GOP future in SD 15?

By Jason Kosena

The first round of infighting in the Republican Party over how to best win future elections may have played out last Saturday in Larimer County.

The county’s 128-person Republican vacancy committee voted by a 2-to-1 ratio to select Rep. Kevin Lundberg to fill out the remainder of Sen. Steve Johnson’s second term in Senate District 15, passing up the never-elected but more moderate Republican, West Point graduate and Loveland businessman Mike Lynch.

Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Newly selected Sen. Kevin Lundberg awaits his
swearing in ceremony on the floor of the Senate Chamber on Thursday morning. Lundberg is replacing Sen. Steve Johnson in SD 15.

Johnson, who won a seat on the Larimer County Commissioners in November, and Rep. Don Marostica, the newly minted Joint Budget Committee member from Larimer County, opposed Lundberg’s candidacy.

Among the concerns voiced by Lundberg’s detractors were his ultra-conservative voting record, his focus on social issues and his lack of appeal to an electorate that has trended moderate in recent years.

Marostica, who won re-election in 2008 with 57 percent of the vote, said he believes Lundberg, widely known as one of the most conservative members of the Legislature, will struggle in a 2010 election bid.

“I recruited Mike Lynch to run for this seat and thought he would make a great candidate for the Legislature,” Marostica said during an interview with The Colorado Statesman.

Marostica called Lundberg a good legislator and commended his work in the House, but openly questioned his ability to raise enough funds to hold the SD 15 seat, which Larimer County Democrats now say, is competitive.

Johnson — who is widely known as one of the more moderate Republicans in Colorado — won the seat with large margins each year. Loveland Democrat and former state Senate President Stan Matsunaka held the seat before Johnson.

“It is going to be a difficult seat to hold now,” Marostica continued. “Kevin is going to have to raise money from the business community, and the folks on the vacancy committee (who selected him) aren’t the ones who are writing $400 checks. If the (Democrats) can find a good candidate who can appeal to the business community, then it will be a competitive race. Kevin hasn’t been the best at raising money over the years, and I see this as a $500,000 race. He will have to work at that.”

Lundberg, who lost a run for the SD 15 seat in 1998 to Matsunaka, disagreed, saying his conservative values bring the right appeal to voters in the primarily Republican district.

“Let’s look at the facts of the vote (of the vacancy committee), which showed that an overwhelming majority supported my candidacy,” Lundberg said in an interview with The Colorado Statesman.

“I was very clear and up front about who I am, and I have been consistent over the years, and there was no guessing on their part. Concerning my electability, I have been winning races in that district since 2003 and each election I have won by a stronger majority.”

Indeed. During November’s election, Lundberg beat out Democrat James Ross with 57 percent of the vote to reclaim the House District 49 seat, even though 2008 was a horrid year for Republicans. Most of HD 49 falls into Lundberg’s new Senate district.

“I have shown increasing success... and the difference between House District 49 and Senate District 15 is the town of Loveland... which is a good, strong Republican area. So I am actually picking up a stronger district, and I am confident that I will be able to run a strong race,” Lundberg said.

“Actually it might be a good thing politically for the (Democrats) to pour a lot of money into this race, because that way they won’t have it to use in other, less competitive races.”

Known for his continued fight to push for conservative social issues while serving in the House, Lundberg said he wants to focus on helping the economy and on reducing the size of government while in the Senate. Working to lessen taxation on Colorado businesses, protecting TABOR and helping to create “private sector” jobs are all areas he said are of importance.

“I think the economic and budget problems the state is facing are understandably the most pressing issues facing Colorado at this time,” Lundberg said.

Not all of Lundberg’s tenure has been illustrated by his focus on social issues. Last year he passed legislation that allocated additional state resources to help alleviate the bark beetle infestation that is ravaging Colorado’s forests and fought for renewable energy practices.

Those efforts could help him. After a string of bruising losses in recent election cycles, Republicans have been searching their souls, looking for the right strategy to reverse the trend.

Some in the party believe out-of-control spending by the Republican-led administration of President George W. Bush and the growing size of government during recent years has led the party astray and made the choice between conservatives and liberals blurry.

Others believe the electorate is hungry for moderation in politics and have been easily wooed by Democrats — especially in Colorado — who have moved to the middle on many issues.

Although no clear answers are available, the discussion among the Republican ranks has begun, and the selection of Lundberg to fill Johnson’s seat could indicate that at least some of the party’s faithful believe a hard-line conservative approach will lead them to salvation.

“I think there will continue to be a discussion in the party, but the people who said that we lost the (2008) election on the national level because we were too conservative are incorrect,” said Kirk Brush, the Larimer County GOP chairman.

“We have spent like drunken sailors. Government has gotten bigger, and so I don’t see the election as a referendum on the conservative mantra. Whether we will be successful will be determined by us telling people what our conservative principals are and how will we live up to them, not how we will continue to stray from them.”

But many political observers say the Republicans’ slow drift from conservative fiscal policy hasn’t been the only nail in their coffin.

The conservative push on social issues — from gay marriage to abortion to guns — hasn’t carried the same political weight it did during Bush’s first term, especially as the economy has slowed and unemployment is on the rise.

The same observers say it will be difficult for Republicans to energize enough voters over cultural issues alone to manufacture a majority when people are worried about mortgages, college tuition, crumbling roads and their jobs.

Although Republicans like Lundberg, who have focused on social issues, play well to primary voters, they have struggled to win general elections in recent years, said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University who has followed the Colorado Legislature for more than 40 years.

“Many voters do sympathize with the Republicans on their cultural and family values issues, as well as on a concern about government size and spending. But voters also care about schools, tuition, roads and health care. And those don’t come free,” Straayer said.

“The party has manufactured an image of being aggressive on cultural matters and reactionary on government services. I think their resurgence rests on developing a positive image of the future and a plan to pay for it. In other words, tell the voters that they know what is broken, they know how to fix it, and they know that the repair job ain’t free.”

A new vacancy committee consisting of Republican officeholders in Larimer County will meet Saturday in Fort Collins to select a replacement to fill out the remaining two years of Lundberg’s term in HD 49. Two Republicans have publicly stated their intent to run — Windsor resident Ray Walter and BJ Nikkel, a former Marilyn Musgrave campaign worker and a Loveland resident.