By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
When state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry pulled the plug on his gubernatorial campaign, did he also yank a linchpin, setting off a grenade that will blow up the GOP’s strategy to unseat Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter?
Penry’s decision, first reported on Chris Cillizza’s Washington Post blog on Monday afternoon, sent shock waves through Colorado Web sites and news media. Two hours later, NBC’s Domenico Montanaro posted a message on the MSNBC Web site quoting “a campaign source” who said Penry had been “scared off, in part, by a 527 that was ramping up for McInnis that was set to go after Penry.”
On Tuesday, Penry issued a two-page statement explaining his decision to withdraw from the race — several hours after he’d met with his campaign staff, most of whom had learned of the decision by reading Monday’s blog posts.
And on Wednesday, the impact still was reverberating among both Republicans and Democrats.
Penry’s campaign Web site posted the following message:
“Republicans are hungry for reform-minded leadership — a conservative agenda that addresses the challenges of our day.
“While I am disappointed that I won’t be the candidate who carries the fight to Bill Ritter, I am heartened by the amazing outpouring of support Jamie, Chase, Emme and I have received from the four corners of Colorado.
“Thank you, with all the sincerity of a grateful heart, to those who stood with us.”
Although media reports and rumors focused on campaign finance problems and fears of facing an opponent’s 527 or 501(c)(4) ad blitz, those close to the candidate said the decision also was based on family concerns.
“He’s walking away from a tremendous opportunity,” said Colorado Republican Party Chair Dick Wadhams, who sounded stunned and disappointed.
Asked if he had any insight into the personal issues affecting Penry’s decision, Wadhams said he didn’t.
“Campaigning is very, very draining emotionally and physically on the candidate — and then, there are family considerations,” said Wadhams of Penry’s wife, Jamie, and the couple’s two young children.
Earlier in the campaign season, the 33-year-old candidate had told friends how hard it was to serve in the state Senate, away from his family in Grand Junction.
If he won the governorship, Penry envisioned getting the best of both worlds — having his family in Denver while serving in office.
Penry was so committed to achieving the dream that he told The Colorado Statesman in the summer that his wife had quit her teaching job and the couple was selling their residence and a rental property on the Western Slope.
The goal, he said, was to campaign across Colorado with his family by his side, win and take up residence in the Governor’s Mansion in January 2011.
The dream was not to be — at least not in this election cycle.
As news of Penry’s decision rippled through Republican circles on Monday, it looked as if the contest had narrowed to two candidates: former 3rd District Congressman Scott McInnis and Evergreen businessman Dan Maes. McInnis supporters were convinced Penry would endorse their man.
The dominos had begun to fall on Nov. 3, after the GOP gubernatorial candidates’ forum at Colorado Christian University. McInnis had received a call from Penry to discuss the race; a meeting was scheduled for the following Monday.
McInnis had shunned GOP events featuring straw polls or debates, saying he didn’t want to divide the party into bitter factions, which would ultimately hurt the nominee in the general election. Penry had hammered McInnis for refusing to debate.
At the Nov. 9 meeting, the tables turned with some irony. Penry said he was quitting the race for the benefit of the party’s nominee — and to avoid splintering the Republican base in a bitter battle before the general election.
An endorsement appeared to be in the works. The question late Monday night was whether Penry would issue a press release or make the announcement at a media conference. If it were to be the latter, it stood to reason that Penry would invite McInnis to attend.
“Bob Beauprez and Marc Holtzman would have loved to get what we got today — party unity,” said McInnis campaign political consultant Mike Hesse of Penry’s decision to quit the contest.
Former 7th District Congressman Beauprez beat Holtzman for the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination in 2006 after a bitter battle, then lost the general election to Ritter.
Beauprez’s campaign was damaged by a split between his supporters and Holtzman’s. In addition, Holtzman’s moniker for his opponent — “Both ways Bob” — was used by Democrats in ads against Beauprez.
“Right now, it’s Josh Penry’s time in the sun. He is doing a selfless act,” said Hesse.
“We plan to work as closely with Senator Penry as he’s willing to work with us,” said McInnis campaign manager George Culpepper Jr. “Tomorrow is going to be a different day for Republicans — and it’s going to be a better day!”
But the next day didn’t dawn quite so brightly. Penry met again with McInnis on Tuesday and decided to withhold his endorsement.
In his statement to supporters, Penry wrote about his quest for party unity and his meetings with McInnis.
“No deals, no job offers, no promises, no endorsements… We don’t agree on everything, but he’s ready for the job. But before I make any decision to endorse, I want to know more about the agenda that he’s going to bring to the office. I want to know how he will govern.
“Republicans are hungry for reform-minded leadership — a conservative agenda that addresses the challenges of our day — and I’ve encouraged Scott to embrace just that,” said Penry, who added that he’ll make an endorsement in the near future.
Would it be Maes, McInnis or another candidate?
Penry said he’s scheduling one meeting with Maes and another with former 6th District Congressman Tom Tancredo, sparking immediate speculation that the former congressman and presidential candidate was again entertaining a GOP gubernatorial bid.
“I’ve said all along that if Josh wasn’t in the race, I would be. Now he’s no longer in the race. So stay tuned,” Tancredo told Fox 31 News on Wednesday.
Tancredo, who had supported Penry’s candidacy, said he plans to file exploratory committee papers with the Secretary of State’s Office soon.
Hesse said a Tancredo run wouldn’t change the strategy of the McInnis campaign, which is to remain focused on unseating Ritter.
A “Tancredo for President” Web site was revamped this week, replacing the header to read “Tom Tancredo for Governor” over a photo of Tancredo with a waving flag in the background. A disclaimer reads, “Under Construction. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee … yet.”
His supporters also launched a “Draft Tom Tancredo for Governor” Facebook page on Monday. After visiting the page, Douglas County GOP activist Crista Huff posted a “thumbs up” icon on Twitter.
Tancredo’s detractors — an eclectic mix of Democrats and Republicans — forecast doom and gloom for the GOP if he leaps into the race for governor.
“Even if Tom didn’t put immigration on the table in that race, it will become a dominating issue,” said one Republican legislator, who asked for anonymity. “Tancredo is too identified with the immigration issue.”
And that, Republican insiders said, could sound a death knell for a state party determined to avoid divisive issues such as immigration, abortion and gay rights in the 2010 election.
Wadhams said the Republican race for governor is wide open — and Tancredo is welcome to jump in.
By Wednesday, Mario Solis-Marich of the liberal Nuestra Voice Web site, wrote a blog on AlterNet.org, claiming that, “Democrats need a man that can inspire Latinos and other independents to come to the polls and vote for Democrats — Tancredo is that man!”
Adding to the controversy, links appeared on the Internet to a video of a recent MSNBC show on which Tancredo had butted heads with Markos Moulitsas, founder of the liberal Daily Kos Web site, over the military’s access to government-run health care.
“Tom, I’m a veteran. Okay?” Moulitsas said. “I did not get a deferment because I was too depressed to fight a war I supported in Vietnam. I’m a veteran. They want a more effective V.A. …”
“You’re not going to do that. You’re not going to try to insult me that way and then pretend like we’re just going on and talk about that. You either apologize …”
Tancredo didn’t wait for the “or else.” He walked off the set of the news show.
Although this week has been like a Keystone Cops episode for Republicans, it has been equally confusing for Democrats — and not entirely amusing for either party.
Ritter’s re-election campaign issued a fundraising letter to supporters that claimed McInnis would be the governor’s Republican challenger. It read in part:
“We’ve always known what we’re up against. Now we know precisely who… Josh Penry has pulled out of the race for governor, leaving Scott McInnis as the presumptive nominee to challenge Gov. Ritter next year.
“Let’s tell Scott McInnis that Coloradans don’t want to go back to the past. Let’s tell him Coloradans embrace Gov. Ritter’s New Colorado Partnership to develop a more entrepreneurial government, a more modern economy, and a world-class education system here in Colorado,” wrote Ritter campaign director David Kenney.
During a press conference the following day, Ritter clarified that he does not assume that McInnis will be the Republican Party’s nominee for governor.
Confusion was also spinning in minority party circles under the Gold Dome. Some Republican legislators received calls from former Penry supporter Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, who was enthusiastically gathering endorsements for McInnis.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes also used Penry’s exit as an opportunity to raise campaign funds.
“In my younger years, I was often compared to Christopher Reeve, one of several actors playing Superman. Well, just like Clark Kent, I may be mild-mannered, but when the going gets tough, you know who shows up for duty! I am committed to fighting this battle. Failure is not an option,” wrote Maes.
“For those who may be considering jumping in to fill this void I say, ‘The position is full, thank you,’” wrote Maes before launching into a pitch for campaign donations.
A core of Republican lawmakers who had endorsed Penry’s candidacy showed no interest in migrating to the McInnis’ camp. They plan to meet with Tancredo to discuss his campaign platform and chances of overtaking McInnis in the Republican primary.
If that feels like a slap in McInnis’ face, it’s probably not an accident.
Penry blamed an unknown person — allegedly a McInnis supporter — for Monday’s leak to Cillizza’s Washington Post blog.
One month earlier — to the day — Cillizza’s blog had featured Penry as a rising star with a real shot at defeating Ritter in 2010. Penry was lauded as a “fresh face,” a “boy wonder” and a candidate to watch.
Sources said Penry might have been discouraged when he heard rumors that high rollers Philip Anschutz and Jake Jabs were planning to sink up to $5 million each into a political committee to elect McInnis. The money reportedly was not targeted for a smear campaign against Penry.
Although it’s possible that Penry found that amount of cash staggering, McInnis’ ties to similar committees were publicized long before Penry launched his campaign.
Penry has said wasting millions on a GOP intergalactic battle seems like a waste of time and resources that could hurt the party.
Despite rumors, Penry won’t run for the Republican nomination to challenge Democrat 3rd District Congressman John Salazar.
“Josh has no interest in running for that seat,” said Wadhams.
Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, announced his campaign Wednesday for the GOP nomination in CD 3, which includes the Western Slope and stretches from Colorado’s southwestern corner to Pueblo.
“In nine months, our national debt has tripled, the stimulus bills have grown government and ignored struggling Colorado families and, now, Washington is going to force feed the ‘government option’ of health care on the American people,” said Tipton in a media release issued by the Republican National Committee.
Tipton, who ran unsuccessfully against Salazar in 2006, joins Garfield County District Attorney Martin Beeson and Bob McConnell, of Steamboat Springs, in a contest for the Republican nomination.
Penry has said he plans to stay in the Colorado Senate and help other Republican candidates win office. His Senate term expires in 2012.
Rep. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, had announced his intention to run for Penry’s Senate seat, but withdrew his bid on Wednesday.