A potential sleeper race that Republicans are increasingly optimistic about and that Democrats are treating seriously is in Colorado. It’s a surprising potential battleground, given that Biden won the state by more than 13 points — a far wider margin than Trump’s nearly 5 point loss in 2016 — and in 2029 Sen. Cory Gardner — a strong GOP incumbent — also lost his re-election bid by just over 9 points. But, given the double-digit swing that happened in last year’s Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial election, opportunities such as the Centennial State could come on board.
Bennet was first appointed to the Senate in 2009 after Ken Salazar left to join the Obama cabinet. He won a close election for a full term in 2010, defeating embattled GOP nominee Ken Buck 48.1%-46.4% despite a large red wave year for Republicans. He won re-election in 2016 by about 6 points, but still got slightly under a majority of the vote with 49.97% despite outspending his GOP opponent Darryl Glenn five-to-one. Bennet also ran for president in 2020 but never gained traction. He dropped out after placing 11th in the New Hampshire primary.
National Republicans believe that this blue-trending state was more purely anti-Trump in recent years than it is anti-GOP, and they point to private data where even Biden’s unfavorable numbers are higher than Trump at this point. Meanwhile, they say nearly a third of voters don’t have an opinion on Bennet despite now having been in the Senate for 13 years. The junior senator, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was just elected to the Senate, has far more name ID.
But the key component Republicans are still missing is a candidate. Colorado has a two-fold process for getting on the June 28 primary ballot. You can qualify via petitions — 15,000 from party members in each eight congressional districts for a total of 12,000 signatures — which can be costly and time-consuming. Colorado Politics estimates a candidate would end up paying about $30 a signature, more than double in recent years. Or candidates can get on the ballot by winning at least 30 percent support from delegates at the state party assembly, which this year is set for April 9.
The only candidate going the petition route and therefore most likely to make it onto the ballot is wealthy construction company owner Joe O’Dea, who’s largely self-funding his race. The main candidates to watch who are trying to qualify via assembly are Air Force veteran and former 2008 pentathlon Olympian Eli Bremer, real estate developer and former Fort Collins Councilman Gino Campana, talk radio host Deborah Flora and state Rep. Ron Hanks.
Hanks would be, by far, the most disastrous nominee for Republicans. He’s run a conspiracy-laden campaign centered around the false premise that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump – but that could gain him traction with a certain part of the GOP base coming to the assembly as well. Hanks kicked off his campaign with a video of him shooting a Dominion voting machine. “If we nominate Ron Hanks for the Senate, you can kiss the seat goodbye, said one veteran Colorado Republican strategist. Further down ballot races could impact GOP hopes of filling this seat as well, and sources say particularly to watch Secretary of State candidate Tina Peters, the Mesa County Clerk who is currently under investigation by the incumbent Democrat Jena Griswold for allegedly having “compromised voting equipment” in the county to try and prove the election was rigged against Trump. A district court judge found she had leaked password for Dominion voting machines to a conservative website and shared hard drive information with another chief Trump conspiracy theorist, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. As a result, she shouldn't have access to county voting machines ahead of 2021, according to Colorado Public Radio. A more centrist Republican appearing alongside her on the ballot could be dragged down.
Campana has also been courting the Trump base, and counts former Trump top aide and 2016 campaign manager Kellyanne Conway as a senior adviser, but also hasn’t fully embraced conspiracy theories in the same way Hanks has. Bremer, meanwhile, got a lot of notice when he first announced, given his military and Olympic background, but has since largely stalled and is disliked among conservatives in the party, according to sources. Some are intrigued by Flora, who supported many of Trump’s policies on her talk show but not the more extreme conspiracy theory views or actions. Still, the veteran GOP strategist admits, “we don’t have a Cory Gardner in the race.” As of now, it’s possible that two — perhaps three max — candidates could get the required 30 percent support, but there’s also a strong likelihood that just one candidate may emerge. Some believe that could be Hanks, if he can get the far-right Trump faction on his side, while others believe that it could be Campana or even Flora who could get through. The bottom line is that right now it’s still murky, and giving a strong, passionate speech at the assembly – which is how Glenn emerged in 2016 – could turn the tide for candidates on the day of.
Whichever candidate or candidates to get onto the ballot will face O’Dea, who will be not just flush with cash but also is striking a more moderate posture. He has the backing of former Trump U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn, who was critical of the January 6 insurrection and Trump’s efforts to paint the election as stolen. If it’s Hanks or even Campana, this could end up being a proxy battle of the two divergent wings of the GOP, and it wouldn’t be shocking if the former president weighs in. Obviously, Democrats would much rather run against someone like Hanks or Campana than O’Dea, who looks like he’d be the most competitive general election candidate.
Despite the uncertainties in the GOP field, it’s clear this race merits watching — and while this move doesn’t indicate it’s competitive just yet, it clearly has the potential to do so in what’s shaping up to be a difficult year for Democrats, and incumbents like Bennet — even in a state like Colorado — will not be immune.
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