Things are heating up for the Republican Party in Colorado.
And much like the state’s geographical terrain, the GOP primaries for both governor and senate are concluding in a rocky fashion, with divisive intra-party battles and scandals potentially hampering a statewide party resurgence.
In the governor’s race, Scott McInnis, the former six- term congressman has been the front-runner to win the GOP nomination, and Republicans had good reason to be optimistic over his candidacy. In June, polls showed him with a commanding lead over his primary opponent, the under funded former businessman Dan Maes, as well as a single-digit lead over the likely Democratic nominee, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper.
His primary victory seemed all but assured on August 10th, until evidence surfaced three weeks ago that he had plagiarized an essay during a paid fellowship. Since then, McInnis has faced demands to return the money to the foundation, and polls show that he now trails both Maes and Hickenlooper.
With McInnis, Republicans are caught in a quandary due to the short bench of potential replacement candidates and the even shorter amount of time until the primary. Maes has become the immediate beneficiary of McInnis’s scandal, but he has been plagued by his own ethical lapses in the form of campaign finance violations and various questions regarding the degree of success he had as a businessman.
Compounding the headache for the GOP is former congressman and conservative firebrand Tom Tancredo, whose recent entry into the race as a third-party candidate has Republicans fearful that he could siphon off enough conservative votes to cost them the governorship in November.
But if Tancredo’s gubernatorial campaign bares any resemblance to his 2008 presidential run, a spectacularly unimpressive effort, then Republicans should have little to worry about. And as other GOP primaries this election season have shown, it’s been right leaning libertarian candidates in the mold of Ron Paul who have stolen the electoral thunder, not immigration heavy candidates like Tancredo.
Matching the circus like atmospherics of the gubernatorial contest is a senate primary that has been a cocktail of gender politics and conservative ideology.
Former Lt. Governor Jane Norton, the establishment favorite, kicked things off with a recent ad challenging Tea Party favorite Ken Buck’s manhood for his unwillingness to attack her face-to-face, but rather allowing outside interest groups to do so.
“Seen those T.V. ads attacking me? They’re paid for by a shady interest group doing the bidding of Ken Buck, ” Norton says in the ad. “You think Ken [would] be man enough to do it himself.”
At a campaign stop in July, Buck responded to Norton’s jab at his manhood. When an attendee of the event asked, “Why should we vote for you?”
“Because I do not wear high heels,” responded Buck.
The entire exchange was caught on film, and the Norton campaign wasted little time in producing an ad criticizing Buck for his remarks. Norton then upped the ante once more by taking to her website with a tough statement implicating Buck as an exceedingly chauvinistic and sexist fellow:
“Ken Buck may think a woman’s place is in the house. We know a woman’s place is in the Senate.”
As the primary draws to a conclusion, Buck will likely try to refocus his efforts on portraying himself as the conservative alternative to Norton, a strategy that not only reenergized his lackluster campaign but also catapulted him into the lead in recent polls.
But changing the subject and cozying up to the Tea Party may be a more difficult task for Buck in lieu of another recent blunder, in which he was caught on audiotape referring to ‘birthers’ within the movement as “dumbasses.” Buck has since walked back his comments, saying he wished he “had chosen different words.”
Still, much like his “high heels” remark, Buck’s “dumbasses” gaffe has become a source of political fodder for his primary opponent.
“Ken Buck is two steps short of a fraud. He’s a self-proclaimed tea partier who trashes tea partiers when he thinks no one is looking,” Norton spokeswoman Cinamon Watson said of Buck’s remarks.
Possible new strains aside, Buck’s offhand criticism of elements within the Tea Party have provided an opening for Norton to reaffirm her conservative bona fides to a movement who find her establishment ties disagreeable. If she’s lucky, she could raise substantial doubts over Buck’s sincerity, inviting Tea Partiers to give her candidacy a second glance. But she must be cautious in her eleventh hour courtship not to lose the perception of being the more mainstream candidate, a quality she will need if she advances to the general election.
Whatever the outcomes next Tuesday, one can only hope that the final week makes both primaries even more memorable than they already are.
Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate, who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.