GOP field grows for Senate race

The Colorado Statesman

A Republican primary to challenge Democrat Mark Udall for U.S. Senate in 2014 saw a couple of twists and turns this week as Rep. Amy Stephens joined the race and state Sen. Owen Hill announced a major endorsement from Texas libertarian conservative Ron Paul.

Campaign finance disclosures for the third quarter were also released this week, revealing that Republicans will be competing against a financial machine; chasing Udall’s already estimated $4.1-million war chest.

But the biggest news was probably Stephens’ emergence into the race, an announcement that has been a long time coming as speculation swirled that she would enter the marquee for the 2014 race.

Stephens joins Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, state Sens. Randy Baumgardner and Owen Hill, and underdog Jamie McMillan.

She officially announced on Oct. 12 at the Classical Academy East Campus in Colorado Springs. Former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, considered an elder statesman in Colorado politics and a symbol of the Republican establishment, joined Stephens at her kickoff.

“Washington is broken and mired in gridlock and dysfunction,” said Brown. “Now more than ever, Coloradans need a leader like Amy Stephens who will bring common sense and middle class values to the Senate. Amy is a strong and principled conservative who understands how to cut spending.”

The former House majority leader adds an interesting twist to a race that will likely come down to who is the true conservative. With Brown’s endorsement, Stephens is looking like the mainstream candidate, forcing the others to fight for grassroots support in the upcoming primary.

For political insiders, it is a bit odd to think of Stephens as the moderate establishment candidate. She has always maintained a conservative approach to politics. She previously worked for Focus on the Family and has long received support from social conservatives.

In 2012 as House majority leader, Stephens worked under then-Speaker Frank McNulty when Republican House leadership prevented a bipartisan vote on same-sex civil unions in the waning hours of the legislative session, causing the bill to die on the calendar.

But some questioned her dedication to conservatism in 2011 when she co-sponsored a bill with a Democrat that created a state-level health insurance exchange. Liberty activists called it “Amycare,” as they felt it was a measure legitimizing President Barack Obama’s health care law, known as Obamacare.

But Stephens said the bill was necessary to create a state-specific approach to Obamacare that would escape federal mandates and chart its own course. The Monument Republican rallied around that message in a divisive primary last year against then-Rep. Marsha Looper of Calhan, defeating her by a 20-point margin in the conservative House District 19.

“My conservative credentials are very tough to beat,” said Stephens. “When I hear rhetoric from certain individuals about repealing Obamacare or the exchanges, I wonder where were these people four years ago when I was locking horns on this issue.”

She points out that she encouraged the attorney general’s office to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Obamacare; she ran a bill to excuse the state from the federal law; and she voted against Medicare expansion.

“My views on objecting to Obamacare are loud and clear, and I don’t know where others were,” Stephens continued. “Maybe they were tweeting, or getting a ‘no Obamacare’ tattoo on their forearm. But only in a surreal world of revisionist politics does the person who literally carried the bill to repeal Obamacare get accused.”

Stephens said she began considering running in the U.S. Senate race after the Internal Revenue Service scandal in which the federal tax agency was accused of targeting liberty-oriented political groups applying for tax-exempt status.

Stephens added that she was also motivated to run after the passing of her father last year. Her dad worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Stephens believes he would have wanted her to work to rectify government debacles.

“It’s like I could hear my dad saying, ‘Amy, what are you going to do?’ And at first I thought, ‘Well, nothing really. I’m just sitting here watching FoxNews,’” recalled Stephens. “But that question would not leave me. It’s like that question would follow me for days. Finally it forced me to really start looking at this race.”

Stephens acknowledges that often times the game changes when well-intentioned people get inside the often-dysfunctional Beltway. The recent government shutdown is perhaps the best example in recent years.

But Stephens believes she has the tools necessary to fight against such institutional pressures. She said she has been demonstrating that during her tenure at the legislature.

“I face institutional pressures, nothing of which the other candidates have faced,” she explained. “I know as a majority leader what it is like. I am the only candidate who has had to come to the table and pass a balanced budget. You get behind the closed doors and we have to come together.”

The former majority leader also acknowledges that the primary she is facing will not be easy. She is facing formidable opponents in a race that could get very competitive. But she points out that she is the only woman in the race, which adds a fresh spin for voters. She also feels comfortable because she is no stranger to divisive primaries.

“I know what it’s like to be in a very tough race,” she said. “I survived the most watched primary in the state, where ugly, ugly things and horrific things and untrue things were said about me, and I won by 20 points. I won by 20 points because I’m a hard worker, I stayed positive, I kept a vision before us about what we could and should be doing. And that’s what attracts people.”

In addition to Brown, Stephens has earned endorsements from newly elected Sen. George Rivera of Pueblo, and Reps. Clarice Navarro of Pueblo, Lois Langraf of Fountain, Polly Lawrence of Littleton and Keith Swerdfeger of Pueblo.

Owen Hill

But Hill believes he has the secret recipe for success, which is his youth. At 32 years old, Hill is relatively new to the political world. But he is certainly not lacking ambition.

Colorado was introduced to Hill in 2010 when at just 28 years old he ran against Sen. John Morse, who was just recently ousted from office in a bitter recall. Hill lost to Morse that year by only 340 votes, and some argue he would have won had it not been for a Libertarian splitting the vote.

Two years later, Hill took on Rep. Larry Liston, a fellow Colorado Springs resident in Senate District 10. The upstart crushed the veteran lawmaker by a nearly two to one margin. Hill then went on to easily win the seat in the heavily Republican-leaning district.

He has libertarian conservative roots, as evidenced by his endorsement this week from Dr. Paul.

“[Hill’s] stand against the Colorado gun bills, along with his bills to eliminate the food tax, rein in unconstitutional spending and bring worker freedom to Colorado with right to work shows me he can be counted on to work for limited government and more personal liberties,” Paul, a former GOP presidential candidate, said in his endorsement letter.

Hill said that Paul has long been one of his heroes. But he was also careful to point out the significance of the endorsement, highlighting the grassroots, liberty message.

“To have his endorsement was one of the most proud days of my life, and reflective of the counter-cultural approach we’re going to take,” said Hill.

Like Stephens, Hill has received widespread support from social conservatives for standing up for religious freedoms as a pro-life Republican.

He has been backed by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners’ Dudley Brown and El Paso County liberty conservative Jon Hotaling.

But Hill is a hard Republican to put in a box. He also has a modern approach to politics, having voted this year to support in-state tuition for undocumented students, something that most Republicans opposed over fears that it would lead to legitimizing illegal immigration.

“The reason things are so broken [in Congress] is it’s the old way of viewing the world. They’re still trying to run the economy like they ran the Cold War. It’s this top-down command and control mentality,” said Hill.

He said no one pressured him to run in the race, saying it was a personal decision between him and his family.

“It’s much broader than just one person, one man, one woman in D.C.,” explained Hill. “It’s a generation shift, it’s a generation trend, and that’s why it’s become less and less a Republican versus Democrat thing, become more and more an old way of doing things that’s broken, versus a new way of doing things that actually empowers people, empowers communities and empowers individuals. And that sense is growing.”

But Hill acknowledged that he is facing a tough primary in which messaging could shift from the primary to the general election. He said he would stand by his values.

“Our message will always be about freedom and opportunity, and that fits in perfectly with the Republican primary, it fits in perfectly with independent voters,” said Hill. “I get really frustrated when I see people trying to say, ‘We’re going to have one message for the primary and a separate one for the general election.’ Voters sense that. They understand that there’s something fundamentally disingenuous about it.”

Messaging battle and personhood

One candidate who is well aware of the primary versus general election messaging battle is Buck, who lost a close race against U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010.

Buck won the 2010 primary over the GOP’s mainstream candidate, Jane Norton, by campaigning on a grassroots, liberty message. But when it came time for the general election, Democrats turned the messaging around, calling Buck “too extreme” for Colorado.

The focal point of controversy revolved around personhood, a ballot initiative at the time that sought to offer constitutional rights to the unborn, thereby banning abortion.

A similar effort is underway for 2014, with the focus being on personhood to offer justice in cases of fetal homicide. The secretary of state’s office this week certified personhood for the ballot. Proponents submitted 140,049 signatures through a grassroots effort. The secretary’s office projected that 109,612 signatures would be validated. Proponents needed 86,105 to make the ballot.

Personhood activists have already said that they plan on holding Republican U.S. Senate candidates accountable by asking them where they stand on the issue. A grassroots uprising against any candidate by personhood supporters could impact the election.

Buck found himself caught in the debate in 2010 after Bennet attacked him for his support. Buck’s campaign later softened its stance, saying he would not vote for personhood.

Buck told The Colorado Statesman earlier this month that he is pro-life. But he would not directly address whether he plans on supporting the drive for 2014.

Baumgardner also would not state whether he plans on supporting personhood this time around. But he indicated to The Statesman earlier this month that he believes an unborn child is a person.

Hill is unequivocally pro-life. But he also appeared a bit gun shy on the personhood question, saying he hadn’t studied the initiative yet.

“I’m eager to see more details on what exactly is being proposed,” he said. “But we’re not going to get off track in terms of talking about individual freedoms, liberty and that opportunity for the next generation.

“All life is precious,” Hill continued. “I’m always going to support that relentless optimism for the future, to know that that person who is going to cure cancer, that hero volunteering at a soup kitchen, someone who is going to discover an immunization for HIV, we never know where that person is going to come from.”

Stephens was also hesitant to answer the personhood question, saying she had not yet fully reviewed the initiative.

“My pro-life credentials are very robust, and I’m pretty clear about where I am on life issues,” said Stephens. “I know life issues in the whole issue of how we treat from beginning to end of life…”

Fundraising

No matter who wins the Republican nomination to challenge Udall, fundraising will become key to the race.

The incumbent has more than $4 million in the bank after adding $1.1 million in the latest fundraising quarter between July 1 and Sept. 31.

Udall is an impressive senator with a veteran resumé, including posts on the powerful Armed Services, Energy and Natural Resources and Intelligence committees. He is chairman of the subcommittees on Strategic Forces and National Parks.

“Mark Udall has been working hard for Colorado families, including leading on the flood recovery efforts and getting our government working again,” explained Udall campaign manager Adam Dunstone. “Mark will run this race on his strong and impressive record of accomplishment for Colorado and the country, and these numbers show the depth of support for Mark’s work and values.”

Dunstone added that the campaign is taking all potential Republican opponents seriously, adding that Stephens’ announcement doesn’t change their direction.

“He will run this race on his strong and impressive record of accomplishment for Colorado families and the country,” said Dunstone. “Amy Stephens was a lobbyist, and has served a long time in the state legislature where she has taken many positions that are far outside the mainstream. Amy will not be able to run away from her record.”

Meanwhile, whoever wins the Republican nomination will be banking on the National Republican Senatorial Committee backing their effort. The NRSC has so far been silent on how important the Colorado U.S. Senate race is to their mission in 2014.

Hill raised about $250,000 since launching his campaign and has about $190,000 cash on hand, according to the campaign.

Disclosures for Baumgardner were not yet available as of Friday with the Secretary of the U.S. Senate, the office that handles campaign finance for U.S. Senate races. He did not return a call left by The Statesman seeking comment.

Buck raised around $228,000 in the seven weeks since he announced his campaign and the deadline for third quarter disclosures. He has about $247,000 cash on hand.

He said he’s been having better luck with donors following 2010 because people around the state appear to know him better. He also believes the climate is better for Republicans now.

“People are fed up with the beginning effects of Obamacare and the rising energy costs and a certain amount of what’s happening in the state legislature is invigorating Republicans,” said Buck. “2010 was a year where there was a lot of noise, I think there’s a lot of energy below the radar this year.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com