If Republicans wake up on November 3rd to find their majority-making hopes dashed, they may be looking at a state like Colorado for evidence of opportunities missed.
At the beginning of this midterm cycle, Colorado offered the GOP just the kind of scenario it was looking for to reverse the Democrats' victories — both in the state and nationwide — from 2006 and 2008.
For instance, incumbent Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter surprised many in his own party by deciding not to seek election, giving the GOP a prime pick-up opportunity. Also, Democrat Michael Bennet, an appointed senator running in his first campaign for office, provided Republicans a tasty target for the GOP, which is also eyeing at least one Democrat-held House seat.
Add to that the national mood and a primary threat to Bennet from former State House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, and the state appeared a recipe for Republican midterm success.
But a summer of pandemonium within the GOP has produced a much different picture just two weeks before the Aug. 10 primary.
Consider these recent events:
- Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck had to apologize for deriding Tea Party movement members who question whether President Barack Obama was really born in the United States. A Democratic “tracker” recorded Buck, a favorite of activists, saying, "Will you tell those dumba---s at the tea party to stop asking questions about birth certificates while I'm on the camera?"
- Buck and GOP rival Jane Norton have engaged in a gender-laced exchange of insults, with Norton questioning why Buck is not "man enough" to criticize her directly and Buck mocking Norton for her "high heels."
- A plagiarism scandal has inflicted a possibly fatal wound on the candidacy of Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Scott McInnis. The other GOP gubernatorial contender, Dan Maes, has had to pay a fine to settle alleged campaign finance violations.
- On Monday a raucous quarrel erupted on Denver talk radio station KHOW between the state Republican chairman Dick Wadhams and former Rep. Tom Tancredo, who is jumping into the governor’s race as a third-party candidate after McInnis and Maes refused to make way for him.
Internal party disputes, ideological spats and GOP nominees who are considered too conservative also threaten to spoil the GOP's chances in other states like Florida, Kentucky and Nevada. But more than any other state right now, Colorado epitomizes how Republicans are coming close to blowing a golden opportunity.
Public feud over private conversations
In the KHOW radio brawl, which at one point featured a barking dog in the background, Tancredo said Wadhams had privately told him that McInnis was “untrustworthy” and Maes was “a joke.” Tancredo said to Wadhams, “You dislike them both — you don’t trust either one.”
Wadhams denied saying this. Each man then called the other a liar as the host of the program jumped in to side against the party chairman.
In the wake of the plagiarism scandal that has crippled McInnis, state GOP leaders have been searching for a way to replace either candidate but can't do anything until the primary is over because most of the state votes by mail in the primary and that process is already well under way.
Tancredo’s entry as a third-party candidate seems likely to pave a path to victory for Democratic candidate, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. But Tancredo insisted, “I have a better chance of beating Hickenlooper in a three-way race than Scott or Maes does in a two-way race.”
In 2007, Tancredo mounted a long-shot bid for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination.
Potential to hurt GOP in other races
The unforced errors and feuding on the Republican side have created a distraction, said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “It has a tremendous potential for hurting the other races,” he said.
He said it wasn’t a question of Tancredo depressing Republican turnout – in fact, he may well increase turnout among committed conservatives. But rhetorically Tancredo “has no restraints,” Ciruli said. He has a penchant for saying things that “distract from any other issues.”
Case in point: while campaigning three weeks ago with Buck, Tancredo said “the greatest threat to our liberty, the greatest threat to the Constitution, the greatest threat to our way of life, everything we believe in... is the guy who is in the White House.”
“I don't agree,” Buck told reporters after the campaign event. “There are a lot of threats to this country, and I don't think the man in the White House is the greatest threat to this country at all.”
“Colorado has a very substantial number of moderates in both parties and unaffiliated voters who are not attached to either party,” Ciruli said. “Those folks generally like non-confrontational campaigns. They don’t like extremes, they don’t like intense partisanship.”
“Not only will this gubernatorial debate drive off moderates and unaffiliateds from the Republican label, Hickenlooper could become rallying point for Democrats who had been really on the defensive here with unaffiliated voters,” he said.
Republican hopes in Colorado House race
Joanna Burgos, a National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman, disputed the idea that the governor's race could affect the chances of one of the GOP prime pickup opportunities: Colorado's Fourth district in the northeast and eastern part of the state, where first-term Democrat Rep. Betsy Markey faces Republican Cory Gardner.
She pointed out that the district supported GOP presidential candidate John McCain in 2008 even as Markey was winning her race. "This is a Betsy Markey vs. Cory Gardner race and won't be affected by the top of the ticket," she said.
Markey has cast risky votes for her party leadership's agenda items: a cap-and-trade bill, the health care law, and the stimulus.
There’s at least one previous case of GOP intra-party turmoil in one race spilling over into down-ballot races.
“The clearest recent example of a gubernatorial downdraft is Ohio 2006,” said Claremont McKenna College political scientist Pitney. “The incumbent GOP governor (Bob Taft) had been ensnared in scandal and his party's candidate to replace him (Ken Blackwell) was unpopular. Together with bad national trends, trouble at the top of the ticket helped bring down incumbent senator Mike DeWine and cost the GOP a couple of House seats.”
Democrats display some discipline
While Colorado Republicans contend with a chaotic governor’s race and a costly Senate primary, the advantage in the Democrats’ Senate primary seems to be with the man party leaders in Washington, D.C. have rallied behind, Sen. Michael Bennet.
Democratic donors have lifted Bennet to a huge cash advantage: as of June 30, he had more than $2.5 million in cash on hand, more than five times as much as his challenger Andrew Romanoff.
So dire is Romanoff’s campaign cash plight that he has decided to sell his house and loan his campaign $325,000.
Progressives in and outside Colorado have been divided in their loyalties, with some backing Bennet on the strength of his support for a public option as part of the health care reform, while others see Romanoff as the more genuine progressive and the more experienced lawmaker.
Romanoff was able to generate some early enthusiasm for his candidacy, as well as an endorsement from former President Clinton. But their primary has been far more tame than the bitter Republican contest, leaving it more likely that the Democrats will emerge with a well-funded nominee unscathed by intra-party battles.