Updated: June 25, 2014 at 5:16 am
DENVER - Republican voters on Tuesday opted for U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez to challenge Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in November, pinning their hopes to end a long electoral drought in Colorado on a candidate who lost his previous gubernatorial bid by 17 points.
Beauprez, a buffalo rancher who grew up working on his father's dairy farm, defeated three other Republican candidates in a sleepy primary with little advertising thunder. That will change fast: Hickenlooper, who has raised nearly $3 million for his re-election bid, already has bought $1.4 million in television advertising for the weeks leading up to the general election.
The GOP last held the governor's office in 2006, and over the past eight years Republicans have been in the minority in the Colorado Senate and controlled the state House for only two years.
The victory punctuates an eight-year journey for Beauprez back to the Republican Party spotlight, and shows that despite his past defeat the GOP establishment still views him as the most formidable candidate against Hickenlooper.
"I'm even more experienced than I was eight years ago. I'm certainly a lot wiser," Beauprez said recently, recalling his earlier candidacy in 2006. One of the reasons he lost then, Beauprez said, was that running for governor while still in Congress "proved to be enormously difficult."
Democrats began their attacks on Beauprez immediately after it became clear he would win.
A press release from ProgressNow Colorado called Beauprez "one of Colorado's most storied political losers."
He had been expected to take the governor's office in 2006, replacing then-Republican Gov. Bill Owens, but instead lost badly to Democrat Bill Ritter. Since then, Republicans have been in the minority in the Colorado Senate and controlled the state House for only two years. Barack Obama also carried the state twice.
Beauprez defeated another former congressman, Tom Tancredo, Secretary of State Scott Gessler and former state Sen. Mike Kopp on Tuesday's primary.
The 65-year-old Beauprez served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
He entered the GOP governor race in February, describing himself to primary voters as the best choice to defeat Hickenlooper, who has far outpaced all GOP challengers in fundraising.
"Finally, a real leader will offer a clear vision to Coloradans for our future," said Mark Burris, spokesperson for Republicans Who Want to Win, in a news release. "We are pleased that we were able to assist through dynamic outreach and a strategic media plan. This is just the beginning."
Compass Colorado said Beauprez's victory will unite the state's Republican voters.
"(Wednesday) is a new day in which Coloradans will unite in order to defeat failed governor, John Hickenlooper," said Kelly Maher, executive director of Compass Colorado in a press release. "Gov. Hickenlooper has consistently failed to represent the people of Colorado whether it's his inexplicable signing of some of the country's most restrictive gun laws to the reprieve he granted to Dunlap, Coloradans deserve someone who will actually lead."
Republicans saw Tancredo as a potential liability, not only in the governor's election in November, but in other races as well, most notably as the U.S. Senate contest between Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Udall and Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner. They believed Tancredo's strong opposition to illegal immigration - and incendiary comments he's made on the subject - had the potential to alienate independent voters and depress Republican turnout.
"I think Tancredo would have a tough time," said voter Tony Ranalli, a Democratic voter from Tancredo's hometown of Lakewood. Ranalli didn't vote Tuesday - there was little at stake in his party - but he was rooting for a Tancredo selection. "Someone like him plays well I'm sure with the conservative base, but as a general candidate, not as much," he said.
Tancredo lost to Hickenlooper in 2010, when he ran as the Constitution Party candidate, underscoring his contentious relationship with his own party.
Tancredo said there was a "resource disparity of a pretty significant amount" in the primary, noting ads against him that made him out to be someone who wanted to legalize drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Tancredo disputed the ad.
Tancredo said he had called to congratulate Beauprez.
"I'm glad that he has been able to take the reins of the Republican Party in this challenge, because it will be a big one," he said. Tancredo had repeatedly said he would support whichever Republican won in the primary for governor, and that hasn't changed.
He said he even told Beauprez he'd stay as far away as possible if he thinks that would increase his chances of winning.
"If I'm really the ogre that I'm portrayed as, who knows who will want me around?" he joked.Tancredo raised the most money among Republicans, with $793,000, followed by Gessler, with $535,000. Beauprez raised $306,000 and loaned himself about $500,000. Kopp raised $266,000.
The Gazette and The Denver Post contributed to this story.