Republicans head into the stretch run of this campaign season with a chance to make major gains in Colorado. But if an amicable solution to a tense intraparty divide at the top of the ticket is not resolved in a timely manner, the GOP could be locked out of the Centennial State for years to come.
Today, Colorado is viewed as a solidly Democratic state. Obama carried it with 53.5 percent of the vote in 2008. The governor, both senators, both houses of the legislature and five of seven congressional seats are controlled by Democrats. Republicans coughed up both Senate seats, two House seats, the governorship and both houses of the General Assembly in just two elections — 2004 and 2006. And this after Republicans, then firmly in control, drew up a redistricting plan in 2001 that was to have enshrined them in power for a generation or more.
But a recession exacerbated by out-of-control spending at the federal level and Democratic mismanagement at the state level has given Republicans an opportunity to return to power. New faces in key races — in particular, Ken Buck taking on Michael Bennet in one of the nation’s most closely watched U.S. Senate races — have helped Republicans build a sizable enthusiasm gap in Colorado, a key to down-ballot success.
But all that momentum could be lost if two conservatives vying to be the Centennial State’s next governor — Dan Maes and Tom Tancredo — can’t be convinced to put aside their ambitions and get behind the ticket. Tancredo threatened to jump into the Republican primary on several occasions, but ultimately decided to sit it out and carp from the sidelines at both Maes and his opponent, Scott McInnis. But when Maes survived a minor campaign-finance scandal to defeat McInnis, Tancredo re-emerged.
Within days of Maes’ primary victory, Tancredo, who by then had joined the race on the American Constitution Party ticket, suggested both he and Maes drop out and allow the Colorado GOP to select another candidate. This on the heels of his threat during the primary campaign to enter the race unless McInnis and Maes dropped out. It is not known if Maes invited Tancredo to take a walk up Pike’s Peak, but he did decline the “deal.”
Since then, the Maes-Tancredo dispute has benefitted only the Democrats. A Rasmussen poll released at the end of August puts John Hickenlooper, the Dem gubernatorial nominee, at 36 percent, Maes at 24 percent, and Tancredo at 14 percent, with 20 percent undecided. At this juncture, Colorado voters view Hickenlooper as a candidate with glaring weaknesses who will have difficulty garnering more than 40 percent of the vote on Election Day. But in a three-way race, the GOP’s ongoing divide adds up to victory for Hickenlooper.
But it’s not just the governor’s office that could slip away from the GOP. The dispute between Tancredo and Maes could significantly undermine Republicans throughout Colorado and, in fact, the nation. The fate of the top of the ticket often influences the results in down-ballot elections. For an example, consider Virginia, where Gov. Bob McDonnell’s 17-point victory in 2009 played no small part in significant Republican gains in the legislature. In the race for Colorado’s U.S. Senate seat, Republican Ken Buck has a tough campaign against the appointed Democratic incumbent. Any spillover from the Maes-Tancredo feud could jeopardize what looks to be a likely pickup opportunity for Republicans in their quest to reclaim a majority in U.S. Senate. Likewise their infighting could harm a number of GOP U.S. House candidates in Colorado, which could threaten efforts to retake that body as well.
But perhaps of even greater importance, the Maes-Tancredo disruption could threaten efforts to retake both houses of the Colorado General Assembly at a most inopportune time for the GOP, with redistricting on the horizon for 2011. Democrats currently outnumber Republicans, 37-27 (plus one former Democrat, now running for re-election as an independent) in the House and 21-14 in the Senate, and observers say control of both bodies could change hands if electoral dynamics align and Republicans run effectively up and down the ticket. There are not only more Republicans than Democrats in Colorado; there are more independents as well. The General Assembly changing hands won’t happen, of course, with Maes and Tancredo mounting daily attacks on each other.
Even if a lot of Republicans remain skeptical about Maes’ ability to go the distance in November, the fact remains that he did win the GOP nomination. Conversely, by not participating as a candidate in the primary, Tancredo will be hard pressed to convince Maes’ supporters to jump ship after a victorious primary campaign. As long as both candidates remain in the race, neither has a likely chance of victory. Whether driven by principle or vanity, this standoff could leave a legacy that will haunt the Colorado GOP for years to come.