But when it comes to the latter, they might be in the process of blowing it.
The past few months have brought on a slew of recruiting and campaign troubles for Republicans. They struggled to find an experienced and reputable candidate to take on Bennet. Now they’re trudging through a crowded nominating process with no obvious standout hopeful. And this week, the establishment’s preferred candidate — to the extent there is one — failed to qualify to be on the GOP primary ballot. So did two other candidates.
Senate Republicans’ campaign arm also hasn’t reserved airtime in Colorado for the fall, which some took as a sign they might just take a pass on the race altogether. (Senate Republicans caution against reading too much into that.) Taken altogether, Republicans’ missteps have given Bennet some much-needed breathing room in a race that his campaign perhaps rightly expected to be much more competitive than it is now.
The latest drama came Tuesday when Jon Keyser, a 34-year-old combat veteran, fell 86 signatures short of qualifying to be on the GOP primary ballot. His campaign filed a lawsuit to challenge the secretary of state’s signature analysis, and on Friday, they won. (It wasn't the first time a Colorado congressional candidate has won a signature challenge.)
But on Thursday, Colorado's Secretary of State also said GOP primary candidates Robert Blaha, a businessman, and Ryan Frazier, a former Aurora city councilman, did not collect enough valid signatures to be on the ballot. It's not clear whether they'll challenge the decision and whether they have a shot of making it back on the ballot.
Even if this is a momentary hiccup for Keyser’s campaign and the others, it’s all too easy to fit the news into a pattern of things gone wrong for Republicans in a race they badly wanted — and maybe even need — to go right.
Republicans still think the race is winnable, especially since they knocked off Colorado’s other Democratic senator in a huge upset in 2014. It might just take some extra work on their part, they say. But Senate Democrats are practically giddy watching the GOP nominating process play out. They say with each passing day and the drama that the GOP primary brings, Bennet’s potential victory margin gets bigger. Indeed, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report keeps this race in its “lean Democrat” column “until (and if)” a viable candidate emerges.
It’s still much too early to call this race a lost cause. A strong candidate could come out of the GOP primary and give Colorado Democrats a serious race. Colorado is ninth in our most recent list of top 10 races that could flip parties in November — and the second-best GOP pickup opportunity.
All that is why the Colorado GOP primary is definitely one to keep an eye on as we try to game out which party will control the Senate in November. Colorado may be a factor on that map, or thanks to recent events, it may not — to the detriment of Republicans. Here's an overview of how things have gone so far.
The state of the GOP race right now
It’s “the political equivalent of an algebra problem” without a clear answer, write the Denver Post’s Mark Matthews and John Frank.
As recently as a month ago, there were as many as a dozen candidates.
The race is now down to five, but none have emerged as more viable than the rest. Two are millionaires. One was a former Democrat. A handful of them have military records. But only two of them have qualified to be on the ballot so far. And none of them have held a federal or statewide office. All of them are underfunded — Bennet had $7.6 million in the bank last quarter, while all of the Republican candidates’ bank accounts collectively amounted to less than $1 million.
That’s made it difficult for anyone in the race to stand out right now, much less for voters to keep them straight ahead of the June 28 primary. Keyser got some late buzz when he entered the race in January with a handful of endorsements, a made-for-politics bio and the promise of millions to come later. But he’s been distracted this week by the ballot issue, and the money has yet to materialize; he raised $300,000 since getting into the race.
The shadow of Cory Gardner
What Republicans would have preferred was a Cory Gardner-like candidate who is appealing enough to convince everybody else to get out of the race. Gardner, a dynamic and personable congressman, ran an aggressive campaign in 2014 and beat Sen. Mark Udall (D) after a late entry.
Republicans took Gardner’s victory as a sign they might be starting to regain their footing in Colorado; it was their first gubernatorial or Senate race they won there since 2002, and Gardner was the first challenger to knock off a Colorado U.S. senator in 36 years. Republicans also took the state Senate by one seat after a decade of Democratic control.
“The Democrats’ reign is over,” a Colorado GOP spokesman told the Denver Post on election night.
Democrats countered that Gardner only beat Udall by 2.5 percentage points in a Republican wave year. Bennet’s in a much stronger place, they say. And increasingly, they appear to be right.
Big GOP names took a pass on Bennet
Everyone started looking to Colorado's next big Senate battle — which many thought began as a toss-up — as a test case for whether the GOP was truly back.
Republicans settled on Rep. Mike Coffman, a four-term congressman who won his seat by nine points in 2014 even though analysts once deemed it the most competitive seat in the country. Democrats started attacking him. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took him to breakfast. But Coffman weighed the risk and decided to stay in his Aurora-area seat, even though redistricting had made it more competitive. “I’m really able to get things done where I am right now. I’ve emerged as a national leader on veterans’ issues,” he said at the time — adding “Bennet is beatable.”
Coffman’s decision was a shock, but Colorado Republicans weren’t deterred. The chair of the Colorado Republican Party, Steve House, told the Denver Post the GOP is “fortunate to have a lot of options.”
But one by one, those options dwindled. Rep. Scott Tipton decided not to run. Same with Coffman’s wife, state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, and state Senate President Ellen Roberts and prosecutor George Brauchler. They all said no.
Lesser-known candidates seized their chance
As Republicans searched for a recruit, other less notable hopefuls started filtering into the race.
El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn was one of the first to enter, but most in Colorado brushed off his candidacy as a long shot. State Sen. Tim Neville, Jefferson County businessman Jerry Natividad and another El Paso County commissioner, Peg Littleton, all jumped in, too. Their plan was to get on the ballot by winning 30 percent of the vote at Colorado GOP’s convention in April. In an April surprise, only Glenn did so.
The better-organized candidates opted for a more sure-fire ballot access method, paying thousands of dollars to collect at least 1,500 from each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts. So far, Colorado State University athletic director Jack Graham is the only candidate to successfully get on the ballot this way after he submitted enough valid signatures. On Thursday, Colorado's Secretary of State said businessman Blaha and former Aurora city councilman Frazier also did not qualify for the ballot because signatures were rejected in at least three congressional districts.
Even with a thinned field, there’s been no shortage of attempts to stand out. Blaha, who self-funded a congressional race and lost, launched his campaign with a five-figure TV ad showing a doctor giving a patient a, shall we say, painful prostate exam. Before he left the race, state Sen. Tim Neville took his assault rifle and fired holes into a critical Colorado Springs Gazette editorial, then posted it on social media. Keyser has chosen to lie a bit lower and highlight his military service, while Glenn has earned some free media by knocking Keyser’s supposed reliance on campaigning on his military service. Keyser missed a GOP candidate forum this week with the other four candidates while he waited for news on his signatures.
On Friday, he got the answer he wanted. The Denver District Court agreed with Keyser's campaign the signatures were marked invalid because of a processing error, not because they were actually invalid. The past few days have been a critical moment from the campaign: With Keyser in and Blaha and Frazier potentially out, it could be Keyser's golden opportunity to seize the race -- and the GOP might finally have a front-runner. But that's a lot of if's.
Bottom line: The race is less competitive for now
National Republicans say everything that’s happened in the primary so far is simply a run of bad luck. They're confident they’ll nominate a candidate who can beat Bennet, who is still the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent right now.
Bennet, meanwhile, is still running as if he has a viable challenger. He’s raising money and is making an effort to work with Gardner in Washington to build his brand as a bipartisan consensus-maker.
And Bennet has definitely got more time to do all that while Republicans try to figure out who will challenge him, an increasingly difficult process.
Like we said, it’s still too early to tell whether Republicans’ missteps have permanently altered the race. But for now, it seems like the Colorado Senate race is a lot less competitive than we thought it would be.