By Ellen Miller
WESTERN SLOPE CORRESPONDENT
GRAND JUNCTION — Mesa County Republicans gave state Sen. Josh Penry a hometown hero’s welcome at their monthly lunch Nov. 20. He told them he withdrew from the gubernatorial race to help unify the party and to help Republicans win back the governor’s office and a substantial number of legislative seats.
“I know there are some here who support Scott, and maybe Dan Maes. But your support for me has been overwhelming,” he said.
Penry enjoyed a standing ovation from about 160 Republicans when he was introduced and again when he wound up his remarks. Despite the larger-than-normal turnout for the monthly GOP event, Penry didn’t endorse McInnis that day, saying only that there would be a “major announcement early next week.”
But the next day, a midafternoon e-mail from Mesa County Republican leadership promised a “special announcement” on Sunday morning at 8 a.m. in a Grand Junction city park.
Despite the short notice and temperatures in the mid 20s, about 30 people turned out to hear Penry endorse his former boss, and the two joined their wives to pose in front of a “McInnis for Governor” banner.
“Josh is a cruise missile,” McInnis said. “He wasn’t looking for a deal, and he wants what I want. And that’s to put Ritter in the unemployment line.”
“Had we wounded each other, Ritter might have sailed away,” McInnis said. “While Josh isn’t running for governor today, he’s what the future looks like. He took a bullet for the team.”
Penry took his place at the microphone to assert that “this race matters.”
“Bill Ritter wants to take us down the path of California,” Penry said.
McInnis said Ritter “has crippled the oil and gas industry with his rules, while the governor of Pennsylvania has relaxed theirs. His Colorado Promise has led to increased taxes and an increased size of government.
“He went after the natural gas industry, not only with the regulations, but he tried to raise their severance taxes,” McInnis said. “I’d put Brian Mackey (the Colorado Oil & Gas Commission’s chief or staff under Republican Gov. Bill Owens) back in the job and get (drill) permits issued faster.”
McInnis conceded that low natural gas prices have accounted for “some” of the drop-off in drilling, but said, “the rules make it harder to get them back when prices improve.”
Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer told The Colorado Statesman that the nationwide drop in price and a lack of pipeline capacity have hurt the industry, “and Governor Ritter is working hard to fix both problems. He’s leading Colorado forward by creating a New Energy Economy that maximizes Colorado’s clean-burning natural gas, while Congressman McInnis wanders aimlessly back in time.”
Dreyer said Ritter “is building a better future for Colorado’s children, families and small business. Do they want to go backwards with Congressman McInnis and a 1990s strategy that has nothing new, no specific solutions and only vague, discredited political rhetoric?”
At the Friday GOP lunch, Penry, who currently serves as Senate minority leader, predicted that the next president of the Colorado Senate would be a Republican. He played coy when asked about his own intentions, however, saying he’ll decide over the holidays whether he’ll run for re-election to his Senate seat.
State Rep. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, who announced for Penry’s seat after Penry entered the governor’s race, was equally evasive.
“All I’m running for right now is coffee,” King told The Statesman.
Two other Republicans — Duncan McArthur and Ray Scott — have lined up to run for King’s House District 54 seat, and a third, Bob Hislop, is considering running. No Democratic candidates have surfaced yet to run in the district, a highly conservative enclave of western Mesa and western Delta counties that has been represented by the GOP since 1970s.
“When I was first elected, going into election night we had a Republican governor, two Republican senators, five of the state’s congressmen and both houses of the Legislature,” Penry said. “Our party has been repudiated in election cycle after election cycle, but change is, indeed, coming. Our people see the danger of big government again.”
Whether or not he decides to run again for the state Senate, Penry said his commitment is to “regaining the ground lost. I’m going to leverage your good will. The goal is beating Bill Ritter, and I want to take the Laura Bradford story statewide.”
Bradford, a little-known Grand Junction small business owner, upset former state Rep. Bernie Buescher in House District 55. Penry said there are “seats all over the state with Democrats in them that should be Republican.”
He pledged to raise money and campaign to help GOP candidates win back the Legislature, the Department of State and the state Treasurer’s Office.
Whether conservative elements of Mesa County’s electorate will enthusiastically support McInnis remains to be seen.
Jennifer Bailey, president of the Western Slope Conservative Alliance —which she described as a consortium of groups such as the county’s 9-12ers, Tea Party enthusiasts, Young Republicans and similar right-leaning groups that has an e-mail list of 2,500 people — said the board would meet with both Maes and McInnis before making a decision.
“We are very disappointed that Josh withdrew, and it’s premature to say what the group will do. Our general concern is that we want a primary,” she said.
Bailey, who noted that she was speaking only for herself and not the alliance, said she was “having a hard time swallowing” Penry’s withdrawal.
Doug Thompson, a former candidate for the Mesa County Board of Commissioners and a member of the conservative alliance, said Penry’s withdrawal was “hard.”
“I can’t think of one person who’s fond of Scott. I kind of feel John McCain is back,” Thompson said. “But Scott could be okay, as long as he beats Ritter. Josh is such a strong conservative, but I’ll support Scott.”