Republicans were on a roll in Colorado. Now they’re not. After losing badly to Democrats in 2004, 2006, and 2008, Republicans were optimistic about winning the governorship, a Senate seat, one to three House pickups, and any number of state legislative seats in the midterm elections in November. They may still do well, but there are problems.
The governor’s race has become a fiasco for Republicans. The frontrunner, former House member Scott McInnis, has become embroiled in a scandal over plagiarism in a report on water for which was paid $300,000. His foe in Tuesday’s primary, Don Maes, is lightly regarded as a general election candidate.
And another ex-House member, Tom Tancredo, has decided to run for governor as an independent. The result: Republican prospects for winning the governorship (being vacated by Democrat Bill Ritter) have declined sharply. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, the Democratic candidate, is now a strong favorite to capture the governor’s office.
Whether this race will affect Republicans in other contests is unclear, but it certainly won’t help. “Down-ticket candidates rely on well-organized gubernatorial campaign to frame the issue environment,” says former Republican legislator Rob Witwer, co-author of The Blueprint, a book on how Democrats revived their fortunes in Colorado in the past three elections. “The governor’s race is distracting both the press and the public from the issues that need to be highlighted – government spending, fiscal sanity, the need for new leadership.”
This is significant because the issue environment is “as favorable for Republicans as it’s been in years,” Witwer says. “Problem is, right now nobody’s focused on issues. All the talk is about personalities…. This undercuts the Republican message that is doing so well across the country.”
The Republican primary for the Senate between former lieutenant governor Jane Norton and local prosecutor Ken Buck does not appear to have been affected by fallout from the governor’s contest. “Their races are high profile enough to isolate themselves from the turmoil,” Witwer says.
Recent polls show Buck with a small lead over Norton, who is relying on mail-in ballots to win the primary. She runs slightly better than Buck in matchups against either of the two Democratic candidates, appointed Senator Michael Bennet and ex-house speaker Andrew Romanoff.
The Republican primary winner may be aided by the bruising nature of the Democratic race, which has been even more bitterly fought than the Norton-Buck faceoff. President Obama is backing Bennett. Bill Clinton is supporting Romanoff.
A revision. In an earlier piece on Colorado, I wrote that Norton had met with Buck last year September and asked him to defer to her and drop out of the race. A source close to Norton says she met with Buck at his request, never asked him to drop out, but that he indicated he would get out. Tancredo, the source says, has taken credit for convincing Buck to stay in.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.