Bennet must be grinning after GOP Senate debate |

Bennet must be grinning after GOP Senate debate

Mike Littwin
Fair and Unbalanced

If you watched the Republican Senate debate the other night, you can probably guess what I’m about to say. It wasn’t that anyone, even Peg Littleton, said anything particularly outrageous — certainly not by presidential-debate standards.

It was that no one in the eight-person field made much of an impression at all.

Over long months, the state’s leading Republicans couldn’t find a candidate to get behind. And now that there are as many as 13 in the field, they still can’t find a front-runner.

The debate happened this week. The convention is here this weekend. And somewhere Michael Bennet — routinely described as the only vulnerable Democratic incumbent running in 2016 — is smiling. He’s so happy that he felt he could afford to make his first political ad of the season about brewing beer, as if he were trying to morph into his friend John Hickenlooper.

I mean, it seems like only yesterday — or 2014, anyway — that Cory Gardner not only broke the 10-year, top-of-the-ticket GOP losing streak in Colorado but was generally hailed across the political spectrum as the model for how Republicans can win in swing states.

The model was stunningly simple. As a conservative, you pretend to be just moderate enough. And to be convincing, you simply refuse to answer any direct question with a correspondingly direct answer.

It worked for Gardner in beating incumbent Mark Udall. Lots of people fell for it, including certain editorial boards. But as I may have pointed out at the time, the only problem with the model was that you need to be a Cory Gardner to pull it off.

And the one clear takeaway from the GOP debate was that were no Gardners on the crowded 9News stage. I’m not even sure if there were any Ken Bucks there. You’ll remember that Gardner basically cleared the field. This year, you couldn’t clear it with a plow.

The biggest moment in the debate came at the very beginning, when candidates were asked to raise their hands if they planned to support Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner. Imagine. That was the newsmaker. Everyone raised a hand, and then each candidate, one after the other after the other and so on, got to explain why they were supporting Trump. It went downhill from there.

Don’t blame the 9News moderators, who did their job. Blame the unwieldy field. And blame the fact that no one seemed able to execute a game plan, except maybe Jon Keyser (who repeatedly cited his war record), Jack Graham, who made the case that ex-Democrats historically turn into Republican senators in Colorado (but maybe not if they’re pro-choice), and Robert Blaha, who tried to beat everyone to the punch as the true outsider in the race.

So, it was maybe even worse than we thought. But, I guess, we already knew that, didn’t we? The news all political season in Colorado has been the Republicans’ inability to recruit anyone of stature to run against Bennet. None of the obvious suspects — you know the list — were willing to take the gamble of running against Bennet in a presidential season. And the less obvious suspects were, it seems, un-obvious for a reason.

You don’t have to trust me on this. In his ratings, political guru Larry Sabato just changed the Colorado Senate race, which figured to be a toss-up, from “leans Democratic” to “likely Democratic.”

Meanwhile, Josh Penry had this to say, via Real Clear Politics, about the Republican field: “It’s fair to say all of them are untested for anything of this magnitude. We’ll have a lot to learn about who’s ready for prime time.”

As The Donald would say: sad. Not that he’s saying it in Colorado, where he was scheduled to come to the convention for a little presidential politicking. Trump backed out once it looked as if Ted Cruz had swept up most of the available delegates, leaving The Donald as the empty-pocketed billionaire. There’s a trend here, a trend that suddenly and remarkably makes Cruz the latest conventional-wisdom favorite to win the nomination if there’s a contested convention. Trump’s campaign is leaking delegates, but that’s another story.

In our story, the Colorado Republican convention will nominate a Senate candidate or two. You need at least 30 percent of delegate votes to make the ballot. Tim Neville — who spends his days in the state Senate fighting losing battles in the culture wars and who just finished running the latest failed personhood bill to prove, if nothing else, that he is the anti-Cory — is considered a lock to get the 30 percent. I have no idea who else might make it in a huge field. Maybe if one of them uses this column for target practice, it might help.

Four candidates have gone the petition route — self-funding businessman Robert Blaha, who is best know for his campaign ad featuring an all-too-graphic rectal exam and (this also hurt) for spending a million bucks to lose a primary challenge to Doug Lamborn; Jon Keyser, the desperation/establishment choice, who spent all of one year in the state House before resigning and who is running in a year when establishment choices are basically unwelcome; Ryan Frazier, whom we have met before; and Jack Graham, who used to be a Democrat and a quarterback, not to mention the Colorado State athletic director.

To petition successfully requires 1,500 signatures from each congressional district. It’s a tricky business and not exactly a sure thing. But let’s say Republicans put somewhere between four and six candidates on the ballot.

If you watched the debate, you’ll have seen the problem. The list of candidates is much too large. And, at the same time, much too small.

Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for