Jefferson County Republicans had expected to set the stage for two hotly contested legislative primaries at the party’s county assembly on Saturday in Lakewood but also teed up a third at the last minute, pitting an incumbent House member in a rematch against the primary challenger he defeated two years ago.
To no one’s surprise, a pair of self-described grassroots candidates — both with the backing of a hard-line gun-rights group — will be facing off in primaries against more establishment-style candidates in two state Senate races following votes by assembly delegates.
In Arvada, Laura Woods, a prime organizer of last fall’s recall against state Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Arvada, won top-line designation over Lang Sias in Senate District 19. Sias lost to Hudak last time by the slimmest margin in the state — just 584 votes, following a recount — but the winner of the primary will challenge state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, who was appointed after Hudak stepped down rather than face a recall. Woods scored 53 percent of the delegate vote to Sias’ 47 percent.
At the Senate District 22 assembly, Tony Sanchez won top line with 60 percent of delegate votes over fellow Lakewood Republican Mario Nicolais, who garnered 40 percent, for the chance to take on state Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood.
Woods and Sanchez have been endorsed by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, an advocacy group that considers the National Rifle Association too soft on 2nd Amendment rights and makes no bones about playing bare-knuckled politics. The battle for the nominations has been simmering for months, with the RMGO-backed candidates charging that Sias and Nicolais are “anti-gun,” while longtime county Republicans decry what some term “thuggish” intimidation tactics wielded by the pro-gun group.
But in a twist that left delegates — and even some candidates — reeling, Loren Bauman won a spot in a primary against state Rep. Justin Everett, R-Littleton, in House District 22. Bauman and his supporters charged that recent news reports that Everett has racked up unprecedented absences in the legislature put the heavily Republican seat at risk, but Everett’s supporters counter that the facts have been garbled in a ridiculous smear campaign.
“This is bigger than any one individual candidate this year,” former state Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, told county assembly delegates. “Jefferson County is where it’s going to be decided, what this state’s going to look like. We can flip the state Senate this year. It’s extremely important we do that. It’s like taking the shovel away from the progressive Democrats, because they’re digging us a hole.”
Democrats hold an 18-17 vote majority in the Senate, a slimmer margin than after the 2012 election following the recall of two Democrats in El Paso and Pueblo counties last fall over gun-control measures passed in last year’s legislative session.
Neville, whose incumbency disappeared in a redistricting sleight-of-hand two years ago, could face his own primary against Richard Wenzel in Senate District 16 — that district includes a sliver of Denver so its assembly won’t be held until next month when multi-county assemblies gather — for the chance to run against state Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk. (Neville’s son Joe is the chief lobbyist for RMGO.)
“I am the guy who almost beat Evie Hudak two years ago,” Sias told the assembly. “We’re going to get it right this time.”
“I stand before you humbly saying, promises made, promises kept,” state Rep. Justin Everett, R-Littleton, tells HD 22 delegates as the district’s vice chair Barb Neville looks on at the Jefferson County Republican assembly on March 22 in Lakewood. Everett landed in an unexpected primary when the Republican he defeated in 2012, Loren Bauman, launched a primary challenge the day of the assembly.
Before the Senate district delegates voted, Sias, a former fighter pilot and one-time congressional candidate, said he shouldn’t be “disqualified” because he didn’t join in the Hudak recall effort, adding that he “did not feel it was right to stand up and ask for a do-over.” In any case, he told delegates, it was wrong to portray him as soft on the 2nd Amendment. “Shame on you, and keep your divisive politics out of Jefferson County,” he said.
Woods brushed back suggestions that it was again Sias’ turn to try to win the Senate seat.
“I think the voters of our district came out and said that they support grassroots,” she told The Colorado Statesman after she won the delegate vote. “It’s the liberty movement, and the voters of our district were heard today. I’m excited about it, it’s going to be a good primary, and either one of us can beat Rachel Zenzinger next fall.”
Waving his lifetime NRA membership card and his concealed-carry permit from the stage, Nicolais blasted his Republican opposition for portraying him as anything but a firm 2nd-Amendment supporter.
Pointing to what he termed “a nasty letter” that was distributed by RMGO at the assembly, Nicolais said, “In politics you have to learn to laugh those things off, but in addition to laughing them off, you have to show people the truth. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not anti-gun, I would protect the 2nd Amendment,” he said, adding, “I will stand up for the 2nd Amendment, without compromise.”
“What I’m looking for is an electable candidate,” former legislative candidate Rick Enstrom said, nominating Nicolais. “If we don’t pick this seat up, we’re going to be in the same train-wreck we’ve been for a long time. It’s about electability and that’s where I came down on this issue.”
“We need bold leadership,” Sanchez told delegates. “We need a clear conservative in this race.” He said that he was quite clear about who he was and where he stands, adding, “The problem is progressive liberalism. We need the government out of our life.”
Responding to Nicolais’ claim that voters would favor a candidate who grew up in Lakewood — Nicolais said his “roots in the district” make a clear difference at the doorstep — Sanchez said, “My wife and I came here to Colorado because we wanted to start a new life.” He said they wanted to leave what they saw in California “because of the oppressive over-government” and that the last legislative session in Colorado “was like revisiting a nightmare.”
Meanwhile, at a House District 22 assembly that had hours earlier been expected to be uneventful, Everett told The Statesman he only learned the night before that he might face a primary challenge.
“I think my record speaks for itself. This is a good, solid Republican conservative district, and I think I’ve represented it more than adequately, and I hope to continue that,” he said, still looking a bit stunned that he might first have to negotiate a primary.
Former state Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Littleton, put it bluntly, after he had nominated Bauman: “We don’t primary incumbents. Well, Justin’s not an incumbent because he’s not showing up. The key to being an effective legislator is to show up and vote.”
At issue was a report earlier that week that listed Everett as absent from House roll calls 23 times during the first 70 days of the legislative session, information Kerr said he unearthed after “nosing around” at the Capitol when he had heard rumors that Everett was missing votes and dozing off in committee hearings. Earlier that week, House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso had temporarily removed Everett from two House committees.
“Representative Everett is dealing with some personal issues and I wanted to give him more time to handle them,” DelGrosso said in a statement issued last Tuesday. “He was one of a few of our members who are on three committees, so I decided to remove him from two. Representative Everett remains on the House Public Health Care & Human Services Committee and will be reappointed once the issues are resolved.”
“I’m disappointed in Justin — a very smart young man, very good kid — but all of a sudden, for whatever reason, he is literally asleep at the wheel,” Kerr said, nominating Bauman.
Bauman told The Statesman he had only decided to launch the primary days earlier and said it was to prevent Democrats from taking the seat.
“I do not believe in going after incumbent Republicans,” he told delegates. “However, the information that has come up in the last week, I’m worried that our district, which is a strong Republican district, has a chance to lose to Democrat Mary Parker.” (Parker lost the last election to Everett and almost immediately began campaigning nearly full time for the next one.)
Nominating Everett, Frank Francone said he was “disappointed at the mudslinging,” and chastised Kerr and Bauman for repeating “a lot of stuff out of a lot of very left-wing papers” — the liberal website Colorado Pols first picked up the story and The Denver Post reported on Everett’s removal from the committees last week — but asked delegates to keep in mind Everett’s record.
“I know the situation,” Francone said. “Justin has a significant family situation. If I had it, I would be late to some meetings too. Justin is fully committed to serving out his term. Justin has been a rock for us in the state legislature. A rock. Promises made, promises kept.”
Contrary to how Everett’s situation was portrayed at the assembly, a supporter of the incumbent said later, Everett wasn’t absent from the House floor for 23 days, but had been marked “absent” because he arrived at least five minutes late, as is the chamber’s practice.
Everett wasn’t booted from his committees, either, a supporter said, but had asked Republican leadership to allow him to take care of a pressing personal issue, and they obliged. House leadership plans to reinstate him on the committees by next week, a source in the Minority office said.
Francone told The Statesman that Kerr had gotten his facts wrong and rushed to judgment about Everett’s attendance.
“The real story at the assembly,” said Francone, “is that despite the venom presented by Mr. Kerr, almost two-thirds of the delegates supported Justin.”
Still, enough delegates — roughly 35 percent — supported Bauman, setting a June 24 primary in the district.
Democrats have just one legislative primary in the county, pitting Jessie Danielson and Kristian Teegardin in a primary in House District 24. The district has been represented by state Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, for three terms, but she announced earlier this year she that she wasn’t going to run for a fourth term. Three Democrats are running in House District 1, currently represented by the term-limited state Rep. Jeanne Labuda, D-Denver, which includes a handful of Jefferson County precincts: Corrie Houck, Susan Lontine and Jeremy Vanhooser. The seat has yet to attract a Republican candidate.
See the March 28 print edition for full photo coverage.