Crowded field of Republican Senate hopefuls united

...against incumbent Udall
The Colorado Statesman

A stage full of Republican Senate hopefuls last Saturday heaped criticism on U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and vowed to unite behind whichever candidate wins what could be a crowded primary to take on the Democrat in the November election.

Seven GOP candidates spoke for more than two hours before a crowd of about 100 at the Northglenn Recreation Center, responding to questions ranging from the federal government’s role in marijuana enforcement now that Colorado has legalized the drug — the feds shouldn’t second-guess state voters, candidates agreed — to how Republicans can attract Hispanic voters.

“What we need to do is to create a strong and vibrant economy that allows all people to compete,” said Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, who lost the closest Senate race in the country four years ago when he was the Republican nominee. “We don’t believe that government creates opportunity, we believe that businesses and individuals create opportunity, and, as that opportunity is created, all races, all genders in this country will be able to benefit.”

Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck speaks, flanked by state Sens. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, and Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, at a forum for GOP U.S. Senate candidates on Feb. 8 in Northglenn.

State Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, said that reaching out to members of various communities — including Hispanic residents — is key. “Most people are with us on the policy side, but we fail to sit down and actually listen,” he said.

State Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, and Littleton businessman Floyd Trujillo smile during a forum for Republican Senate candidates on Feb. 8.

“People have to feel they are a part of something,” said state Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, noting that Republicans are often met with gratitude when party leaders attend Hispanic enclaves.

Former state Rep Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, reads from what he says is a list of Sen. Mark Udall’s failures in office before moderating a forum for Republican Senate candidates hoping to replace incumbent Democratic Sen. Udall.

“I do believe, even as we look at the women’s vote, and we look at engaging more women and women leaders in our party, we still have the same issue — we have to listen, we have to relate, we have to engage and bring them in,” she added.

Panelists Kelly Maher of Compass Colorado, Adams County Commissioner Erik Hansen and state Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono, smile during a forum for Republican Senate candidates in Northglenn.

“Hispanic families want good education for their children,” said state Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs. “It’s important for Republicans to let it be known that their party is the one whose policies will provide that.”

Marie Rossmiller, a past chair of the Colorado Republican Small Business Coalition, embraces state Rep. Perry Buck, R-Greeley, whose husband, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, is among the Republican Senate candidates who participated in a forum on Feb. 8.

The lone Hispanic on stage, Littleton oil and gas consultant Floyd Trujillo, said that Republicans need to reframe the question.

Congressional District 7 candidate Don Ytterberg meets former Adams County Commissioner Alice Nichol following the forum. Nichol affiliated as a Republican last month after a lengthy political career as a Democrat, including 12 years in the state House and Senate.

When people talk about the Hispanic issue, he said, talk often turns to the 11 million undocumented immigrants and ignores the millions of Hispanic citizens, like his own family. (He traces his ancestral roots in the area back nearly five centuries.)

Republican House District 35 chair Patty Sue Femrite, and Adams County activist Maria Weese visit in the lobby outside a forum for Republican Senate candidates on Feb. 8 at the Northglenn Recreation Center.
Photos by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“Hispanics have the same values as the Republican Party; we just have to engage them,” Trujillo said.

Agreeing that Hispanic voters have a natural fit with the Republican Party, perennial candidate Tom Janich — an Adams County Republican who has run for the Legislature three times and sought the GOP nomination for Congressional seats twice — cracked, “I’m more optimistic about making inroads with the Hispanic vote than I am with the liberal white vote.”

As on several other topics, Durango businessman Jaime McMillan — who used to be a Democrat and ran as an unaffiliated write-in candidate for the 3rd Congressional District in 2012 — staked out a position far afield from the rest of the candidates.

“Immigration is the single most important issue in America right now,” he said, blasting congressional Republicans for stalling on proposed legislation. “It’s time Republicans stood up for minorities and passed immigration reform.” (McMillan also chided the GOP for causing last fall’s government shutdown and argued that constitutional amendments designed to restrict the rights of gay Americans were contrary to the GOP’s core philosophy.)

The relatively cordial forum — moderator Don Beezley, a former state legislator, admonished the candidates to avoid “personal attacks, unless it’s against the Democrats or Mark Udall” — was sponsored by the Reagan Club of Colorado, the Colorado Republican Business Coalition, and the Republican parties of Adams and Broomfield counties. Adams County Commissioner Erik Hansen, state Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono, and Compass Colorado director Kelly Maher posed questions, many submitted by audience members.

The June 24 primary ballot is unlikely to be as packed as the forum stage, but it could still be crowded. Republicans officially start the nomination process March 4 with precinct caucuses, followed by county assemblies in following weeks, culminating in the April 12 state assembly, when whoever garners at least 30 percent of delegate votes wins a spot on the ballot. Buck and Baumgardner plan to pursue the nomination through the caucus and assembly process, while Stephens and Hill have both said they plan to petition their way onto the ballot.

Polling released last week shows Baumgardner, Stephens and Buck all within 3 points of Udall, with Hill trailing the incumbent Democrat by 5 points.

Buck and Hill lead the pack in fundraising, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Through the end of last year, Buck posted $382,782 and had $262,347 in the bank, while Hill raised $359,606 and had $206,415 on hand, including a $35,000 loan to himself. Stephens raised $51,654 and had $48,192 on hand, though her campaign owes $59,711 to political consultants and a hotel.

Baumgardner reported just $3,314 in donations and counts $5,644 cash on hand. Including a $90,000 loan to himself, Trujillo banked $103,155 and hasn’t reported spending any of it yet. McMillan has raised $14,010 and has $1,201 left to spend. By press time, Janich hadn’t filed with the FEC.

Udall raised over $1 million in the most recent quarter, bringing his total receipts to $8,493,403. He reported $4,724,044 cash on hand.

Stephens last month announced the formation of a finance committee that includes Nan Brown, wife of Stephens’ campaign co-chair, former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown; former Colorado First Lady Frances Owens; and former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, who lost the 2010 Senate nomination to Buck.

At the forum, the candidates agreed that uniting the GOP’s establishment and upstart tea party wings was critical to defeating Udall.

“This is the defining issue for us, whether we’re going to win or lose this Senate race,” said Stephens, who has come under fire from fellow Republicans for her role in sponsoring legislation to establish Colorado’s state-run health insurance exchange, a key part of the federal Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.”

Stephens contends she was saving the state from more heavy handed federal oversight and was acting at the behest of the business community, but detractors fault her participation in a federal program nearly every Republican derides, dubbing the exchanges “Amycare.”

Arguing that she’s best suited to bring together the GOP’s factions, Stephens swung at her critics.

“Our Founders vehemently disagreed about a number of things, but you didn’t hear them calling each other a RINO (Republican in Name Only),” Stephens said, adding, “Unless you win, we’re not going to change any of this stuff in Washington, D.C.”

Baumgardner made a similar point.

“As a conservative-thinking group of people, we need to get together and pick a candidate we can get behind and take Mark Udall out,” he said. “Once you’re in that office, you can work on those gray areas, but you know what? If we do not pull together — all of us — Mark Udall is going to be back in that spot. We cannot fragment, we have to unite, every one of us.”

Janich drew laughter when he said, “If two people agree on everything, that’s a miracle. If three do, that’s a conspiracy.” He added that he thinks the Democrats are trying to amplify fractures in the GOP.

“The differences we have with Mark Udall are far greater than the differences we have among ourselves,” Buck said.

Before Republicans can change any laws, Buck had earlier argued, they must first win the six seats it will take to hold a majority in the Senate.

“We need to do the things Republicans have been talking about, but we have to have power to do them,” Buck said. He later joked that he’d do whatever it took to make sure that happens. “If it would be beneficial for the nominee for me to endorse that nominee, then I would do that. If it would be beneficial to the nominee for me to endorse Mark Udall, then I would do that.”

Repeating a theme he raised several times at the forum — that it’s time for new leadership, as Buck’s statewide loss four years ago would make him a flawed nominee this time around — Hill invoked Ronald Reagan in a plea to set aside internal party strife.

“Reagan showed us how to do it — Reagan showed us how you take a policy driven, proactive focus on the future and say, these are the ways we empower people, these are the policies we need to fix, and highlight how the federal government is stealing opportunity and is stealing the future away from our children,” Hill said. “Unless we have a proactive, energetic vision for the future, just arguing the debates of the past is not going to solve our problems.”

On Monday, Hill won a high-profile endorsement from a national tea party group, a move that raised hackles among local conservatives and won a swift rebuke from Colorado-based groups.

“America is off course, and in order to right the ship, we need new leaders who bring new ideas. That is why we are proud to stand here today to endorse State Senator Owen Hill,” said Tea Party Express chair Amy Kremer in a statement.

“I have no doubt that Hill will join the new wave of conservative leaders in the Upper Chamber that have bucked the establishment of both parties to tackle America’s unsustainable debt, crippling taxes, and intrusive, big-government policies,” she added.

The Tea Party Express also announced plans to spend $100,000 airing a TV ad promoting Hill along with the message that it’s “time to start the Senate race with a clean canvas.”

The group — which endorsed Buck in 2010 when he was the insurgent candidate taking on Norton — dubs itself “the nation’s largest Tea Party political action committee,” but a coalition of local conservative groups almost immediately sought to distance themselves from the endorsement.

“This out-of-state organization with no local grassroots ties does not speak with the consent nor consensus of the many Tea Party, 9.12 and other liberty groups in Colorado,” said Colorado Tea Party Patriots President Regina Thomson in a statement.

She said numerous local groups — including the Colorado Tea Party Patriots, Arapahoe Tea Party, 285 Corridor Tea Party, Evergreen Tea Party, North JeffCo Tea Party, Lakewood Tea Party, South JeffCo Tea Party and Bears Ears Patriots — “stand together to disavow the endorsement.”

In a Facebook posting, Thomson elaborated on her concerns.

“There is no Tea Party Express in Colorado,” she wrote. “They do not have a network of local organizations. Please do not confuse their endorsement of a candidate with the activity of Colorado tea parties and other liberty groups who have not endorsed any candidates.” In fact, she added, “Individual groups are not endorsing candidates and do not want the actions of Tea Party Express to confuse voters in Colorado.”

Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio suggested that, contrary to confusing voters, the Hill endorsement should help clarify the Senate contest.

“Considering Owen Hill proudly joined Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and pushed a government shutdown, it’s no surprise that he’s proud of this endorsement from the reckless Tea Party Express,” Palacio said in a statement. “Coloradans are fed up with Washington-style politics that values partisan games and brinkmanship over common-sense solutions and getting things done. Owen Hill’s ideology tour on the Tea Party Express will only drive Colorado and the country over the cliff of recklessness.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com

See the Feb. 14 print edition for full photo coverage.