A Primary That’s Tough to Call - Pacific Standard

A Primary That’s Tough to Call

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What happens when there’s no clear frontrunner in a crowded race for a seat in the Senate.

By Seth Masket

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Michael Bennet cheers with his family as early returns show him leading over competitor on November 2, 2010, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo: Matt McClain/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Coloradans vote in their primary for all the offices below the presidential level. The big statewide contest is for the United States Senate, where five Republicans are vying for the nomination to take on Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet. And it’s actually a pretty weird race.

It’s weird because there’s no obvious frontrunner. None of the candidates has anything close to statewide name recognition. The most attention any has gotten has been the result of forged signatures on ballot access petitions. There have been no public polls, and private polls suggest an unstable race with at least one-third of likely voters undecided. The candidates are:

  • Robert Blaha, a businessman and former congressional candidate.
  • Ryan Frazier, a former Aurora City Councilman and congressional candidate.
  • Darryl Glenn, a county commissioner from El Paso County (home of Colorado Springs).
  • Jack Graham, a businessman and former Colorado State University athletic director.
  • Jon Keyser, a former state representative.

None has held office above the level of state representative. More experienced, better known Republicans like Representative Mike Coffman (now in a difficult re-election race) passed on this contest.

Fundraising in this race is pretty inconclusive. As of the most recent reports, only Blaha and Graham had raised over a million dollars for their race, but those reports were filed three months ago. And money isn’t necessarily a great predictor of primary success anyway.

Do endorsements suggest a favorite? Not really. Keyser secured possibly the most prestigious state endorsements with the backing of former Governor Bill Owens and former Senator Hank Brown. Blaha has the backing of the Family Research Council, which isn’t nothing.

If Donald Trump turns out to be as unpopular a presidential candidate in November as he appears to be now, that will drag down other Republicans.

However, Glenn, who was little known outside of Colorado Springs until his thrilling address to the state Republican convention in April (in which he declared himself “an unapologetic Christian, Constitutional conservative, pro-life, Second Amendment-loving American”), has garnered the support of Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin. He also won the support of 70 percent of state convention delegates, making him the only candidate to qualify for the primary ballot without requiring petitions.

And then there’s Jack Graham, the Republican candidate who was, until about a year ago, a registered Democrat. He’s also unabashedly pro-choice and supportive of same-sex marriage. There’s little reason to think he’d win over Republican primary voters, except that his campaign manager is Dick Wadhams, the former chair of the state Republican Party. Wadhams has clearly been upset by some of the recent directions his party has been taking since the rise of the Tea Party movement, and possibly he sees Graham as a vehicle to bring the party back to its former glory.

So it’s far from clear who the best positioned candidate is, either to consolidate state Republican support or to win over enough unaffiliated voters to prevail in November. And that latter part won’t be a small task. Bennet was last elected in 2010, a strongly Republican year that saw many of Bennet’s fellow Democrats lose their jobs. He managed to put together a winning campaign nonetheless. And Colorado has been trending slightly blue in recent years. If Donald Trump turns out to be as unpopular a presidential candidate in November as he appears to be now, that will drag down other Republicans, including Colorado’s Republican Senate nominee.

But despite the fact that few Coloradans know much about these Senate candidates today, there’s little reason to believe that will be much of a hinderance after the primary. There’s still plenty of time for the nominee to raise money, to meet with voters and activists, and to solidify party support behind him. That nominee will be plenty competitive. Whoever he is.

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