Politics & Policy

Little-Known GOP Candidates in Colorado Aim to Tumble Senator Bennet

Senate candidate Jack Graham (via Facebook)
A fractured field of underfunded candidates raises doubts that the GOP can pick up a Senate seat.

What’s going on in the Republican Senate primary in Colorado?

“Who knows,” jokes Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli.

Colorado is one of just two opportunities this year for Republicans to pick up a Senate seat in a cycle where they are largely on defense. But a crowded primary field of virtually unknown candidates hoping to challenge Democratic senator Michael Bennet has left Republicans taking a “wait and see” posture toward the race. What might have been a top priority in another year has become a question mark for Republicans looking at the race: Will a candidate emerge that is strong enough to justify investment? And will Colorado even be competitive at all? 

It was less than two years ago that Republicans were riding high in Colorado, when Cory Gardner, then a congressman, bested incumbent Democratic senator Mark Udall. It was a coup for Republicans: Political analysts had not initially regarded the seat as in play, but then, in March 2014, with a single stroke, Republicans persuaded Gardner to enter the race and his Republican opposition to exit. They went on to win the seat as part of the 2014 sweep that gave them control of the Senate for the first time in eight years.

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Things could not look more different this year. Attempts to recruit first-tier — or even second-tier — candidates failed time and time again. Representative Mike Coffman, the first choice, resisted entreaties to run. That wouldn’t have been a problem, except so did Representative Scott Tipton, state treasurer Walker Stapleton, Aurora district attorney George Brauchler, and several other candidates Republicans hoped would try their hand at the seat. The result: a field of candidates that, with just six weeks remaining until the June 28 primary, has scant name recognition and is drawing little attention.

“It’s like the primary that never was,” says one Colorado Republican.

Big-name Republicans and outside groups have thus far declined to play powerbroker to boost any one candidate. Without a Gardner-like figure to rally around, “the Republican party doesn’t have a real sort of sense of direction at the moment,” says Ciruli. Gardner, for his part, says he’ll wait to get involved until after the primary.

It was less than two years ago that Republicans were riding high in Colorado. … Things could not look more different this year.

With little time left, name recognition is paramount. “The first person who becomes a household name among Republican-primary voters is going to be win the primary,” says Patrick Davis, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee political director who runs the super PAC that is backing GOP businessman Robert Blaha in the Senate race.

That means spending money. There’s not a lot of time left for the candidates to turn themselves into known quantities. In Colorado, many people vote early by mail, and ballots will be mailed out on June 6. By the time primary day rolls around on June 28, much of the electorate will have already voted. That makes the next two weeks potentially crucial for candidates looking to break out. The fastest way to raise name recognition? Spend money on advertising.

“When you get in late, and all you’re doing is trying to drive around the state and persuade voters one voter at a time — you need about a twelve-year primary to make that successful,” says Walt Klein, a consultant for Jack Graham, a businessman and former Colorado State University athletic director who was one of the last candidates to enter the race. Klein was the campaign manager for Ken Buck, who narrowly lost to Bennet in 2010. 

#share#Money is not something any of the campaigns have a lot of. All five candidates finished March with less than $1 million in their campaign accounts – some of them with much less. But Graham and Blaha have each put $1 million of their own money into their campaigns, and for now, that has Republicans looking favorably on their chances. Right now, they are the only two candidates on the air. Blaha went up for a period early this year and is now back on air. On Wednesday, Graham debuted his first TV ad, a positive biographical spot. His campaign plans to maintain a heavy ad presence through the primary, something they see as essential in such a late-developing race.

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Graham has drawn favorable attention among operatives for the mechanics of his campaign. He hired Dick Wadhams, a respected former chairman of the state party, to be his campaign manager, and he was the first candidate to file the signatures necessary to get on the ballot. He was ultimately the only candidate to do so without any challenges. Blaha, Jon Keyser, and Ryan Frazier were all initially kicked off the ballot by the secretary of state for failing to procure the sufficient number of signatures in each congressional district — a story that has drawn perhaps the most attention of any aspect of the race.

Graham has bought more airtime, but Blaha’s ads are flashier. His first ad featured an exploding toilet and a doctor who was shoving his hand into a patient’s rear end. The second spot calls Blaha the cure for “the Washington Blahs.”

Money is not something any of the campaigns have a lot of. All five candidates finished March with less than $1 million.

Colorado Republicans say a third candidate, Darryl Glenn, might be able to make a more serious play than expected after an endorsement from the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF). The group has run paid media for favored candidates in past primaries, which could help boost Glenn’s campaign. For now, the SCF says it is focused on bundling money for Glenn. That, on its own, will be useful, since he finished March with a paltry $11,000 in his campaign account. Glenn won a place on the ballot by giving a rousing speech at the GOP convention, but concerns remain about his ability to raise money and his lack of a statewide infrastructure. Glenn’s communications director, Jillian Likness, says they’re aware that they need high name identification, and the campaign plans to run its first radio ads beginning Memorial Day, with television ads to follow.

A fourth candidate, Jon Keyser, is expected to go on air, but his campaign team declined to give any details as to when. Keyser entered the race as the favored candidate of D.C. Republicans. A major in the Air Force Reserves who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has perhaps the most compelling personal backstory of any candidate in the field. Keyser’s campaign argues that makes him the strongest candidate against Bennet, whom Republicans see as especially vulnerable on national-security issues. They point to Bennet’s votes in favor of the Iran deal and his vote to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. That last vote could have particular resonance: Obama is considering Colorado as one of the places that could house Guantanamo Bay detainees, if the White House succeeds in transferring the prisoners to the United States. “In Colorado, you end up with a pretty engaged voter pool by the time you get to primary day,” says Brad Todd, a consultant for Keyser’s campaign, saying he believes voters would pick Keyser because he is the most viable in a general election.

But Keyser has stumbled on the expectations set for him. Before he entered the race, a campaign ally bragged to the Colorado Statesman that he had received $3 million in soft money commitments at a Republican Jewish Coalition Forum. But on his most recent campaign-finance report, which shows records through the end of March, he reported raising just $400,000, one-quarter of which he personally loaned to his campaign. And he has fumbled repeatedly over the past few weeks in addressing issues about signatures on his ballot petition.

A fifth candidate, Ryan Frazier, won his appeal to be on the primary ballot Wednesday, after initially being kicked off for not having gotten the required number of signatures. Frazier’s campaign did not respond to request for comment. 

#related#Republicans see Bennet as vulnerable, but he has built up a hefty campaign war chest to combat that. He ended March with $7.6 million in his campaign account, and as the chairman of the committee charged with electing Senate Democrats last cycle, he is plugged in to the donor community. And the question is whether the eventual Republican nominee — whoever it may be — can convince donors that he is a wise investment. National Republicans say Keyser would be the most likely to draw money from both donors and outside groups, if he were to win the nomination. But in a year where Republicans will have to spend to protect vulnerable incumbent senators across the country, the eventual nominee in Colorado could struggle to compete for resources.  

And Republicans have few predictions of who that could be. As one Colorado Republican out it, “that’s like pulling names out of a hat.”

Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.


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