Cory Gardner joins Tom Lucero in GOP bid against Betsy Markey

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The ink was still wet on the last batch of this year’s legislative bills when Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, announced his entrance into the 2010 race for the 4th Congressional District.

Gardner, an attorney who served as general counsel to former U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, will face University of Colorado Regent Tom Lucero in a primary to decide who will oppose Democratic freshman Rep. Betsy Markey.

Gardner’s style differs from that of Markey, who in 2007 announced her plan to run against Republican CD 4 incumbent Marilyn Musgrave at a large party in her Fort Collins home.

Gardner’s announcement was made in the pages of Washington D.C.’s Congressional Quarterly, far from the limelight of the local media.

“Some of it was timing, in that we just wanted to get the doors open and start raising money,” said Mike Ciletti, a spokesman for Gardner. “And the other part was his schedule. He had just gotten back from driving the district, and to come back through and do another tour really didn’t make much sense.”

Gardner’s entrance into the 4th came as no surprise to politicos who have been watching the congressional district carefully since Markey’s stunning defeat of Musgrave last year. The 4th, although still a Republican-dominated district by the numbers, encompasses the Eastern Plains and the north Front Range, is beginning to look like one of the most competitive seats in the country.

“Definitely the 4th is in play,” Ciletti said. “Both sides have targeted it in the country because it’s a seat that John McCain won but that Betsy Markey also won. I mean, Markey outperformed Obama in the 4th. Was that a vote for Betsy or against Marilyn? That’s something people can make up their own minds about, but I expect that we will be able to raise money and be competitive in this race.”

Let there be no doubt that the competition will be exciting.

Gardner and Lucero exhibit two different swaggers of the Republican Party. Lucero, who is rumored to have the backing of the Independence Institute crowd, is a two-term CU regent and the father of three. He was raised by a mother widowed just before his birth. After graduating CU, Lucero owned and operated small restaurants in northern Colorado before running for the regent’s seat at CU in 1998.

He has some challenges in front of him. Lucero has little name recognition outside a few Northern Colorado and CU circles, and he started his campaign early in order to get out into the district and begin fundraising. Since then, his name has become more familiar in political circles, but his campaign war chest has yet to benefit from his early entry into the race. First quarter Federal Election Commission documents show Lucero has pulled in less than $15,000.

Lucero campaign manager Andrea Racey said the low fundraising numbers are indicative of the time Lucero spent traversing the district in recent months. She said the campaign began hosting fundraisers only after the March 31 deadline, when the first quarter reporting period had ended.

“Our first event was after the first reporting period. We know that fundraising is a part of campaigning, but, for us, we think the most important thing right now is to be in touch with the voters — and not raising millions of dollars,” Racey said.

“We took the first few months not to fundraise but to talk to the people,” she added. “It’s such a big district. And a big reason that he wanted to announce so early is that he wanted to get to know the people. That is what we are going to continue to do over the next couple of weeks.”

Considering his low name ID, Lucero has assembled a long list of campaign advisers, many of whom are well-known in the GOP, including talk radio show hosts Hugh Hewitt and Mike Rosen, Colorado Springs businessman Jerry Rutledge, CU regent Steve Bosley and Steve Schuck, El Paso County businessman and former GOP gubernatorial candidate, among others.

When asked why he threw his support behind Lucero, Schuck said it was because he admired the quality of Lucero’s work as a CU regent.

“Tom Lucero is a good guy, and I came to appreciate his abilities and good qualities as a regent, where I think he did an outstanding job,” Schuck said. “He would be a great candidate and, more importantly, a great congressman.”

But when asked about Gardner, Schuck also was full of praise.

“I literally didn’t know Cory Gardner until recently,” he said. “We have subsequently met, and I am extremely impressed with him. He is high quality and extraordinarily qualified. I am happy with my choice (of Lucero) but would enthusiastically support Cory if he wins the primary.”

When asked what makes Lucero different from the other candidates in the race, Racey boasted of her candidate’s experience as a small business owner and his time spent in the world of higher education — both of which will inform his service to the 4th’s constituency.

She also said Lucero is against “career politicians” and “lawyers” who have no experience beyond lawmaking. Despite the criticism of lifelong politicians and lawyers — which one can assume is aimed at Gardner — Racey said Lucero would not self-impose a term limit on his time in Congress as Republicans Bob Schaffer and Wayne Allard have done before him.

“Tom offers something new. He is a Republican male, but he is not a stereotypical candidate in that he is not set into voting only the Republican ticket,” Racey said. “I think if you look at Cory Gardner, he only voted one way (while in the Legislature).”

Gardner’s campaign laughed off Lucero’s criticism.

“It’s interesting that the guy who has been an elected official longer than anyone in the race on either side of the ticket is the one holding up the career politician flag,” said Ciletti, who served as an adviser to former Gov. Bill Owens.

Ciletti also acknowledged Gardner’s votes with the Republican Party at the Statehouse this year, adding that they were the product of his work to help shape the party’s message and agenda as a political leader.

“When you are (creating) the line, it’s hard to go against it,” Ciletti said. “But, to say that he is partisan is not right either. He has won praise by both sides of the aisle. How else does a member of the minority get several pieces of legislation passed, if it’s not bipartisan?”

Gardner has long been seen as a rising star in the Republican Party.

He began his political life as an intern at the Colorado Capitol during his undergraduate years at Colorado State University. During that time, Gardner would come down to Denver two days a week and run notes, take phone messages and research bills for Republicans. After CSU, Gardner went on to CU, where he earned his law degree.

After moving back to Yuma, the Eastern Plains town where four generations of his family have lived and operated a small business, Gardner was appointed by a vacancy committee to replace Greg Brophy in the Statehouse in 2005 and elected to represent House District 63 in 2006.

“If you look at Cory’s experience, he has been in the Legislature all of four years, and in that time has been noticed nationally and statewide for his policy issues, not his political issues,” Ciletti said.

“Cory is unique. He was born and raised in the Eastern Plains and has roots that go back 100 years,” Ciletti added. “He can bridge gaps because he can stand in the fields with farmers or in the boardroom with executives.”

And, unlike Lucero’s campaign, which is downplaying the tremendously time-consuming task of raising money to run a campaign, Gardner is not shying away from the importance of that mission.

“Raising money is our singular focus between now and the end of the quarter, really the end of the year,” Ciletti said. “There’s just not a whole lot more going on. We will be out talking to people and having pie on Main Street, of course, but this time is about raising money.”

Despite their differences, both Gardner and Lucero were quick to throw mud at Markey.

Calling the Fort Collins Democrat a hypocrite for campaigning as a moderate but going to Washington, D.C. and “toeing the Democratic line,” both campaigns said she is out of touch with voters in the 4th.

“She voted for the stimulus (package) but against the budget,” Ciletti said. “She voted for the budget but has earmarks in it that she fought for and is now going around the district touting to voters.”

Racey agreed.

“She has proven to be too liberal with her support of (the Employee Free Choice Act),” she said. “That is not what the voters are looking for.”

Markey’s campaign spokesman Ben Marter passed the criticism off as shortsighted.

“The Congresswoman represents the district, and she represents the district with her votes,” Marter said, adding that Markey has sponsored or co-sponsored bipartisan legislation to open up access and affordability for small businesses to health care, legislation aimed to help produce vehicles powered by natural gas and a bill that she and Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman sponsored to offer tax credits for water conservation and efficiency in household products.

“One of the most important things she does is to come home to the district every weekend and meet with people to hear what their concerns are and to understand what kind of representation they need,” Marter said. “She has been holding public forums, town halls and ‘Congress on your Corner’ to keep in touch with and hear the concerns of the people that elected her just last year.”

And from that point of view, it will be a difficult run for either Gardner or Lucero once the primary is finished. Markey has spent a lot of time canvassing the district in recent months, helping her gain an edge in name ID. Her favorability ratings and, almost more importantly, her funds have been rising. She has begun amassing a large campaign war chest including a first quarter total of more than $340,000, a district record.

“The Congresswoman stands behind every one of her votes and she will be ready to take on whoever emerges from the primary,” Marter said.

Jason@coloradostatesman.com