Republicans Doing Normal Party Stuff in Colorado
Something interesting happened in last week's primary elections in Colorado. In several key races, the Republican Party seemed to rally behind some less extreme candidates, and Republican voters largely followed their lead. That's a pretty normal thing for a party to do, but we haven't seen much in the way of normal lately, so I'd like to focus on just what they did here. I'm going to focus on three statewide races and one key exception, that of Rep. Lauren Boebert. (I had a great recent conversation with the folks at the Get More Smarter podcast about this.)
The three statewide races were Republican primaries for Governor, US Senator, and Secretary of State. Each of those offices is currently held by a Democrat (Jared Polis, Michael Bennet, and Jena Griswold, respectively).
The overall electoral environment is important here. Notably, Republicans have won very few statewide elections in Colorado in recent election cycles. Polis won by more than 10 points in 2018, and Joe Biden won the presidential contest in Colorado by some 13 points in 2020. However, Biden's popularity is sagging across the country, and national political trends could put enough drag on Democrats this fall that Republicans have a shot at some of these seats.
One important thing these three primary contests had in common was a fairly extreme Trump-praising election-denying candidate running against a somewhat more conventional one:
The governor's race was between Greg Lopez and Heidi Ganahl. Lopez leaned in on election denial, a zero-exceptions abortion ban, and a state-level "electoral college" plan that would ensure Democrats never win another state race again. He had a few endorsements from fairly extreme figures, including Jenna Ellis, who was part of Trump's effort to pressure state legislators in swing states to overturn the 2020 election. Ganahl, however, focused more on inflation and cost of living issues, and she was backed by more establishment figures within the state, including former Governor Bill Owens and former Senator Hank Brown. Ganahl was a far more successful fundraiser and ended up beating Lopez 54-46.
The Senate race was between Ron Hanks and Joe O'Dea. Hanks is a noted election denier and was part of the January 6, 2021 protests at the US Capitol, although he apparently did not enter the building. O'Dea took stances that were far more moderate on a range of issues, including being pro-choice, wanting to keep parts of Obamacare intact, favoring US efforts in Ukraine, and more. Like Ganahl in the governor's race, O'Dea was backed by establishment figures like Owens and Brown, and was the more successful fundraiser. O'Dea beat Hanks 55-45.
The Secretary of State's race was actually a three-way contest. The candidate who had received the bulk of attention was Tina Peters, the Mesa County Clerk & Recorder who had been stripped of her duties by the incumbent Secretary of State and is currently under indictment for tampering with election equipment. She was the clear Trumpist, election-denying candidate. She ran against the more mainstream Pam Anderson, the sitting Clerk & Recorder for Jefferson County, who again had the backing of establishment figures like Owens and Brown. Anderson won with 43% to Peters' 29%, and the little known Mike O'Donnell managed to pull 28%.
Colorado's quirky party nomination system has two paths by which candidates for state office may gain a position on the primary election ballot. They can petition onto the ballot, or they can compete in the poorly-attended party caucus system which culminates in a state assembly for each party. The winner in that latter process gets the top position on the primary ballot.
Not surprisingly, the caucus-assembly system is dominated by hard core party activists -- people who are willing to invest a lot of time and effort in party activities. In many cases, the winner of that process is a favorite of the hard core folks but, as a result, somewhat less well positioned to win among the larger primary electorate. We saw that last Tuesday -- in each of those three races, the Trumpist, election-denying candidate was the favorite in the caucus-assembly process but lost in the primary.
But more importantly, in all three races, party establishment figures rallied around the more moderate (if still conservative) candidate. They helped make sure those candidates had the fundraising ability and name recognition to prevail in a larger primary electorate (which included unaffiliated voters). The party issued a clear signal in these races, one that primary voters heard and largely followed. The result is a likely more competitive general election environment in the fall.
Now, I want to touch on the contest where the dynamic described above definitely did not happen. Rep. Lauren Boebert in the third congressional district sailed to re-nomination 66-34 over her opponent, state Senator Don Coram. Boebert is, of course, a very well known and highly controversial figure both in Colorado and nationally. And she's a freshman, having pulled an upset in the Republican primaries in 2020 in taking down then-Rep. Scott Tipton.
Now, it's very rare and difficult to defeat an incumbent in their own primary. But my impression of Don Coram is that, if you're going to try to do that, he's the sort of candidate you try to do that with. He's experienced in the state legislature, respected by colleagues of both parties, and conservative but not given to Trumpist extremism. The party establishment could have backed him with endorsements and funding and made a real contest of it. They didn't.
Why didn't the establishment back Coram to try to take down Boebert? My impression is that this was a very different sort of contest than the others I mentioned above. Those were races where Republicans are trying to unseat a Democratic incumbent. If they get it right, the party takes considerable power in a place where it currently has none. Going after Boebert, however, carries far more risks -- the party could lose -- with fewer obvious benefits, since the seat is likely to stay in GOP hands in the fall regardless.
It's also notable that, as bombastic as Boebert can be, and as embarrassing as some Colorado Republicans may find her at times, she doesn't have many real enemies within the state party. Importantly, while Boebert made endorsements for candidates in Republican primaries all across the country, she didn't do that in Colorado. It could be that she doesn't want to make enemies at home, or she just might be far more interested in national politics than state politics. But the outcome was that her primary opponent just never became much of a threat.
One final note: Democrats for the most part didn't have many primary contests this year, which is an interesting story in itself. Instead, in several of the contests mentioned above, Democrats were supporting the more extreme Republican candidate, figuring that would lead to a better electoral environment in the fall. That's a risky strategy, but it failed anyway.
Nevertheless, what we saw from the Republicans last week, at least in Colorado, was some evidence of a fairly healthy party picking favorites in races where it could make a difference, resulting in the nomination of candidates who a) don't spread election conspiracy theories, and b) may have a decent chance in this year's environment.