Littwin: GOP needs another Gardner; Coffman wasn’t it |

Littwin: GOP needs another Gardner; Coffman wasn’t it

Mike Littwin
Fair and Unbalanced

I’m not sure why Mike Coffman decided not to run against Michael Bennet for what looks like a vulnerable U.S. Senate seat, but I do have a few theories.

What I am sure of, though, is what Coffman’s decision means.

There are two ways to put this. One is the nice way: The GOP is scrambling to find a candidate to replace Coffman. And the other is the hard truth: There is no realistic candidate to replace Coffman.

This is the situation in which the Colorado GOP finds itself: It has no more Cory Gardners to come to the rescue. They don’t even have another Coffman, who is many things, among them dogged, determined and relentless. But one thing he’s not is Gardner.

And what you have to remember — and this is at the heart of the main theory I have on Coffman’s decision — is that Gardner, the rising Republican star, running in a midterm election, running in a Republican year, running in the six-year-incumbent witching season, beat Mark Udall by two points.

So put yourself in Coffman’s non-Gardner place. He has made the 6th District a relatively safe seat, beating Andrew Romanoff by nine points the last time out. He would have to run for Senate in a presidential year, which has become a major Democratic advantage. He would start out, despite his two statewide wins in down-ticket races, with relatively low voter ID. Bennet, the moderate who won’t have Udall’s 99 percent-with-Obama problem, may not poll well, but he is very popular with the Denver money people whom Coffman would need.

And if Coffman were to run and lose, that probably would be the end of a political career that, as of now, could stretch on for years, even with the occasional semiprivate flirtation with the birther crowd.

There are stories that Coffman was being pushed to run, and I expect he was. But I’m sure he also was being pushed to make a decision early. Without him in the 6th, the House district would become a major target for Democrats. And if he wasn’t going to run for the Senate, Republicans did have to find someone.

So, now the hunt begins. Here’s a list of possibilities, courtesy of ace reporter Lynn Bartels, who got the Coffman scoop: U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, state Senate President Bill Cadman, state Senate President Pro Tem Ellen Roberts, state Sen. Owen Hill, Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler (currently trying the James Holmes death-penalty case) and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who happens to be Mike Coffman’s wife.

You see the problem, don’t you? Try putting “U.S. Senator” before any of those names. I mean, without smiling. It’s the Ken Buck problem. He was the early leader at this point in the race against Udall, which is why desperate national Republicans begged Gardner to get into the race. Gardner had to decide whether to stay in the House, where he was destined for a leadership position, or to run against Udall in a midterm or to wait two years and run against Bennet in a presidential year. Gardner made the smart, tactical choice.

For Republicans, it was the only choice. And that’s where they find themselves again, except with Gardner already taken.

Democrats were convinced Coffman was going to run because they couldn’t conceive of anyone else having a chance. It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when Gardner was joined by Josh Penry and Frank McNulty as rising stars on the GOP bench. Penry, you remember, dropped out of the 2010 gubernatorial race — the one that ended up with Dan Maes as the nominee — and got into the money race. He has since become a major behind-the-scenes force in GOP politics. And he has made plenty of money.

McNulty? In his last moment in the spotlight, he was seen using his role as House speaker to stop civil unions from becoming Colorado law, which, you might say, put him untold miles on the wrong side of history. I don’t know what he’s doing now, but Frank, if you read this, send a postcard or a tweet or something.

Now there is no bench. When you don’t have a dominant candidate, what you get is a large field — see the GOP presidential race — and that’s how to bet this time. Bennet would seem to be vulnerable, and Colorado is a purple state in which everyone is vulnerable, as John Hickenlooper could tell you.

The strongest general-election would-be candidate left might be Roberts, a pro-choice moderate who can’t be nominated because she’s a pro-choice moderate even if she did vote for the fetal-homicide bill. Someone from what is now the Neville family culture-war wing of the party — Hill, maybe — could be a strong primary contender, if a no-chancer in November. I don’t know who runs from the Bill Owens wing, but the state establishment will try to coalesce around someone.

The lesson taken from the Gardner candidacy is that to win in a purple state you can run with a conservative record, but only if you can figure out a way to co-sponsor a federal personhood bill that you insist doesn’t exist and still come off sounding like a moderate.

The problem for the GOP this time around is that while it’s one thing to understand the lesson, it’s another to find a Gardner to pull it off.

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