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Colorado’s GOP on a Roll

With one prominent exception.

Jul 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 42 • By FRED BARNES
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Colorado’s GOP on a Roll

Norton v. Buck

Colorado, the vanguard of a Democratic juggernaut for three straight election cycles, has flipped. To wit:

President Obama won Colorado handily in 2008 (54 percent to 45 percent for John McCain), but his popularity dropped precipitously last year and hasn’t recovered. “The state voted for change,” says political consultant Floyd Ciruli. “It did not vote for a liberal agenda.”

House minority leader John Boehner spoke at a gathering of Republican donors here last week. The result was $800,000 in contributions to help capture House seats in the midterm election in November. It was, Boehner said, the biggest haul at a regional fundraising event by the National Republican Congressional Committee since the new McCain-Feingold campaign finance rules went into effect in 2003.

 In the Colorado Senate race, both Republican candidates, former lieutenant governor Jane Norton and county prosecutor Ken Buck, are running ahead of (appointed) Senator Michael Bennett and his Democratic primary challenger, Andrew Romanoff. Mail ballots in the August 10 primary are going out this week.

Meanwhile, Republican Cory Gardner has an excellent chance of unseating Democratic representative Betsy Markey in the House district in eastern Colorado. And Republicans have an outside chance of ousting two other House Democrats, John Salazar and Ed Perlmutter. Their prospects of gaining control of the lower house of the Colorado legislature are reasonably good.

But then there’s the race for governor, the centerpiece of Republican hopes in Colorado in 2010. Republican Scott McInnis, 57, elbowed his chief primary foe, 34-year-old state senator Josh Penry, out of the primary contest, and he’s led the Democratic candidate, popular Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, for months. But now McInnis is in serious peril, and his advantage in the polls is likely to vanish.

Jon Caldara, who heads the Independence Institute here, has what he calls “Caldara’s political axiom number one”: There is nothing that Republicans can’t screw up. In 2004 and 2006, poisonous primary battles contributed to Republican losses in elections for governor and senator. Republicans have also been tardy in matching the infrastructure of websites and front groups that back Democrats. Nor do they have the rich donors that fund Colorado Democrats. 

The trouble this time was caused by McInnis himself. He was paid $300,000 by the Hasan Family Foundation for a 150-page report on water (“Musings on Water”). It turns out portions are identical to a 1984 essay by Gregory J. Hobbs, now a state supreme court justice. Last week, the Denver Post broke the story under a blaring front-page headline: “Judge’s water essay copied. Expert: McInnis’ work, submitted as ‘original,’ plagiarizes words, ideas.”

McInnis dismissed the matter as a “non-issue” and blamed the researcher he’d hired, Rolly Fischer, for lifting paragraphs from the Hobbs essay. In response, Fischer accused McInnis of lying and said he refused to sign a letter accepting responsibility.

A quickie poll by the Denver Post found that 20 percent of Republican voters who’d favored McInnis now intend to vote for someone else. McInnis said he would make “full payment arrangements” to reimburse the foundation and insisted he won’t drop out. “I’m in it to win it,” he said. 

Both the Denver Post and Grand Junction Sentinel, McInnis’s hometown paper, urged him to quit the race. And Republican leaders began private discussions about replacing McInnis. This would be difficult unless McInnis won the primary, then agreed to step down—an unlikely scenario. Dan Maes, McInnis’s lone primary opponent, is regarded as having little chance of defeating Hickenlooper.

Will the McInnis mess harm other Republican campaigns? Maybe, but given the strong Republican tide in Colorado, especially among the third of the electorate registered as “unaffiliated,” the fallout may be minimal.

The controversy did show, however, the influence of the web of liberal groups that target Republicans. “The progressive infrastructure in Colorado is alive and well,” says Rob Witwer, coauthor of The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado. Months before the Denver Post’s story, liberal blogger Jason Salzman was raising questions about why McInnis was paid $300,000 by a foundation in 2005 and 2006 after he’d retired from the House. 

For the moment anyway, the McInnis flap has overshadowed the fierce primary fight for the Republican Senate nomination. Buck, 51, began as the underdog, but two factors have made him a formidable rival to Norton. TV ads by a wealthy Buck supporter—so-called “independent expenditures”—have attacked Norton and touted Buck. And Buck began his campaign months before Norton got in the race, visiting most of Colorado’s 64 counties and often appearing at Tea Party events.

When Norton, 55, decided to run last September, she met with Buck and asked him to drop out of the race. He declined. She’s been endorsed by two of the state’s most popular Republicans, former governor Bill Owens and ex-senator Bill Armstrong. Buck is backed by Republican senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. “When I went around the Senate to talk to senators, his was the only door that was open,” Buck told me.

In precinct caucuses in March, Buck narrowly beat Norton in a straw poll. She chose not to compete in the Republican party assembly, where she would have needed 30 percent of the vote for a spot on the primary ballot. Instead, she collected petition signatures to get on the ballot.

In April, Norton fired her campaign manager, hired Penry, and emerged as a more aggressive candidate. Her new television spot is anything but docile. “Seen those TV ads attacking me?” she says. “They’re paid for by a shady interest group doing the bidding of Ken Buck. You’d think Ken’d be man enough to do it himself.” The Norton campaign, by the way, has accused Buck and the supporter behind the anti-Norton ads of illegal collusion. Buck and Walt Klein, his media consultant, deny the charge.

In a Denver Post poll in mid-June, Buck led Norton, 53 percent to 37. But Norton is counting on the mail-in vote to enlarge the turnout. She’s ahead by nearly 2-1 in the “next ring” of voters who don’t normally vote in a Republican primary, Penry says. “We think we can get to them.”

In truth, both Norton and Buck are good candidates. Both are conservatives. Either is likely to defeat Bennett, a lockstep liberal who has a bitter primary battle of his own against Romanoff. “It’s as bad for Democrats in 2010 as it was good for them in 2008,” says Penry.

Bad enough for McInnis to stick it out, win the primary, and become a viable candidate again? Probably not, but stranger things have happened in politics and often do.

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