Do Republicans Still Have a Chance in Colorado?

Party strategists fear the GOP will be shut out of state politics for the foreseeable future if they can’t win the Senate or governor’s races this year.

National Journal
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Josh Kraushaar
June 29, 2014, 4 p.m.

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.”


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