GOP candidates to petition on to ballot

...in addition to also going through the caucus system
The Colorado Statesman

Two Republicans have opted to petition onto their respective primary ballots this year, enlisting the support of those who were behind the recent recall efforts of three Democratic state senators in order to collect the necessary signatures for their own campaigns.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Lakewood will try to petition onto the gubernatorial ballot to challenge Gov. John Hickenlooper, and state Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs will seek signatures to petition onto the U.S. Senate ballot to challenge Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.

Both candidates face potentially crowded primary fields, which could make it difficult for Tancredo and Hill to each garner the minimum 30 percent delegate support at the April 12 state assembly in Boulder. Tancredo is facing five other candidates, including well-known names like former Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, state Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray and Steve House, chairman of the Adams County Republican Party.

Tom Tancredo is petitioning on to the ballot as well as using the caucus nominating system.

Gessler, Brophy and Kopp say they will all go through the caucus process, while House said he might take both paths.

State Sen. Owen Hill also plans to use the petition method and state assembly route.

The petition process will start on Feb. 2, and it must be completed in 60 days. The candidates need 1,500 valid signatures from registered Republicans in each of the state’s seven congressional districts to make the ballot by the petition route.

Enlisting the support of recall proponents is an interesting strategy, as the conservative-leaning citizens could give the two Republicans a boost among voters who lean further to the right, especially on gun rights issues.

The recall movement has electrified the Republican Party, demonstrating a rift between more mainstream Republicans and those who represent a grassroots-leaning element in the state.

GOP officials at first doubted the recall efforts, but proponents shocked the political world when they successfully recalled Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo and Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs. A third Senate Democrat, Evie Hudak of Westminster, stepped down from office rather than face a likely recall.

One thing that the recall proponents proved is that they are capable of gathering signatures. By utilizing an army of volunteers along with paid petition gatherers, proponents were able to secure the signatures they needed to force the recall elections.

Tancredo confirmed that his campaign would also pay for signatures by hiring Kennedy Enterprises, a controversial petition-gathering firm that was criticized in the past for hiring staff with criminal backgrounds. He said that political operative Jon Hotaling has been making those arrangements.

Tancredo isn’t shy about acknowledging the need to petition on, pointing out that he has often found himself at odds with the state Republican Party. In 2010, he abandoned the GOP to become the gubernatorial standard bearer of the American Constitution Party after scandals emerged surrounding the two Republican candidates at the time.

“I and the Republican Party have not had a great relationship for a long time,” Tancredo explained to recall proponents at a get together on Jan. 4, according to minutes of the meeting obtained by The Colorado Statesman.

“Party leaders now have made it clear I’m not their candidate. As a result, I don’t want to trust the process that they control,” Tancredo continued.

“I have never operated under the illusion that I was the party establishment candidate… As such, I have a reluctance … to put my fate in the hands of people who I know hope that it will all end up for naught… [Petitioning] is an excellent way to build your base of grassroots supporters,” Tancredo further explained in a later interview with The Statesman.

But Tancredo isn’t taking any chances. This week, the former congressman announced that he also plans to work through the party’s state assembly nominating process as a second avenue to securing a spot on the ballot.

Because signatures are required by March 28, before the mid-April state assembly, candidates are able to test their luck with both the petition and caucus avenues.

“My hope is to ensure we don’t miss the ballot, by either method, and give average folks like us as many ways as possible to join the team and ensure as much statewide individual grassroots participation as possible,” Tancredo told supporters in an email on Jan. 29.

With about 4,100 delegates expected to attend the state assembly, the caucus process is ripe for infighting. By gathering signatures, candidates can avoid the fights and not risk scorching the earth before the June 24 primary.

Tancredo is not concerned about a backlash from the party for also trying to petition on to the ballot.

“It doesn’t make much difference to the average Republican voter,” he surmised. “The only people who have strong feelings about it are those who are insiders.

“Republicans will still have the ability to vote for or against me come June,” Tancredo added.

As for utilizing recall proponents for his own campaign for governor, Tancredo has no fears about that either, despite criticism from some members of both parties that they used extreme tactics last year that threatened to turn the Colorado political world into a never-ending election cycle. They were also accused of harassing lawmakers over basically the single issue of gun control — some people felt their discontent could have been resolved during the regular general election process.

“The other guys are the real extremists…” Tancredo said of Democrats who fought the recall efforts. “This was a group of people exercising their First Amendment rights. They were harming nobody and doing everything right… The other guys are harassing the hell out of them…”

Tancredo is so confident in the strategies implemented by recall proponents that he has hired Brian Dotterer, a recall organizer who sought to oust Hudak, as his campaign manager. Dotterer said he started with the campaign on Tuesday.

Tancredo is likely to face criticism over his gun rights record, namely from fellow Republican Brophy, who believes Tancredo has a weak record.

Following the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, as a congressman, Tancredo supported a bill expanding gun restrictions, including restricting the sale, transfer, importation and possession of high-capacity assault rifles and magazines.

Tancredo explained at the time that he was reacting to the horrific Columbine killings, which took place in his district, just blocks from his home.

He said his stance has since evolved, and he opposes the gun control measures pushed by Democrats last year in Colorado, including banning high-capacity ammunition magazines and requiring universal background checks.

But Brophy believes Tancredo is working closely with recall proponents simply to prove that he is a true supporter of the Second Amendment.

“It’s obvious from his actions that he’s concerned about the ground I’ve been making with regard to his support of gun control,” opined Brophy.

“He spent a lot of time talking about his position on the Second Amendment after I brought up the fact that he… had voted… to expand the… gun control act,” Brophy continued.

“He’s trying to assure people now that he’s really now a supporter of the Second Amendment,” he scoffed.

Things could get interesting within the recall movement itself if organizers and volunteers split on whom to support in the primary. For example, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners — which has close ties to the recall movement in recent months — has endorsed Brophy.

Joe Neville, the political director for RMGO, is not worried about a rift, hopeful that Republicans will eventually rally around one candidate who supports gun rights and who will actively fight back against restrictions.

“The gun issue is polling number one…” said Neville. “It’s completely about protecting the Second Amendment.

“In the past we’ve had issues with elected officials in the Republican Party, but last year I saw Republicans band together pretty good to fight back against the gun controls that were being forced on Coloradans,” he continued. “Our goal is to just make sure that all elected officials from both parties observe our Second Amendment rights.”

Tancredo has pledged not to attack his Republican opponents and has likewise asked other candidates in the race to refrain from doing so. He wants to make sure Democrats don’t have any extra ammunition for the general election. He says he is simply working with the recall proponents because they are good at petition drives and they respect limited government.

“We are thrilled to have this grassroots army wanting to work for our campaign… It’d be foolish not to take them up on their offer to help,” Tancredo explained.

“Grassroots volunteers who brought about recall elections in Colorado and those who are more comfortable in the world of party bylaws are going to work together to accomplish the same goal,” he added. “We all want to see a better Colorado and this is part of that process.”

Dotterer said the recall movement is supporting Tancredo because “we found that our interests lined up and this partnership will make a lot of sense.”

“In 2013, we the people of Colorado worked hard to remove three anti-liberty politicians from office,” Dotterer noted. “In 2014, we will work just as hard to get… great grassroots leaders elected to office.”

Another recall organizer, Mike McAlpine, who was instrumental in the effort to oust Hudak from office, said the petition process is a way to circumvent pressures from political party insiders.

“The same grassroots, conservative energy that led to the victories in the historic 2013 recall elections is the very same enthusiasm that will propel Tom Tancredo and Owen Hill into office,” predicted McAlpine. “People are excited about their genuine leadership for personal liberty, limited government and especially their dedication to serve the people, not our corrupted government system.”

Hill is also pleased to accept the support, though he may choose to employ the caucus route as well as go by petition.

“We’re happy to take as much help as we can,” he said. “There are a bunch of people who want representation. We want to expand this and make this as broad of a base as possible as we go through the petition and the caucus route.”

Hill said his campaign would also be working to collect signatures in addition to utilizing the help provided by recall proponents.

He is facing a field of seven other candidates, including well-known Republicans like fellow Sen. Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and Rep. Amy Stephens of Monument.

Baumgardner and Buck say they will go through the caucus process, while Stephens says she will petition onto the ballot.

Hill’s competition did not have much to say on the record about his petition strategy, saying that they are focused more on their own campaigns. But Buck campaign consultant Walt Klein said that for Buck, the only logical step would be to participate in the caucus process.

“I’ve never been involved in one of those campaigns where a candidate was trying to circumvent the assembly. I’ve been in a bunch of them, but I’ve never been involved in one where petition signatures were involved, so I think I know that the only way Ken would do this was with the backing of the delegates at the state assembly,” explained Klein.

Hill, however, believes that for his campaign, building a grassroots base early on will help him to beat Udall later this year. The incumbent is expected to have significant financial backing from Democrats and special interests from all across the nation.

“They approached us a while ago and said they wanted to see more grassroots involvement, and we said we’re delighted to work together to get as broad of a base as possible involved,” explained Hill about the recall workers. “We’re going to need all hands on deck to beat Mark Udall, so let’s get as many people active in the process as possible.

“There are a lot of people — whether it’s families, people who haven’t been involved, or don’t have the time to be involved in the caucus process, but share our values — and we want to get those people as engaged as possible,” he concluded.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com