, the popular congressman from rural eastern Colorado, would challenge incumbent U.S. Sen., Mark Udall.
In straw polls at the caucuses last week, Gardner generally carried between 80 and 90 percent of the GOP vote, an unprecedented show of unity among a party faithful that is notoriously splintered. When I say unprecedented, I actually do mean unprecedented — no candidate in a generation (not Bill Owens, not Wayne Allard, not any of them) has so quickly coalesced near-everyone in a statewide nomination process. If the caucuses settled anything, it is that Gardner will have a united Republican Party behind him heading to the fall.
But if the caucuses helped end any lingering questions about the Republican Senate nomination, in some ways, last Tuesday was only the unofficial start of the four-month sprint that will determine who represents the Republican Party against Gov. John Hickenlooper in the fall. I say unofficial start because, while most of the candidates have been out making the rounds for about six months, most members of even the uber-sensitized activist class haven’t begun to pay attention to the various candidates in a serious way. But with county assemblies in March, the state nominating assembly in April and the definitive primary vote in late June, Republican deciders are about to get busy deciding.
The race itself is wide open, and any one of the five major candidates could be the nominee.
Two old congressional war horses — Tom Tancredo and newly-announced former Congressman Bob Beauprez — are probably the front-runners, at least on paper. Both have solid name recognition because they have been candidates for everything since, like, forever, and both boast the kind of fundraising rolodexes you’d expect from a perennial candidate. But both face exceedingly stiff head winds, too: Tancredo, because he lost to Hickenlooper by more than 10 points in a banner year for Republicans, and many worry he will galvanize independent and Hispanic voters against the GOP; and Beauprez because he carries of the baggage of getting clobbered by Bill Ritter in 2006. And when I say clobbered, I mean clobbered. In a year that voters elected a Republican secretary of state and attorney general, Ritter whupped Beauprez by 17 points. When he announced for governor, striking an off-kilter note that sounded a little bit like Harry Reid, Beauperez blamed disillusionment with George W. Bush (and also bad campaign tactics) for his 2006 loss.
In the next 16 weeks, both Beauprez and Tancredo will have to do better than that. They will have to answer the question — why should we trust either of you against Hick now when neither of you got the job done before? They’ll also have to explain why going “Back to the Future” is a recipe for anything more than Republicans getting what we’ve recently got (i.e. getting our butts kicked on the first Tuesday in November).
Out beating the ground alongside Tancredo and Beauprez are former state Sen. Mike Kopp, businessman Steve House, Secretary of State Scott Gessler and state Sen. Greg Brophy. Kopp and House have yet to assert themselves, leaving Gessler and Brophy as the more likely “fresh face” alternatives.
Gessler, a long-time party lawyer and strategist, has kept his head down and focused on the nominating process. He’s calling, mailing and Facebooking with activists. His has been a campaign narrowly focused on getting on the ballot. Like an insurgent squad in the NCAA basketball tournament, his goal is to advance and figure out the next stage of the fight as it comes. Not a bad plan, truth be told. And for that, Gessler generally carried the GOP straw polls last week.
Brophy has taken a different tack. The one-time state champion wrestler has kept a blistering travel schedule, shoring up key blocks of support where he can. But he has also wowed activists and political analysts in several debate performances. After a recent debate on a local Denver Fox affiliate, most pundits and 70 percent of those polled online agreed Brophy carried the debate. From voters focused on governing competence and from those who want a candidate who can take the fight directly to Hick during the debates this fall, Brophy is going to accumulate significant support.
With about four months between now and the time Republican deciders will be forced to decide, this much is certain — the race for the Republican nomination couldn’t be more wide open.
Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He graduated from Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.