DENVER — Mario Nicolais is the kind of candidate who could help the Republican Party win back the suburban voters it has lost.
He’s fiscally conservative but socially moderate, a member of the NRA but also a founder of a Republican group that champions gay rights. And on this afternoon at a local bar, he’s clearly at ease chatting up the fans who’ve turned out to watch Mexico play Brazil in the World Cup. Hispanics make up 23 percent of his state Senate district, and Nicolais knows that Republicans will need to peel off some of them to have any hope of winning in November.
But he won’t be on the ballot then.
Nicolais lost in the Republican primary to businessman Tony Sanchez, a tea-party-aligned opponent who was recruited into the race by conservatives looking to block Nicolais’s path to the nomination. And he wasn’t the only establishment-backed Jefferson County Republican to lose against a more conservative rival. In a neighboring district, military veteran Lang Sias, once a recruit for Congress, lost to a first-time candidate who had the backing of the conservative grassroots.
Even as Republicans nominated capable candidates at the top of the ticket, the down-ballot primary results are a stark illustration of how the party leaders in the state tasked with winning elections are at odds with a majority of their own voters. Democrats currently hold a tenuous one-seat advantage in the state Senate. But without enough moderate candidates in swing districts on the November ballot, the GOP will find taking over the upper chamber much more difficult.
“If we don’t win [any key races] in 2014, we’re going the way of California,” Nicolais said. “We could well become a permanent minority.”
By all accounts, this should be one of the best years for Republicans in Colorado in a decade. President Obama’s approval rating in the state has struggled to reach 40 percent, a dangerous level for his party. Last Tuesday, the GOP nominated its strongest statewide candidates across the ballot, including former Rep. Bob Beauprez for governor and Rep. Cory Gardner for the Senate race. Republicans view the Senate race between incumbent Mark Udall and Gardner as a toss-up and think if they catch a few breaks, Gov. John Hickenlooper could struggle to win a second term. Last year, taking advantage of Democratic overreach on gun regulations and energy policy, Republicans recalled two state senators, pressured another to resign, and persuaded voters to overwhelmingly reject a measure that would have raised taxes to fund public schools.
Yet below the surface is a nagging pessimism that underscores the stakes for Colorado Republicans in 2014. If the GOP’s past problems stem from party divisions, a few lousy candidates, and persistently bad luck, then it’s easy to see how the party can turn things around with stronger nominees. But if the party is losing touch with the state’s changing electorate, all bets are off. The fact that Republicans feared that Tom Tancredo, who came within 3 points of winning the nomination, could have ruined everything for the statewide ticket, is testament to just how tenuous an advantage Republicans hold.
“If you would have asked me a year ago, I would have been very concerned that the state had changed significantly. But the three recall elections and the blowback to the governor’s agenda convinced me we’re still a center-right state. I won’t pretend that it’s easy, but I think it’s still very doable,” said Beauprez, the party’s newly minted gubernatorial nominee.
Indeed, the political nightmares of the last decade still are a fresh memory for the party. Despite a Republican landslide in 2010 throughout the country, Colorado was immune from the wave. Sen. Michael Bennet, now tasked with maintaining the Democrats’ Senate majority as DSCC chairman, narrowly defeated Republican Ken Buck, whose comparison of homosexuality to alcoholism on Meet the Press cost him his shot at the Senate. In that year’s governor’s race, the conservative grassroots helped nominate a scandal-plagued businessman who won just 11 percent of the vote in a three-way race that included Tancredo as a third-party candidate.
There are signs the party understands its challenges and is moving to alleviate them.
Colorado’s Senate race is becoming something of a test case for whether a charismatic candidate offering a more moderate brand of Republicanism can prevail. Unlike most other Republican Senate candidates, Gardner is racing to the middle on a whole host of issues — abortion, immigration, even energy policy — where he believes Republicans need to be to win statewide. In one of the first decisions he made after announcing his campaign, he reversed his previous support for a “personhood” amendment that would effectively ban abortions in the state. This month, he wrote an op-ed in The Denver Post advocating easier access to birth control — in an attempt to neutralize Udall’s advantage on the issue. He now favors citizenship for illegal immigrants who serve in the military, while sounding more open about other pathways. And unlike most of his GOP Senate counterparts, Gardner remained quiet about the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to raise renewable-energy standards, in part because he supported similar standards when he served in the state Senate.
Other Colorado Republicans are following a similar path, including Beauprez, whose pitch for governor relies on a national message, tying Hickenlooper to Obama and focusing on the excessive regulations hampering economic growth in Colorado. He avoids talk of polarizing social issues or even immigration, which played a larger role in his last gubernatorial run. Rep. Mike Coffman, the lone targeted member of Congress in the state, once proposed legislation to allow communities to use English-only ballots. But after his suburban Denver district was redrawn in 2011 to include significantly more Hispanics, he now supports granting legal status to immigrants in the country illegally.
“Gay marriage, abortion, and immigration remain important to some parts of our party, but other issues such as the economy, criminal justice, and the unifying role of President Obama among all Republicans is taking center stage this year,” said Bill Owens, the last Republican to hold the governorship. “We can’t be a party only of white males. In my case, I successfully was able to reach out and win with the female electorate, and we did so by talking about education, transportation, and criminal justice, which is very important to the female electorate.”
Gardner’s challenge is reconciling his more conservative past positions in safely Republican legislative districts with the political necessities of his current statewide race. But it’s equally as revealing that he’s running like a blue-state Republican in what’s long been regarded as a swing state. If that formula doesn’t work in a very favorable environment for Republicans, Colorado might fall off the list of perennial presidential battlegrounds.
The stakes are high for 2014: If Democrats are able to utilize social issues to overcome significant disadvantages on the economy, health care and legislative overreach, it’s hard to see how Republicans can rebound in 2016, when turnout among the core Democratic voting groups is expected to be much higher. And if Republicans can’t contest Colorado, a reliably Republican presidential state before Obama was on the ballot, it will make the party’s path to 270 electoral votes all the more difficult. But if Republicans can flip Colorado’s Senate seat, it could be the leading edge of a wave threatening Democrats in other battlegrounds that had been trending in their direction.
“Colorado’s a swing state in the sense that if both parties produce candidates that are centrist and competent, it’s up for grabs,” said former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, who now serves as director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University. “Democrats have produced more centrist candidates than the GOP have. The primary process has not been very kind to centrist and moderate Republican candidates. When the party figures it out, they may see a resurgence.”