WASHINGTON – The 2014 elections could be a turn in the tide for struggling Colorado Republicans.
But so far, it is shaping up to be more of the same – a big blue wave.
A year and a half from now, Republicans have a chance to reclaim two of the state’s highest positions they lost in the last decade when Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall, both Democrats, stand for re-election.
According to previous trends, Democrats should suffer nationwide in 2014, strategists say. Typically, whatever party controls the White House loses out in the sixth year of a two-term presidency.
But it doesn’t look that way in Colorado: Hickenlooper and Udall, who are polling with 50 percent and higher approval ratings, have no serious GOP challengers yet and already are pegged as the favorites to win.
Republicans have whispered about a handful of possible candidates – including two prominent Four Corners politicians – but the party appears to be running into trouble fielding top-tier candidates for these races. Political scientists and strategists say this is just the latest edition of troubles that have dogged the party for the last 10 years.
Few promising prospects
Because of the Democratic majorities in the state Legislature, there are fewer Republicans ready to make the jump to big-league races such as governor and senator – meaning the GOP has been “cut off at the grass roots,” said Bob Loevy, a retired political science professor at Colorado College and longtime observer of Colorado politics.
“It makes it harder for us to really elevate them for higher office,” Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call said.
That smaller pool means that for 2014, there aren’t any big names jumping out to oppose Hickenlooper and Udall.
The Denver Post reported last week that former Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo and Secretary of State Scott Gessler are weighing a run at Hickenlooper’s seat. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez recently told The Durango Herald he is considering taking on Udall, but he hasn’t made any firm decisions yet.
But unaffiliated political analyst Eric Sondermann said if Republicans thought they had a chance of winning Udall’s seat, “money would flow” now.
“I think it’s symptomatic of the problems that they’re having,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, has been floated as a possible contender against Udall. He stopped short of denying his interest in challenging the incumbent senator in a recent interview.
“Right now, I’m just focused on the 3rd Congressional District. Politics will take care of themselves down the road,” Tipton said.
A close ally of Tipton, state Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, dismissed the idea that Tipton would run against Udall. Coram occupies Tipton’s former seat in the state House, and he would be a contender to move up to Congress if Tipton sought higher office. But that won’t happen, Coram said.
“I think Scott and I are very comfortable where we’re at, and I see no reason to change that,” Coram said.
Roberts in the running?
The Colorado Statesman newspaper named state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, as a possible candidate against Udall or for Tipton’s seat, in case the Cortez congressman runs for Senate. But Roberts said she didn’t float her own name to the paper.
Roberts is up for re-election to her seat in 2014. She said in a recent interview that she’s not ready to make a decision about what race she will get into.
Udall isn’t sitting on his laurels. He has raised about $2.5 million, according to the most recent figures – about $1.5 million in the first quarter of 2013 alone.
Political scientists and strategists say this is a double-edged sword: It shows Udall is gearing up for a fight while also hoping to ward off any strong opponents.
And his strategy is working. Such a large amount of money so early in the campaign is forcing top-tier Republicans – like U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, a party favorite – to think twice about running against him, Loevy said, to avoid risking their reputations and fundraising capital.
Gardner has not made any decisions about 2014 yet, said spokeswoman Rachel George.
In Washington, Udall says his current focus is on his work in the Capitol, and he’ll leave the prognosticating to the pundits.
“My crystal ball’s in the shop,” he said.
Clock is ticking on 2014
The future is clearer to political scientists.
“What we’re most likely to have is Udall running against a noncompetitive Republican candidate,” Loevy said.
But Call, the GOP’s state chairman, disagrees.
“I think overall, Sen. Udall knows he’s vulnerable,” he said, calling the incumbent’s list of accomplishments “pretty thin.”
“I think Republicans have a great opportunity,” Call said. “I absolutely don’t see this as a throwaway race.”
But even a year and a half out from Election Day, time looks to be running out quickly for the GOP.
“As more time goes by, the situation gets ever more desperate,” Loevy said. “The clock is really ticking here on the Republican Party for that Senate seat.”
The tide since 2004
The Democratic domination of Colorado politics didn’t happen overnight.
The red-to-blue switch began in 2004, and experts say it is the result of several factors, including changing demographics and schisms within the Republican Party – so much so that the Democrats’ victories are as much their own triumphs as the GOP’s failures.
Former congressman Tancredo blames the Republican Party’s current situation – he said it now is on “life support” – on the money and organizational skills of liberal special-interest groups.
But don’t sound the death knell for the Colorado GOP yet. Experts say the political pendulum typically swings back and forth.
“The parties go through cycles like this,” said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University.
The Colorado Republican Party is down but not out, state chairman Call said.
“There’s no question that the bench, if you will, of candidates has suffered as a result of election losses in the past,” Call said.
Democrats such as Jason Bane, founder of the state’s top liberal blog, “Colorado Pols,” have watched with glee as Republicans isolated themselves from moderate voters during the last decade. Their campaigns have featured social issues such as abortion and opposition to gay rights, but Colorado voters prefer to leave people alone and stay out of private affairs, Bane said.
“It’s like they’re watching a different movie than the rest of us,” he said.
Call: ‘Increasingly optimistic’
But now Call thinks Democrats have left Republicans an opportunity in the state Legislature’s latest session, where the Democratic majority pushed through bills on guns, gay rights and illegal immigration – issues Call said are “out of touch” with Colorado values and priorities.
Voter preference for the individual and independence is a natural advantage for Republicans, Call said.
“If we can capture that sense and sentiment of Western independence and embody it in our party, our party platform and in our party’s candidates, that’s part of the winning recipe that we need to put forward in this upcoming and in every election,” he said.
Call said he’s “increasingly optimistic” for the upcoming election, and plans to improve the party’s ground game for 2014 with more outreach through significant investments in local staff and offices, neighbor-to-neighbor campaigning, databases and technology.
“Business as usual isn’t going to get it done,” he said.