Congressman Mike Coffman told the Denver Post on Monday that he will not challenge Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in 2016 and will instead focus on re-election in CD-6. Coffman’s decision to stay out of the race is big news for the same reason a flawed Coffman was the GOP’s top choice to run for Senate in the first place – Republicans don’t have another option. There was no “plan b” last week, and there’s no “plan b” today.
It is a question that even the most seasoned and well-connected Colorado politico can’t answer with much certainty—but that doesn’t mean we won’t try! Where do Colorado Republicans go from here?
“Republicans don’t have a candidate yet, and nobody knows whether they will end up with a strong recruit or a weak one.”
— Political Analyst Stu Rothenberg, the Greeley Tribune.
First, Do No Harm
Coffman has served in elected office for 26 years, and you don’t have a career like that without making smart choices about when and where to run. Make no mistake: Coffman would not have turned down a Senate run if he truly thought that he could win. Opportunities like this – to be handed your Party’s nomination for a U.S. Senate seat — don’t come along often. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell met with Coffman at least twice in the last few months to personally convince him to run in 2016.
Coffman was unquestionably the GOP’s first and best choice to run for Senate this cycle. There’s no disputing this. That Coffman declined to run, despite recruitment efforts from local and national Republicans, will force GOP strategists to make some difficult decisions. With Coffman out of the picture, Republicans have to get pragmatic about their level of commitment to beating Bennet next year. Republicans struck gold with Cory Gardner in 2014, but can they really do it again two years later? Only once in the last 40 years have incumbent senators from the same state and same political party lost re-election in consecutive election cycles.
This question is not just about candidate recruitment – it is about whether Republicans are committed to finding the resources for their Senate candidate no matter who wins the nomination. The most important goal for Colorado Republicans in 2016 is to create an environment in which the GOP candidate for President can win in Colorado. Republicans need Colorado’s electoral votes more than they need another GOP Senator, and that reality will dictate the allocation of resources and money. It was just five years ago when the ridiculous Dan Maes ended up as the GOP nominee for Governor against Democrat John Hickenlooper. Republicans didn’t have anyone capable of defeating Hickenlooper in 2010, but Maes was such a terrible candidate that he hurt other candidates up and down the ballot.
Republicans may decide that they are better off with someone like 2008 Senate candidate Bob Schaffer – someone boring and uninspiring, but also someone who won’t trip up so badly that they damage other GOP candidates on the ticket. Who fits the bill? It may be someone like Mike Kopp, the former state senator from Jefferson County who ran a milquetoast campaign for Governor last year. Former House Minority Leader Frank McNulty could also make sense here.
Opportunity Knocks – Who Answers?
Elections have as much to do with timing and circumstance as anything else – ask Democrat Andrew Romanoff if you disagree – and there is now a tremendous opportunity for the right Republican candidate in 2016. Without Coffman in the fold, the GOP field is completely wide open for a lesser-known candidate to attempt to make a mammoth leap up the political food chain. This isn’t just an opportunity for a potential candidate, either; there are a lot of political consultants roaming around looking for a meal ticket for the next 18 months. Even if Republicans don’t end up making Bennet a top target, they’re still going to spend millions of dollars on somebody – especially with an open race for President on the ballot.
Consider state Sen. Tim Neville’s current political position. We have no idea whatsoever if Neville has even contemplated a U.S. Senate campaign, but it’s not difficult to see how you could make an argument for him here. Neville received more publicity than any other Republican in the Colorado legislature this year, and he doesn’t have to worry about re-election until 2018. Neville has a good base of conservative support from the religious right and the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO), so he’s already well positioned to win a Republican Primary — and once you become the GOP nominee in a competitive state like Colorado, there’s always a chance that national groups take notice and decide to jump onboard. Look at this from Neville’s perspective…what’s the downside?
There are a handful of potential Republican candidates who could decide to roll the dice, including Senate President Bill Cadman, state Senator Ellen Roberts, and perhaps even state Senator David Balmer, who was really hoping Coffman would run so he could take a shot in CD-6. None of these names can clear a Republican field, however.
The Risk Takers
There is a fine line between “rising star” and “former elected official,” which is where the risk and reward argument comes into play. Cadman and Roberts, for example, are at the end of their legislative terms and don’t have as much to risk as someone who is still working their way up the political ladder. It’s a different story for Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, Congressman Scott Tipton, and even state Senator Owen Hill.
Tipton has been mentioned before as a potential Senate candidate, though he has always sounded more like someone who wanted to keep his name in the mix more than he really wanted to run. The 2016 Senate race is a great opportunity for Tipton, but it’s also a sizable risk; if he ran, Tipton would be giving up a safe seat in CD-3 where he could finish his career with little trouble. Cynthia Coffman has built up some solid political capital after winning the race for Attorney General last fall, but she is rumored to be more interested in a future run for governor (her rolodex is also better suited for a state race than a federal run).
Walker Stapleton is touring Colorado in his capacity as State Treasurer, which is an obvious political maneuver meant to position him for a run at higher office. Stapleton is also thought to be more interested in running for governor, and losing in 2016 would not put him in an ideal position for the open governor’s seat in 2018. Stapleton can raise money, but he’s a terrible politician and a goofy candidate who probably only gets one real shot at a bigger office — and this probably isn’t that shot.
Owen Hill, meanwhile, is almost a victim of his own success as a GOP Senate candidate in 2014. Hill was the last of the GOP candidates to withdraw in deference to Cory Gardner last spring, and he showed a surprising ability to generate national support from groups like the Tea Party Express. But if he runs for Senate in 2016, Hill must win the nomination; two consecutive unsuccessful bids for the GOP Senate nomination would cripple his ability to run for higher office again. Hill would also have to give up his State Senate seat in order to run, and he has a large (and young) family that would make it difficult to take on the rigors of a full-time Senate campaign.
So…Now What? (Again)
As a candidate for U.S. Senate, Mike Coffman was not a sure thing by any means, but he did settle the debate about the GOP nominee for 2016. Without Coffman looming in the background, it becomes much more difficult to prevent a half-dozen Republicans from jumping into the Senate race…and it also changes the focus in the near-term. On the Republican side, this race is now more about winning in June than winning in November, and that’s good news for Michael Bennet.