GOP already chomping at the bit to take back state senate in 2014

The Colorado Statesman

Even as early returns were showing unexpectedly strong Democratic numbers on election night, at least a few Republicans at the state GOP’s watch party in Denver cast optimistic eyes toward the future.

“Don’t worry. We’re taking the Senate next time,” said one GOP operative. “No question.”

Although Colorado voters returned the state’s four Republicans to Congress — along with three Democratic incumbents — they swung the state for a second time to President Barack Obama and also handed control of the state House of Representatives to Democrats by a nine-seat margin, revoking the slim majority Republicans had held since the last election. Democrats retained the same 20-15 majority in the state Senate by winning three close races and losing just one that had been up for grabs, but Republicans like their chances looking forward.

A decade after the GOP last won a majority in the Colorado Senate, party officials are licking their chops at the chance to regain control of the chamber in the 2014 election, when Democrats will be playing defense in every one of the most closely contested seats.

“We should have a great crop of candidates this time, and with the right circumstances in a nonpresidential year, without that big Obama machine, we’ve got a good shot at it,” said Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, this week.

“We will largely be playing defense, but our defense is more productive and makes more interceptions than the Denver Broncos,” said Senate President-elect John Morse, D-Colorado Springs.

Cadman joked that party officials planned to relax for a few days before setting their sights on 2014 — “We’ll take a little time, until at least after Thanksgiving” — but he added that the realities of modern elections don’t allow for much more than that.

“Like any campaign season it stops on Tuesday night of the election and starts the next day,” he said, adding that the party has already started planning fundraisers and is busy recruiting candidates.

While he declined to discuss specific strategy, Cadman said that GOP officials are digesting the lessons the 2012 election and plan to emerge stronger.

“We’re thinking about everything,” he said. “What was that commercial, ‘Rethink everything’? We are.”

Whatever approach the GOP takes toward the next election, when it comes to control of the Senate, the math favors Republicans. Put simply: Republicans had to win every one of the four competitive Senate races in the last election to take over the chamber — they prevailed in just one of the closest races, when Sen.-elect Larry Crowder defeated Democrat Crestina Martinez in Senate District 35 — but in the next election, they only have to win three of the six competitive races to wind up with a majority. And since every one of the toss-up seats is currently held by a Democrat, including three who face term limits, Republicans like their odds.

“There’s a simple mathematical formula,” Cadman said. “Pick the races that have the best population to win, figure out what it takes to win them, and fund them in their entirety as you get commitments and resources.”

Morse agrees that “from a purely mathematical standpoint,” it might look like Republicans are in a better position heading into 2014, but he disputed the notion that they have a lock on the majority after the next election.

“It’s not so much about the math as it’s about the candidates and the work ethic and the message of the party,” he said. “The Republicans end up with candidates out of their primaries that appeal to their base, and that’s how they won the primary, and they don’t appeal to the general electorate. The Democrats — we end up with folks who listen and try to solve problems, so we win.”

Morse said that the usual rules about mid-term elections don’t apply as strictly when it comes to down-ballot races, particularly legislative contests where Democrats have a proven ability to win over independents and encourage ticket-splitting. “The Democrats in the Senate have won the close races for the last 10 years,” he said, conceding that Martinez’ loss could be the exception that proves the rule.

Of 17 Senate seats up for election in 2014 — the 35 senators serve four-year, staggered terms — the eight currently held by Republicans are in districts where the GOP holds a substantial advantage among registered voters and aren’t considered likely to turn competitive. Those seats are occupied by Sens. Greg Brophy, R-Wray; Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City; Ellen Roberts, R-Durango; Steve King, R-Grand Junction; Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs; Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley; Kevin Lundberg, R-Fort Collins; and Ted Harvey, R-Parker. Brophy, Renfroe and Harvey face term limits.

Democrats hold nine of the seats up for election next time, and all but three of those districts rank as competitive by voter registration and past voting performance. The seats are held by Sens. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo; Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village; Jeanne Nicholson, D-Blackhawk; Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge; Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton; Lucia Guzman, D-Denver; Irene Aguilar, D-Denver; and Morse. Sen.-elect Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, will be defending his seat in the next election after winning it this year because, like Aguilar’s, it became vacant after the previous election. Schwartz, Morse and Tochtrop are term-limited, and all three of those seats could be competitive in the next election. In addition, Republicans have an edge in voter registration in the districts held by Nicholson and Jahn, and Kerr’s swing district will also be targeted, both sides agree.

Kerr’s seat is an odd case. Former Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, resigned the Senate District 22 seat last year, and Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, was appointed to fill it — coincidentally, winning a close contest against Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Littleton, no relation to Kerr the Democrat — but Neville was drawn out of the district during reapportionment, leaving an open seat that had to be filled in the last election. Kerr won it in a tight race against Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood.

In another twist, Neville appears to be the only challenger who has officially declared a candidacy for 2014 in a competitive district, this time in a bid for Nicholson’s seat. In October, he reported raising $2,625 and had the same amount of cash on hand. Nicholson reported raising $17,918 through the same period, including a transfer from a prior-year election committee, a loan to herself and in-kind contributions. She had $1,894 cash on hand at the end of the last period.

Cadman and Morse agree about at least one thing.

“My advice is, you can’t start running too soon,” Cadman said. “I hope people that are serious about it start now. Especially if you’re new at it, you’ve got to learn everything from scratch.”

“Some people say that it’s way too early to start thinking about the next election,” Morse said. “No, not at all. You ought to start sooner rather than later.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com