Conservative Colorado Sheriff Justin Smith Considering Senate Race

Smith, who garnered publiclity fighting against Gov. John Hickenlooper’s gun control measures in 2013, is the latest local official to mull a GOP Senate run in the state.

Larimer County Justin Smith
Courtesy of Justin Smith
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
Sept. 23, 2015, 3:13 p.m.

Lar­imer County Sher­iff Justin Smith, a Col­or­ado Re­pub­lic­an, says he is ser­i­ously look­ing at run­ning against Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mi­chael Ben­net in 2016, the latest in a string of po­ten­tial GOP can­did­ates to put their names for­ward in the state.

Smith gained prom­in­ence among the state’s con­ser­vat­ive grass­roots in 2013 for fight­ing against the gun-con­trol le­gis­la­tion cham­pioned by Col­or­ado’s Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor, John Hick­en­loop­er. Smith said in an in­ter­view that he was mak­ing calls and speak­ing with sev­er­al statewide elec­ted of­fi­cials about his plans.

“I’m look­ing to see if the stars line up in the right way for it to work out for me pro­fes­sion­ally,” said Smith, who plans to wait at least an­oth­er month be­fore mak­ing a de­cision.  

Smith joins a hand­ful of loc­al Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials pub­licly eye­ing the Sen­ate race, none of whom have much polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence or statewide name re­cog­ni­tion.

Re­pub­lic­ans in Col­or­ado have been on the hunt for a Ben­net chal­lenger since Rep. Mike Coff­man turned down the race in June, with much at­ten­tion turn­ing to Dis­trict At­tor­ney George Brauchler in the Den­ver sub­urbs. Na­tion­al party lead­ers see Brauchler, who just fin­ished pro­sec­ut­ing the high-pro­file murder case of Au­rora movie theat­er shoot­er James Holmes, as a can­did­ate who could be for­mid­able in next year’s gen­er­al elec­tion and also, po­ten­tially, clear a Re­pub­lic­an primary. Brauchler has said he’ll an­nounce his de­cision on the race in early Oc­to­ber.

But even if Brauchler gets in, at least one oth­er well-fun­ded can­did­ate will be com­pet­ing for the GOP nom­in­a­tion. Col­or­ado Springs busi­ness­man Robert Blaha, who self-fun­ded a con­gres­sion­al run in 2012, vowed to chal­lenge Ben­net be­cause of the Demo­crat’s vote in fa­vor of the Ir­an nuc­le­ar deal.

Two oth­er can­did­ates, El Paso County Com­mis­sion­er Darryl Glenn and former Col­or­ado Small Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion dir­ect­or Greg Lopez, have already launched their cam­paigns. Con­ser­vat­ive state le­gis­lat­or Tim Neville is on a “listen­ing tour” as he con­siders jump­ing from the state Sen­ate to the U.S. Sen­ate. And his col­league, state Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mark Schef­fel, is also re­portedly con­sid­er­ing a run.

Smith sug­ges­ted he would po­ten­tially de­fer to Brauch­er—but not to any oth­er can­did­ates—if the dis­trict at­tor­ney de­cides to run.

“At this point look­ing at the field, to me the le­git­im­ate play­er, or the one who has the po­ten­tial to be a le­git­im­ate play­er has been George Brauchler,” said Smith. Of the oth­ers, he said, “I just don’t be­lieve they can cap­ture the broad rep­res­ent­a­tion with­in the party to pull the dif­fer­ent folks to­geth­er.”

Asked wheth­er he could meet the same chal­lenge of both unit­ing the GOP and chal­len­ging Demo­crats in 2016, Smith poin­ted to his com­pet­it­ive primary and gen­er­al elec­tions for sher­iff in Lar­imer County.

“Yes, I have a very con­ser­vat­ive pro­file, but if you look at Lar­imer County … it’s very purple. Cory Gard­ner did not win Lar­imer County” in his 2014 Sen­ate win, Smith said. “I’ve worked really hard to earn a repu­ta­tion as someone very re­spect­ful of oth­er views, and as someone who can work with in­de­pend­ents.”

In a po­ten­tially wide-open race, Smith’s al­lies hope that he can turn the con­ser­vat­ive pro­file he’s built on gun laws, marijuana, and im­mig­ra­tion in­to grass­roots sup­port that’s eas­ily trans­lat­able in­to votes thanks to Col­or­ado’s all-mail bal­lot­ing.

Smith traveled the state with the In­de­pend­ence In­sti­tute, a Den­ver-based liber­tari­an group, dur­ing the cam­paign against Hick­en­loop­er’s gun con­trol meas­ures, which led to the re­call of two Col­or­ado state sen­at­ors. He was also the lead plaintiff in a law­suit with sher­iffs from two oth­er states this past spring that asked a fed­er­al court in Den­ver to strike down an amend­ment leg­al­iz­ing re­cre­ation­al marijuana sales in Col­or­ado.

“He’s a con­ser­vat­ive guy, stood up very strongly in fa­vor of gun rights, and I think he’d res­on­ate and find a lot of sup­port among the Re­pub­lic­an primary voters,” said former Col­or­ado Sec­ret­ary of State Scott Gessler, a sup­port­er of Smith.

Should he get in the race, Smith has lined up a team of na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ants with the firm Right­Voter; a poll­ster, Todd Vi­tale of WPA Opin­ion Re­search; and a me­dia firm, Strategy Group for Me­dia.

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