DENVER — No matter who Republicans pick as their party's candidate in the primaries Tuesday, they are expected to face an uphill battle In their quest to unseat Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
It's a matter of whether the GOP chooses to go with familiar faces with previous failed gubernatorial candidacies— former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, who was crushed in his 2006 bid, and firebrand Tom Tancredo, a former congressman known mostly for his hard-hitting stance on illegal immigration — or less experienced members of the party's political establishment. Those candidates are current Secretary of State Scott Gessler, the only candidate in the field to have previously won a statewide race, and Mike Kopp, the former state Senate Republican leader.
Beauprez lost to Democrat Bill Ritter by 17 points in 2006. Tancredo lost to Hickenlooper in 2010, when Tancredo briefly switched parties and ran as the Constitution Party nominee over displeasure about the GOP pick that year: Dan Maes, a political newcomer and tea-party favorite who only got 11 percent of the vote in the race.
Rob Witwer, a former GOP state representative, said Hickenlooper "will be very tough to beat for any Republican," but that the party must unite "behind a strong candidate who can be successful in November."
Republicans are trying to avoid the mistakes of the past when the candidate they have chosen has floundered in the general election.
"Republicans need to learn that if you don't have a seat at the table, you're on the menu," Witwer said. "The only way to be at the table is by nominating a strong candidate."
Republicans have avoided mud-slinging for the most part this primary. But Gessler has seized on the failed bids of Beauprez and Tancredo to argue that they don't "have a very good chance of winning."
Tancredo's history advocating for stricter immigration enforcement — and a long list of incendiary comments he has made on the topic — will alienate Hispanic voters, he said. "Tom has spent the last two decades poking his finger in the eyes of the Hispanic community," Gessler said.
Tancredo's campaign said it has seen polling showing support from Hispanics.
"Tom supports legal immigration and opposes illegal immigration," Tancredo campaign manager Brian Dotterer said. "Tom's opposition to illegal immigration has everything to do with the economic burden that places on our country, the fact that illegal immigrants dilute opportunity for legal immigrants and the rule of law. It has nothing to do with race."
But Gessler himself has faced criticism from Democrats, in his capacity as the state's elections chief, over his efforts to try to remove noncitizens from voter registration rolls. His critics have accused him of putting barriers for immigrants to vote.
Gessler counters that he's trying enforce election laws, and he points to radio and television ads he's done in Spanish telling people how to register to vote.
Despite his devastating 2006 defeat, Beauprez said he's optimistic that the current political environment in Colorado has changed and, like the other GOP candidates, he hopes to capitalize on what they say is an administration that has overreached with gun-control laws and higher renewable-energy standards.
Beauprez said he's more seasoned this time around. "Anybody who doesn't learn from losing their toe, popping themselves in the nose, going through a tough time, anybody who doesn't learn from that shouldn't be in the game at all," he said.
He's also quick to use a sports analogy.
"I think Peyton (Manning) is probably looking forward to the next time he gets to play a Super Bowl," Beauprez said, referring to the Broncos 43-8 shattering defeat in the Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks this year.
Kopp will be the first name on the primary ballot because of his performance in the state party assembly, but by his own admission he has the underdog candidacy. Among the four, he's the only one who has never run a statewide campaign.
He's also been unwavering in his stance against abortion, even though that can cost him votes in November. But Kopp said he thinks "people respect when a candidate is being forthright with them about their views, especially as it relates to items of conscience."
"I feel like voters have a right to know what your convictions are," he said.
In all, the primary campaign has been a relatively low-key affair, and that's likely because none of the candidates has been able to raise much money to inundate the airwaves, said Katy Atkinson, a Republican political strategist.
Tancredo has raised the most money with $792,778, followed by Gessler with $534,812. Beauprez has raised $306,499, in addition to loaning himself about $500,000. Kopp has raised $266,347.
Donors may open their wallets more once the GOP primary is over, Atkinson said. Perhaps that will allow the winning candidate to start controlling his narrative more effectively, she said.
"None of them are perfect. But then again the governor's isn't either," Atkinson said. "Again, that's why they really need the money to get out there and change the nature of the conversation."