There are 10 U.S. Senators who were first elected in 2008 and are running for re-election in 2014. Three of those incumbents are in states considered safe for their respective political party (Delaware and New Mexico for Democrats; Idaho for Republicans). Of the remaining seven seats, all but one have a likely or declared opponent and/or recent public polling indicating potential vulnerability.
All but Colorado and Senator Mark Udall.
Colorado's political landscape has changed considerably in the past decade, and few people have had a better view of that landscape than Udall. It's easy to forget that Udall spent the bulk of five terms and nearly ten years in the House of Representatives as one of just two Democrats from Colorado (with Rep. Diana DeGette the other Democrat). When Udall began campaigning for the 2008 Senate seat, Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams was convinced that he needed to do little else but call Udall the "Boulder Liberal" in order for Republicans to maintain control of the seat vacated by the retiring Sen. Wayne Allard; Udall went on to defeat Republican Bob Schaffer by a 10-point margin.
As we approach the 2014 election, Udall is running for re-election in a political climate that probably would have seemed unfathomable when he was first elected to Congress in 1998. Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature, the Governor's mansion, and both U.S. Senate seats…and Republicans appear to have literally no idea who they can put forth to challenge Udall. There is no short list of potential candidates; there is no list at all.
This is a staggering fact when you consider recent history: The last time either political party had this much trouble finding a candidate for Senate or Governor was in 2002, when incumbent Gov. Bill Owens beat Democrat Rollie Heath by 32 points, the greatest margin of victory in the history of that office.
Ten years later, the GOP bench is so noexistent that Republicans aren't even trying to pretend otherwise, as the Denver Post laid bare last weekend. Allison Sherry's article about Republican efforts to find someone, anyone, to run for Senate can be summed up by one contradictory statement by the Chair of the Colorado Republican Party:
"I do think it's fair to say there is a growing sense of urgency to make sure we recruit a strong, credible candidate," said state GOP chairman Ryan Call. "There is no question he's vulnerable."
If there is "no question" that Udall is vulnerable, as Call would have you believe, then why is it so hard for the GOP to find a candidate of any shape or size, let alone someone both "strong" and/or "credible"? You don't need to answer that.
It should not be overlooked that Udall is a formidable candidate in his own right. He is perhaps the most well-known Democrat in Colorado. He has been able to craft an image as a moderate in the Senate, where he serves on the powerful Armed Services Committee and the Energy & Natural Resources committee, which is of particular significance for Colorado voters. And Udall has already built a sizable warchest for 2014 that should scare away all but the most determined of opponents. Yet Colorado has always had relatively strong Senate incumbents, and Udall isn't significantly more intimidating than others in recent memory (okay, except for Wayne Allard).
So why can't Republicans find a candidate for 2014? There are a few reasons — the first part of a series begins after the jump…
"Rising Stars" Stopped Rising
In the mid-oughts there were many Colorado Republicans who at one point or another were labeled "rising stars," but for different reasons they faded away before they could make a significant electoral impact. Congressman Cory Gardner has been labeled the GOP's latest "rising star" since his CD-4 victory in 2010, but that has less to do with his political skill and more to do with circumstance. By way of example, here are a couple of stories of rising stars that rose, sort of:
"Flew Too Close to the Sun on Wings of Pastrami"
This story begins in the early oughts, when Bob Beauprez narrowly defeated Democrat Mike Feeley in 2002 in the newly-created CD. Beauprez was re-elected in 2004 and was already on the powerful Ways & Means Committee when he decided to run for Governor in 2006 rather than hold his seat in Congress. Beauprez would likely have held CD-7 for a few more cycles had he stayed; his rapid rise fed a widely-accepted belief that Beauprez was a powerful incumbent who would be difficult to unseat. Of course, his disastrous campaign for Governor proved the folly of that perception, and many Republicans still blame "Both Ways Bob" for essentially costing them two seats in 2006 (Democrat Ed Perlmutter defeated Republican Rick O'Donnell for the open seat in CD-7 and has been untouchable ever since).
In the last decade, several Republican politicos rose quickly at a young age and flamed out before they found a peak. Josh Penry was perhaps the risingest of the GOP's "rising stars" when in 2006 he became the youngest member of the State Senate. In 2009 Penry launched a brief campaign for Governor, which he abruptly ended after only a few months amid charges of questionable campaign practices and a host of other rumored problems. In April 2010, Jane Norton hired Penry to replace Norm Cummings as her campaign manager for her U.S. Senate campaign. Norton lost a bitter battle to Ken Buck, who accused Penry of running an overly negative campaign. Not only did Penry derail his own career in elected office in the space of a year, he managed to alienate a sizable portion of active Republicans who supported the more conservative Buck.
Other Notable Names:
Ryan Frazier, an African-American Aurora city council member with a military background and a commanding presence behind a microphone. Frazier tried for the GOP Senate nomination in 2009 before changing direction to challenge Perlmutter in CD-7, where he was completely dismantled by the more experienced incumbent despite the 2010 Tea Party wave. Less than a year later Frazier ran for Mayor of Aurora and was once again pummeled at the polls, this time by Republican Steve Hogan. Losing two high-profile races in as many years is bad enough, but Frazier wasn't even competitive at the end.
Former state legislator Matt Knoedler was another "rising star" who pushed (or was shoved) into the wrong race at the wrong time. Knoedler could have run for re-election to the State House a few more times, but instead decided to challenge Lakewood Democrat Betty Boyd in a special election for the State Senate in 2006. Knoedler lost, and shortly therafter turned his attention to a full-time legal career.
Republican Rob Witwer's exit from elected office is a different tale. In 2005, Witwer won a vacancy committee appointment to replace his father (John Witwer) in the legislature. He was elected to a full term in 2006, but declined to run for re-election in 2008 for family reasons.
Coming Soon: Part 2, "Whose Party?"
*THIS IS PART 1 OF A SERIES EXPLORING COLORADO REPUBLICAN EFFORTS (AND FAILURES) TO FIND A STRONG AND/OR CREDIBLE CANDIDATE FOR U.S. SENATE IN 2014