Republicans Search for Another Cory Gardner to Challenge Bennet
It’s been a month of diminishing prospects for Colorado Republicans looking for a candidate to challenge vulnerable Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet.
Three Republicans have declined to run, beginning with the party’s top pick, 6th District Rep. Mike Coffman, in a race that could affect the balance of power in the Senate. Drama within the state party has only distracted from the search for a credible candidate.
There’s now another name in the pool: Greg Lopez, the former director of the U.S. Small Business Administration in Colorado, threw his hat in the ring Monday afternoon.
At the very least, a Lopez candidacy gives Colorado Republicans someone new to talk about. But with his low name recognition, they would rather be talking about someone else.
Not seeing Lopez as much of a threat, the Colorado Democratic Party didn’t even bother blasting out the routine statement attacking a potential rival as soon as he had filed.
Lopez’s entrance into the race, rated Leans Democratic by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call, leaves Republicans much where they were a month ago: searching for a Cory Gardner for 2016.
When the then-4th District congressman decided to challenge Sen. Mark Udall in 2014, other Republicans already in the race stepped aside. Gardner went on to defeat Udall by fewer than 2 points.
But this year, “There’s no dominant figure like a [Mike] Coffman,” said former Colorado GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams.
By all accounts, Coffman would have cleared the GOP field.
“Coffman would have had an extraordinary advantage — both organizationally and financially,” Wadhams added. “It was like, there was Coffman and then there was everybody else.”
But Coffman decided against running. Then his wife Cynthia, who hadn’t even been sworn in as the state’s attorney general, had her name come up as a potential candidate. But she took herself out of the running after being caught up in internal party squabbling. The state party chairman alleged she and other Colorado Republicans had threatened to go public with accusations he was having an extramarital affair unless he resigned from his leadership post. Cynthia Coffman has denied those allegations.
One national Republican operative, speaking to CQ Roll Call last month, downplayed the party’s disappointment that neither Coffman ran. “The Coffmans, both Cynthia and Congressman Coffman, came with a lot of unknowns and risks, and I think that was one of the reasons why it wasn’t a bad thing that they both decided not to run for Senate,” the operative said. The congressman has gotten himself in hot water recently for joking about the Department of Veterans Affairs managing the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS.
Days after Cynthia Coffman stepped aside, state Sen. Ellen Roberts, plagued early on by inconsistencies in her abortion position, also decided against a campaign, citing the challenge of fundraising.
At first glance, a Lopez candidacy checks important boxes for a GOP looking to broaden its demographic appeal. Lopez speaks Spanish and served on the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce board for 10 years.
“I don’t reflect the misconception of what the Republican candidate looks like,” Lopez told the Denver Post.
Lopez isn’t the only declared GOP candidate in the race. El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn declared his candidacy in January.
And there are plenty more potential candidates whose names are still floated — often as more credible candidates than the two already officially in the race.
“In the absence of Coffman, I think we can find several candidates before all is said and done,” Wadhams said.
Businessman Robert Blaha, who lost a primary to Doug Lamborn in the 5th District in 2012, and Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, who’s been prosecuting the high-profile trial of the Aurora movie theater gunman, are still being talked about as potential candidates, though it’s thought Brauchler may be more interested in running for governor.
State Senate President Bill Cadman and state Sen. Owen Hill are also still mentioned. Hill withdrew from the 2014 Senate race after Gardner got in. Rep. Scott Tipton, who represents Colorado’s 3rd District, has been floated, as has former Solicitor General Dan Domenico.
The Mountain State represents the GOP’s best shot at unseating a Democratic incumbent. Republicans got their preferred candidate in Nevada, where they have a chance to flip retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s seat, with the entrance of Rep. Joe Heck on July 6.
The other two competitive Senate races where there’s recruiting left to be done are Democrats’ problem: They need to lock down challengers to New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and North Carolina Sen. Richard M. Burr.
But recruitment in Colorado isn’t troubling Republicans, at least not publicly.
“We will have a good candidate,” said one GOP member of Congress. “And we should know within a couple of months.”
But to hear Republicans talk about it, there’s no rush.
“While I know there’s a lot of handwringing that there’s not a clear-cut front-runner,” Wadhams said, “I don’t think that’s a big concern right now.”
Republicans are quick to point out that Gardner, who at first said he wasn’t interested in running, didn’t get into the Senate race until March 2014.
“You could find a candidate that could catch fire at the end, and that’s a dangerous situation for an incumbent,” Wadhams said. He predicted that after winning the nomination next June, a viable GOP nominee could be just several points behind Bennet. “If this candidate emerges and is within striking distance, the fundraising could take care of itself,” he said, anticipating independent outside groups would come to the rescue.
Bennet, Wadhams added, “has not made any major mistakes, but he’s done nothing to be such a dominant figure in the U.S. Senate that he cannot be touched.”