This Senate race could make for interesting dinner conversation in one Colorado household.
Republicans say battle-tested Rep. Mike Coffman and his wife, Cynthia, the state's newly elected attorney general, are two of the party's top prospects to challenge Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in 2016.
Colorado marks one of the few states where Republicans have the opportunity to go on offense in 2016, a year when the GOP must defend 24 seats — the vast majority of the map. And after incoming GOP Sen. Cory Gardner's victory last year, Republicans are newly emboldened about their statewide prospects — and potential candidates.
Cynthia Coffman was the state's second-highest vote recipient on Election Day, and Republicans described her as a talented politician who could be a strong nominee. Mike Coffman recently won a tough re-election race, catapulting him to new standing in the party.
In a Sunday phone interview with CQ Roll Call, Cynthia Coffman said she had asked her husband if he was going to run for Senate, but said he had not asked her.
"He seems to be committed to being in Congress," she said. "I think we’re both excited about what we’ve got to do over the next two years."
Cynthia Coffman said it was "fun" and "flattering" to be mentioned, but for now she is "so excited to be attorney general." She said she "would consider" a bid for a House or Senate seat one day, but not necessarily in 2016 — though she did not explicitly rule it out. She said by watching her husband make the commute between Washington, D.C., and Colorado, she had "realized what a drain it is," and would know exactly what she was in for if she were to do it.
This is the first elected office Cynthia Coffman has held — and she has not even been sworn in yet — so observers say it could be difficult for her to mount another statewide campaign in 2016.
"It’s fascinating to me, and I’m new to politics myself — of course I’ve been around it a lot, but I haven't run before — and so it was a little surprising to me that I’d just gotten elected in 2014 and people were already talking about races in 2016," she said.
Mike Coffman started 2014 as one of the cycle's most vulnerable incumbents — and he ended it by defeating one of the Democrats' top recruits, Andrew Romanoff, by 9 points in a swing district. Another plus: Mike Coffman’s district contains parts of competitive counties crucial for statewide victory.
“Well, you never say never,” Mike Coffman told CQ Roll Call outside the House chamber early last month when asked about a Senate bid, “but I’m focused on my House race.”
If neither Coffman runs for Senate, Republicans boast a long list of additional potential candidates.
George Brauchler, the district attorney in Arapahoe County, would also be a strong contender, Colorado Republicans said. Brauchler is prosecuting the Aurora movie theater shooting, a high-profile case scheduled to start in January, which would put him front and center and give him a higher profile. Republicans describe him as smart, articulate and ambitious, but several GOP operatives said he might prefer to run for governor instead in 2018.
“I don’t foreclose any options in the future, but, candidly, I am not thinking about it right now,” Brauchler said in a Dec. 22 phone interview. “I am so focused about wanting to do the right thing on the case and do it well.”
The trial might also present some timing problems for a Senate bid: It is expected to run through the end of 2015.
Republicans also mentioned state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a relative of former President George Bush. A Stapleton spokesman did not rule out the idea last month, telling CQ Roll Call, “We wouldn’t close the door on anything at this moment, but Treasurer Stapleton just got re-elected and he’s focused on doing his job.”
Republicans also mention the slew of 2014 Senate hopefuls who dropped out of the race to clear the field for Gardner as possible candidates: state Sen. Owen Hill, state Rep. Amy Stephens and Rep.-elect Ken Buck, who narrowly lost to Bennet in 2010.
Reached by phone late last month, Buck said he was not focused on a Senate race but declined to rule out the possibility.
“My mind is so far away from 2016 right now,” Buck said. “I’m still trying to figure out where the men’s room is and what the first bills I want to introduce and what committee assignments I want to get and all of those things, so it would be an honor to be mentioned, but it’s not something I’m focused on right now.”
In an email, Hill said he was “really focusing on Colorado policy this year,” and he made no mention of a Senate bid.
Stephens did not respond to request for comment.
Another person considering a bid is state Sen. Ellen Roberts, who one Republican said would be a strong contender.
“I've been approached by a number of people to consider running in that race. I am considering it, but I've not yet decided,” Roberts wrote in a Dec. 21 email.
Businessman Robert Blaha, who mounted a primary challenge to Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., in 2012, told CQ Roll Call he is also considering a bid.
“I don’t think there’s anything off the table. I haven’t made a decision what I’m going to do,” he said in a phone call late last month.
The eventual Republican nominee will have the advantage of Gardner's new infrastructure and turnout operation.
But the candidate will also have to run in 2016, likely a tougher year for Republicans than last cycle. Historically, Democrats have done well in Colorado in presidential years thanks to higher turnout.
Bennet's allies say the senator has built a reputation as a moderate willing to work across the aisle. They point to a bill passed last month to help protect the Hermosa Creek Watershed, which Bennet worked on with Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo. Bennet was also one of the authors of the Senate’s bipartisan immigration overhaul bill, which could help him with Colorado’s Latino population.
The senator is sitting on $1.4 million in his campaign account. He also boasts a large fundraising network, thanks in part to his recent term as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Plus, after Udall's defeat, Bennet will be on guard against a strong Republican challenge.
The question for Republicans is whether anybody on that bench can recapture Gardner’s success. Democrats have some doubts — for now.
“There just is nobody to match his skills and ambition and work ethic,” said Jim Carpenter, who consulted on the Udall race. “There’s just nobody out there to do that; they just don’t have a man.”
Related Stories: Democrats Eyeing 5 House Race Rematches in 2016 The Best Congressional Campaigns of 2014 Freshman Class Filled With Losers Jon Tester Named DSCC Chairman The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.