For sheer weirdness, it’s hard to imagine a Colorado political season as wacky as this one.
Consider the following:
The GOP nominated a respected, amiable two-term congressman, Bob Beauprez, as their gubernatorial candidate. Nothing in Beauprez’ history suggested that he’d be anything other than a competent contender. In fact, just a few months ago, the Democrats were in despair because popular Denver mayor, John Hickenlooper, had declined to run, ceding the nomination by default to the little-known Denver district attorney, Bill Ritter.
And what happened? Beauprez literally self-destructed, committing gaffe after gaffe, driving much of the business community into the welcoming arms of the surprisingly conservative, business-friendly Ritter.
Meanwhile, our own incumbent congressman, the unfailingly amiable Joel Hefley, announced that he won’t support Doug Lamborn, whom Republican primary voters anointed as his successor, because Lamborn “… ran the most sleazy, dishonest campaign I’ve seen in a long, long time, and I can not support it.”
Finally, as if one election isn’t enough, it’s looks as if the hapless voters in School District 11 will get a chance to recall a couple of board members in December, after angry activists managed to collect 15,000 signatures favoring such recalls.
So what’s going on here? Is there any common thread linking these events?
I’d suggest that what we’re seeing is the fracturing of the Republican Party, as traditional conservatives and moderates begin to enter into de facto alliances with Democrats to deny power to the extreme right wing of the GOP.
Beauprez, remember, immediately came under fire when he announced that he was running for governor — not because he was seen as unqualified, but because the popular congressman was giving up a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, where he was well-placed to advance Colorado’s economic interests.
In strictly political terms, it was an incomprehensible decision, since Colorado’s governor has relatively little power, compared to the Dark Lords who sit on Ways and Means. Maybe, some have suggested, Beauprez was just sick of Washington and wanted to come home.
Facing Marc Holtzman’s primary challenge, Beauprez moved sharply rightward, disappointing many of his supporters in the business community, who were already unhappy with him for opposing Referendum C.
Worse still for Republicans, it looks as if Democrat Ed Perlmutter is going to take Beauprez’s Congressional District 7 seat, giving the Dems a majority of the state’s congressional delegation for the first time in nearly a century.
How can this be? How, Republicans are asking themselves, can Colorado be a blue state?
Statewide, Republicans have a substantial edge in voter registration — and yet we have an extremely popular Democratic senator, Ken Salazar, and we may elect a Democratic governor.
And to add insult to injury, polls show that Salazar’s Republican counterpart, Wayne Allard, is one of the least popular incumbent senators in the country.
Traditional Republicans, i.e., those who are indifferent to the social issues that animate the party’s right wing, believe that the party’s fall from grace is the fault of the extreme right. They think the party ought to concentrate on issues that consistently appeal to voters across the political spectrum — low taxes, jobs, public safety, efficient government, strong public educational systems and up-to-date transportation networks.
In their opinion, by focusing on social issues — guns, gays, God and abortion — and over-identifying the party with the war in Iraq, the right wing has handed Colorado to the Democrats.
So maybe that explains Hefley’s distaste for Lamborn. It’s hard to buy his stated reason for opposing him — because he ran a nasty campaign?
C’mon, Joel, politics is a contact sport. Lamborn might be a short guy with glasses, but he took on the big boys and laid ’em on the turf. And if you think Lamborn ran a “sleazy” campaign, consider some of the famous campaigns of modern American history: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1948 (a classic job of red-baiting), Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater in 1964 (Johnson essentially said that Goldwater was ready to start a nuclear war) and George W. Bush vs. John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary (Bush supporters spread a rumor that McCain had an illegitimate African-American child).
Just as a lot of Republicans don’t much like Lamborn, a lot of Republicans presumably signed the D-11 recall petitions. And if the recall is successful, it’ll be because Republicans will have joined Democrats and Independents to remove self-identified agents of radical change and stabilize the city’s largest school district.
Republican business leaders are, not to put too fine a point on it, appalled that, after the fall elections, Colorado’s probable Republican representatives — Doug Lamborn, Marilyn Musgrave and Tom Tancredo — will all come from the extreme right. They see this as a recipe for further decline. Indeed, some observers think that Democrat Angie Paccione has a chance to knock off Marilyn Musgrave in November, reducing the GOP to a mere two seats.
So what are the traditionalists going to do?
Realistically, even if Hefley stumps for Jay Fawcett, Lamborn will probably win. But simply by sending the message that it’s OK to sit this one out, or even vote for a Democrat, Hefley can weaken Lamborn, and set the stage for a successful primary challenge in 2008.
Besides, Lamborn may find himself “Tom Delay-ed” by a potential scandal regarding his campaign’s collaboration with the Christian Coalition.
In the best of worlds, traditionalists hope that their strategy will, in a few years, lead to a replay of the 1980s, when centrist Democrats (Rep. David Skaggs, Sen. Tim Wirth, Gov. Roy Romer) collaborated with centrist Republicans (Joel Hefley, House Speaker Chuck Berry, Sen. Hank Brown) to achieve reasonably sensible outcomes.
Will they succeed? To do so, they need to field moderate/traditional conservative candidates who can win Republican primaries.
In the near term, that seems improbable. The folks on the extreme right are motivated, well-organized and well-financed. Having achieved power, they’re not about to surrender it easily. And if sticking to their principles consigns the party to minority status for a while, fine —eventually the voters will see the light.
And for any traditional conservatives hoping for a re-run of the “reasonable ’80s,” remember that there are a few wild cards out there eager to thwart any such apostasy.
If we’re playing deuces wild, watch out for the Deuce of Hearts (Ted Haggard), the Deuce of Clubs (James Dobson), the Deuce of Diamonds (Steve Schuck) and the Deuce of Spades (Douglas Bruce).
Four deuces — it’s a winning hand, unless you manage to change the game to “let’s make a deal.”
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 634-3223, ext. 241.