Colorado Republicans last week unveiled a new set of rankings for its top-tier legislative candidates and then introduced most of them to a crowd of donors intent on wresting control of the state Senate from Democrats and expanding the GOP’s narrow House majority in the November election.
More than 400 donors gathered for an afternoon of barbecue and politics on a balmy Saturday afternoon last week at the Wiens Ranch in rural Douglas County south of Sedalia, where former state Sen. Tom Wiens breeds and raises quarter horses.
“The stakes have never been higher,” Wiens told the crowd as supporters chowed down at checkered tables arrayed inside his massive barn. “We’ve got a big job ahead of us, and it’s the people in this room that are going to make a big difference in bringing this country back from the cliff it is rapidly moving toward in this state.”
The barn was filled with Republican legislative candidates from throughout the state, including incumbents and a few term-limited lawmakers, but the focus was on eight candidates who are part of a new program launched by the state GOP this year aimed at helping candidates in competitive races run successful campaigns.
The Trailblazers Program — modeled after the National Republican Congressional Committee’s successful Young Guns operation that recruited and coached candidates for the 2010 congressional elections — identifies candidates who meet certain benchmarks for fundraising and voter contact. State Republicans inaugurated the program last month with six candidates and this month added two more to the list.
Labeled “On the Radar,” the first step in the program, are House candidates Rick Enstrom, Amy Attwood and state Rep. J. Paul Brown, and Senate candidates Lang Sias and Dave Kerber. (Brown and Sias are new to the list this month.) However, a few days after the event, Enstrom jumped to the “Contender” level, alongside House candidates Jennifer George and Brian Watson, and state Rep. Ken Summers, who is vying for an open Senate seat. The “Contender” level is one notch below full-blown “Trailblazer” status.
House Speaker Frank McNulty said that control of the House will hinge on some 13 competitive races in the 65-seat chamber, which Republicans have led since the last election by a single-seat majority.
“Let me tell you the reality of the legislature that some people don’t understand: It’s all numbers. You’ve gotta have more people in your party than in the other party,” Attorney General John Suthers said. “What that means is, you can’t get so caught up in intra-party challenges that it costs you getting those necessary numbers.” He added that he always urges groups to vote a straight-party ticket when it comes to the statehouse for that reason.
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, who served in both chambers of the General Assembly before being elected to Congress, echoed the point.
“It is so important that we have Republicans,” he said. “Think of the votes that would be different these past two years if it had been 33-32 the other way.” He praised McNulty for making courageous, tough decisions, alluding to the waning days of the session when House GOP leadership quashed a civil unions bill with procedural maneuvers.
“As speaker, Frank has made some courageous and conservative decisions — I’m thinking of some, especially in the last days of the legislature — and if it splits the other way, we’re not going to have that backstop.”
Crediting the national Young Guns program with helping Republicans take the House majority, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner said that GOP majorities in statehouses serve a crucial backstop against over-reaching federal initiatives.
“We have a president of the United States who believes the Constitution was written with invisible ink. We have a president of the United States whose understanding of business would bankrupt a lemonade stand,” he said, adding, “When Congress cannot stop this president from doing things he is not constitutionally authorized to do, it comes down to the men and women in state legislatures.”
Gardner and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton were named Young Guns in the NCC program and were among the 87 Republicans first elected to Congress last time around. Both ousted Democratic incumbents.
“We’re working hard for you every day, we knock on doors every night, and we love every minute of it,” said Enstrom, who is challenging Democratic state Rep. Max Tyler in a Lakewood district.
He reminded the crowd what a difference it makes when Republicans wield at least one gavel.
“Folks, you remember just a few years ago how dire things were down at that State Capitol. You saw me and a number of business people down there defending free enterprise,” Enstrom said, referring to testimony that stretched into the night over a slew of proposed fee increases sponsored by Democrats. When the other party controlled both chambers and held the governor’s office, he said, “we had 12 tax increases and a good lecture on how business doesn’t do enough for the state of Colorado. That’s why I’m going down there, I’m going down there to defend free enterprise.”
Every candidate left with at least a few checks in pocket from the assembled donors, who paid between $25 and $550 for the chance to spend a few hours mingling with at what state Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call described as the first event of its kind in anyone’s memory. The barbecue was also a fundraiser for the state GOP and for its political action committee.
The benchmarks required to make the Trailblazers Program vary from district to district, state GOP executive director Chuck Poplstein said. “We looked at past competitive races, saw what it took to win the competitive seats — what the numbers were, where they needed to get to certain places by certain times. We try to get there sooner so they have the money when they need it,” he said, adding that candidates don’t just need to raise plenty of money but also manage it wisely and show sufficient cash-on-hand to so that they’ll have enough for the final stretch in the fall.
Making the list amounts to a stamp of approval for donors looking for candidates to back, Poplstein said. “Any donors, any outside groups can look to this list to say who is doing the things smart campaigns ought to be doing. It’s making sure those folks know when they make an investment in races, they know they’re making a good investment.”
The director of a longstanding operation that recruits and trains Democratic House candidates questioned whether the new Republican program might harm Republican prospects, in part by highlighting which candidates aren’t measuring up.
“They’re trying to copy the national Republicans, doing something they think works,” dismissed House Majority Project director Andy Kabza. “We have a model here that’s been very successful where we work collaboratively with campaigns to make sure they win.”
Coincidentally, the California GOP — the only other state Republicans in the country to launch a similar initiative for legislative candidates — has also dubbed its three-tiered operation the Trailblazers, though its levels have different names than Colorado’s program. Instead of rising from “On the Radar” to “Contender” to “Trailblazer,” California candidates enter the organization as “Pathfinders” and then reach “Rising Star” status before emerging as full-blown “Trailblazers.”