It’s an open question whether American lives lack second acts, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously proposed. But in Colorado at least, it’s extremely rare that a losing candidate for federal office eventually makes it to the big leagues.
That isn’t to say that mounting an unsuccessful campaign in Colorado for Congress or the U.S. Senate dooms the candidate to irrelevance.
Plenty of losing national candidates go on to illustrious careers in public service, and others continue to make their mark in the private sector, cherishing — and perhaps ruing — their memories of summertime parades, endless call time with potential donors and all the doors they knocked on.
But over the past 50 years, only two candidates have lost a bid for one of the state’s U.S. House or Senate seats and then come back to win one, and both of those candidates are now in Congress.
That’s out of the 153 congressional and 18 Senate contests in Colorado since 1970.
Across recent decades, Scott Tipton and Ken Buck have been the only politicians who bounced back from congressional losses in Colorado.
Tipton, a Cortez Republican, took a drubbing at the polls in 2006 when he challenged Democrat John Salazar in the 3rd Congressional District, losing by 25 percentage points.
He returned four years later to send Salazar packing, winning by just under 5 percentage points in the Republican wave year of 2010. In the four elections since, Tipton has easily won reelection in the sprawling district.
The same year Tipton ousted Salazar, Buck narrowly lost a bid for the Senate, trailing Democrat Michael Bennet by 1.7 percentage points. Four years later, though, Buck easily won an open seat representing the heavily Republican 4th Congressional District after navigating a crowded primary. He's been re-elected twice without breaking a sweat. Earlier this year, he was also elected chairman of the Colorado GOP.
Over the past five decades, none of the dozens and dozens of other candidates who lost congressional and Senate primary and general elections in Colorado eventually made it to Washington, D.C., though many tried.
Despite that sobering track record, candidates and their advisers have been quick to tell Colorado Politics that falling short in a run for federal office can lay the groundwork for eventually winning a seat in the nation’s capital.
While several of the state’s seven congressional representatives already have primary or general election opponents, and the number of Democrats running for the chance to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner has entered double digits, there’s ample time for more to declare.
Since last November, when candidates began circling the available races, more than a few candidates and their consultants have explained: Even if it’s a long shot, running for Congress or the Senate and losing can position you for a comeback in future elections, when the seat you’ve sought opens, the electoral climate shifts or Colorado winds up with an additional congressional seat after redistricting ahead of the 2022 election.
There’s no better way to keep your name in the headlines, build your list of supporters and contribute to the political discussion at a time when politics seems to be the dominant topic.
Anyway, they say, lightning can always strike, and even if it doesn’t, you’ve done your part to drive turnout for other races up and down the ballot.
These are strictly political considerations, of course, and it’s important to note that not all candidates decide whether to run with those in mind.
But for those who do, the prospects of a markedly different playing field in the next election has figured prominently in many a conversation about the rationale to give it a shot in 2020.
It’s true, Colorado is almost certain to get an eighth congressional district after next year’s census, creating an open seat for the first time in 20 years. No one knows where that seat might wind up, but speculation is heavy that it will create a prime opportunity for some aspiring politician — somewhere, maybe in the suburbs south of Denver, or Adams County, Douglas County or Jefferson County.
While the state’s pockets of population growth are mostly well understood, it’ll be up to the independent commission created by voters in last year’s election to determine where the new lines fall. And all the speculation in the world is still just that — speculation — until that process gets under way sometime in 2021.
The other difficulty with that reasoning, to be sure, is that there is no shortage anywhere in the state of aspiring politicians who can envision themselves walking the halls of Congress, known forever after as “the honorable.”
For decades in Colorado, running a losing campaign for Congress hasn’t been the ideal preparation for winning a later election, even under the best of circumstances.
But circumstances can change, often radically.
That’s the expectation keeping hope alive for some Colorado Republicans, who say there’s a decent chance the 2022 midterm election will take place with a Democrat in the White House, producing the same dissatisfaction with the party in power that fueled GOP gains during midterms during the Obama administration.
There’s always the chance a member of the state’s congressional delegation will decline to seek another term — or get tapped for a job in the administration or otherwise hang up his or her spurs — before the next election.
Besides, widening the lens a bit, it turns out there are a few more examples of Colorado politicians who lost big elections only to return and win, and they’re among the towering figures in the state’s political history.
Former Sens. Bill Armstrong and Hank Brown both lost bids for lieutenant governor — Armstrong in a GOP primary, and Brown when he was the Republican nominee.
They both won seats in Congress in the next election after losing statewide, and before long they were elected to the Senate.
The quintessential Colorado comeback kid, however, is Democrat Roy Romer, who lost a campaign for the Senate in 1966 to Republican incumbent Gordon Allott by 17 percentage points.
Years later, he was appointed in 1977 by Democratic Gov. Dick Lamm to fill a vacancy as state treasurer, won reelection twice, and then became the last Coloradan to serve three terms as governor, before the advent of term limits.