Reporting from Denver — A few months ago, Colorado symbolized the GOP's hopes for a tremendously successful November. Its candidates were favorites to take the governor's mansion and a Senate seat in the state where Barack Obama was nominated for president two years ago.
Now Colorado may stand for something different for the Republican Party: how its rightward tilt could complicate its ability to win seats this fall.
A small-business owner with no political background is poised to upset a former congressman in the GOP's gubernatorial primary Tuesday. Another former congressman, firebrand Tom Tancredo, says neither potential candidate for governor can win in November, so he has entered the race on a third-party ticket, raising fears he could split the conservative vote.
Meanwhile, in the party's Senate primary, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton is trailing in the polls behind conservative insurgent Ken Buck, a blunt-spoken district attorney whose off-color comments have roiled the race.
The Democrats have their own divided primary, with a former state lawmaker taking on incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet. But observers here say the perils for the GOP are especially acute.
"The Republicans are slowly throwing away an opportunity," said Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College. "In both cases, the Republican Party is losing a moderate, mainstream candidate who would have a better chance in the general election."
Colorado's chaos reflects the corrosive nature of national politics during economic hard times, where incumbents of all stripes are fighting for their lives. Already two U.S. senators — Republican Robert F. Bennett in Utah and Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania — failed to win their nominations.
The most dramatic example of an outsider poised to win a contested race in Colorado is the Republican gubernatorial primary. Dan Maes is a former owner of telecommunications franchises and a credit-reporting company called Amaesing Credit Solutions. He paid a $17,500 fine for campaign finance violations this year for reimbursing himself $40,000 in campaign funds for mileage.
Backed by some "tea party" groups, Maes has raised eyebrows with some comments, as when he criticized Denver's bike-swap program. Maes said the city, by allowing people to share bicycles, was surrendering its sovereignty to the United Nations.
Maes is benefitting from a scandal that has imperiled the candidacy of Scott McInnis, the onetime statehouse majority leader. A foundation paid McInnis $300,000 for reports on water issues that turned out to have been plagiarized. McInnis has blamed an "expert" who helped him write them, but said he bore responsibility and pledged to pay back the fee.
Last week, when McInnis released a seven-page economic development plan to the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, the first question he faced was about the plagiarism case. During a brief talk with reporters afterward, McInnis was pressed about rumors that, if he won the nomination, he would step down so he could be replaced by a more viable candidate.
"I ain't quitting," said McInnis, dressed in jeans, cowboy boots and a button-down shirt. "It isn't happening."
McInnis has touted his years in Congress and the Colorado statehouse, but in the aftermath of the plagiarism scandal, the political novice Maes has pulled even with him in some polls.
"2010 is a unique time," said Maes, who runs his campaign largely from his home in the Denver suburb of Evergreen. "Being a career politician doesn't sell."
Tancredo last week asked Maes and McInnis to step aside so he could run for governor. When the candidates refused, Tancredo said he would run as a member of the American Constitution Party. Political analysts question whether he'll stay in, but in an interview, Tancredo, best known as a foe of illegal immigration, said he would not step aside.
"Neither one of the candidates who are vying for office in the primary can win, or should win, in November," he said.
The Republican Senate primary also highlights the tension between party leaders and conservative activists.
Norton, the former lieutenant governor, has been touted as a centrist candidate and backed by national Republican leaders. Buck, a tea party favorite, has portrayed such support as a weakness. "Jane was asked to run by John McCain. She has been endorsed by at least 25 Republican senators in Washington," Buck said in an interview.
Norton has hit back at Buck for a series of gaffes — his supporters contend it was simply plain-speaking — he made on the campaign trail. A recent spot shows a clip of Buck telling people they should vote for him because "I'm not wearing high heels" and he had cow dung on his boots.
"Clearly he's not a serious candidate," said Norton spokeswoman Cinamon Watson.
Buck's style may resonate in parts of rural Colorado, but Loevy, the political science professor, said it might not play well in the Denver suburbs that are home to the vast majority of the state's population. "This is not cowboy country," he said. "This is cities and suburbs, just like you have along the East and West Coast."
Still, Buck has been leading Norton in the polls.