Image: Tom Tancredo
Ed Andrieski  /  AP file
Tom Tancredo, who is entering the Colorado governor's race as a third-party candidate, had a radio brawl with Republican chairman Dick Wadhams Monday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 7/27/2010 5:28:28 PM ET 2010-07-27T21:28:28

If Republicans wake up on November 3rd to find their majority-making hopes dashed, they may be looking at a state like Colorado for evidence of opportunities missed.

At the beginning of this midterm cycle, Colorado offered the GOP just the kind of scenario it was looking for to reverse the Democrats' victories — both in the state and nationwide — from 2006 and 2008.

For instance, incumbent Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter surprised many in his own party by deciding not to seek election, giving the GOP a prime pick-up opportunity. Also, Democrat Michael Bennet, an appointed senator running in his first campaign for office, provided Republicans a tasty target for the GOP, which is also eyeing at least one Democrat-held House seat. 

Add to that the national mood and a primary threat to Bennet from former State House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, and the state appeared a recipe for Republican midterm success. 

But a summer of pandemonium within the GOP has produced a much different picture just two weeks before the Aug. 10 primary.

Consider these recent events:

  • Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck had to apologize for deriding Tea Party movement members who question whether President Barack Obama was really born in the United States. A Democratic “tracker” recorded Buck, a favorite of activists, saying, "Will you tell those dumba---s at the tea party to stop asking questions about birth certificates while I'm on the camera?"
  • Buck and GOP rival Jane Norton have engaged in a gender-laced exchange of insults, with Norton questioning why Buck is not "man enough" to criticize her directly and Buck mocking Norton for her "high heels." 
  • A plagiarism scandal has inflicted a possibly fatal wound on the candidacy of Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Scott McInnis. The other GOP gubernatorial contender, Dan Maes, has had to pay a fine to settle alleged campaign finance violations.
  • On Monday a raucous quarrel erupted on Denver talk radio station KHOW between the state Republican chairman Dick Wadhams and former Rep. Tom Tancredo, who is jumping into the governor’s race as a third-party candidate after McInnis and Maes refused to make way for him.

Internal party disputes, ideological spats and GOP nominees who are considered too conservative also threaten to spoil the GOP's chances in states such as Florida, Kentucky and Nevada. But more than any other state right now, Colorado epitomizes how Republicans are coming close to blowing a golden opportunity.

Public feud over private conversations
In the KHOW radio brawl, which at one point featured a barking dog in the background, Tancredo said Wadhams had privately told him that McInnis was “untrustworthy” and Maes was “a joke.” Tancredo said to Wadhams, “You dislike them both — you don’t trust either one.”

Wadhams denied saying this. Each man then called the other a liar as the host of the program jumped in to side against the party chairman.

In the wake of the plagiarism scandal that has crippled McInnis, state GOP leaders have been searching for a way to replace either candidate but can't do anything until the primary is over because most of the state votes by mail in the primary and that process is already well under way. 

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Tancredo’s entry as a third-party candidate seems likely to pave a path to victory for Democratic candidate, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. But Tancredo insisted, “I have a better chance of beating Hickenlooper in a three-way race than Scott or Maes does in a two-way race.”

In 2007, Tancredo mounted a long-shot bid for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination.

Potential to hurt GOP in other races
The unforced errors and feuding on the Republican side have created a distraction, said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “It has a tremendous potential for hurting the other races,” he said.

He said it wasn’t a question of Tancredo depressing Republican turnout – in fact, he may well increase turnout among committed conservatives. But rhetorically Tancredo “has no restraints,” Ciruli said. He has a penchant for saying things that “distract from any other issues.”

Case in point: while campaigning three weeks ago with Buck, Tancredo said “the greatest threat to our liberty, the greatest threat to the Constitution, the greatest threat to our way of life, everything we believe in... is the guy who is in the White House.”

“I don't agree,” Buck told reporters after the campaign event. “There are a lot of threats to this country, and I don't think the man in the White House is the greatest threat to this country at all.”

“Colorado has a very substantial number of moderates in both parties and unaffiliated voters who are not attached to either party,” Ciruli said. “Those folks generally like non-confrontational campaigns. They don’t like extremes, they don’t like intense partisanship.”

“Not only will this gubernatorial debate drive off moderates and unaffiliateds from the Republican label, Hickenlooper could become rallying point for Democrats who had been really on the defensive here with unaffiliated voters,” he said.

"While no one wants to pop the champagne cork yet, we feel much more optimistic about this race than we did a few weeks ago," said Nathan Daschle, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association.

The governor's race has consequences for the national political parties as well as for Colorado's residents.

The person elected governor on Nov. 2 will have the power to approve or veto a plan designed by the state legislature that will redraw the lines of Colorado's seven U.S. House districts. The legislature is controlled by the Democrats and seems likely to remain so after Election Day. A GOP governor would have leverage to make the redistricting plan more favorable to Republican candidates.

Republican hopes in Colorado House race
Joanna Burgos, a National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman, disputed the idea that the governor's race could affect the chances of one of the GOP prime pickup opportunities: Colorado's 4th Congressional District in the northeast and eastern part of the state, where first-term Democrat Rep. Betsy Markey faces Republican Cory Gardner.

She pointed out that the district supported GOP presidential candidate John McCain in 2008 even as Markey was winning her race. "This is a Betsy Markey vs. Cory Gardner race and won't be affected by the top of the ticket," she said.

Markey has cast risky votes for her party leadership's agenda items: a cap-and-trade bill, the health care law, and the stimulus.

There’s at least one previous case of GOP intra-party turmoil in one race spilling over into down-ballot races.

“The clearest recent example of a gubernatorial downdraft is Ohio 2006,” said Claremont McKenna College political scientist John Pitney. “The incumbent GOP governor (Bob Taft) had been ensnared in scandal and his party's candidate to replace him (Ken Blackwell) was unpopular. Together with bad national trends, trouble at the top of the ticket helped bring down incumbent senator Mike DeWine and cost the GOP a couple of House seats.”

Democrats display some  discipline
While Colorado Republicans contend with a chaotic governor’s race and a costly Senate primary, the advantage in the Democrats’ Senate primary seems to be with the man party leaders in Washington, D.C. have rallied behind, Sen. Michael Bennet.

Democratic donors have lifted Bennet to a huge cash advantage: as of June 30, he had more than $2.5 million in cash on hand, more than five times as much as his challenger Andrew Romanoff.

So dire is Romanoff’s campaign cash plight that he has decided to sell his house and loan his campaign $325,000.

Progressives in and outside Colorado have been divided in their loyalties, with some backing Bennet on the strength of his support for a public option as part of the health care reform, while others see Romanoff as the more genuine progressive and the more experienced lawmaker.

Romanoff was able to generate some early enthusiasm for his candidacy, as well as an endorsement from former President Bill Clinton. But their primary has been far more tame than the bitter Republican contest, leaving it more likely that the Democrats will emerge with a well-funded nominee unscathed by intra-party battles.    

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Video: Tancredo and Wadhams’ radio fight

  1. Closed captioning of: Tancredo and Wadhams’ radio fight

    >>> "decision 2010 " time. in the colorado governor 's race, enter tom tancredo . the front-runner is plagued by plagarism charges. dan maze, fined over $40,000 for violations but no major republican entity believes she is a viable republican to run against denver mayor. so, republicans are looking for another alternative. enter tom tancredo . he's said that republicans in colorado are the titanic headed for an iceberg and jumping in the governor's race on a third party line because there's no legal way for him to run anymore as a republican. filing deadline closed. primary's in a couple of weeks an using the american constitution party line ticket. the state republican party not very happy that he sxwrumped the gun here. he and party chairman got into a fight on peter boyle 's radio show yesterday. each calling the other a liar. take a listen.

    >> we have had a number of discussions about the problems we had because you hate the people you've got on the ballot. you dislike them both. you don't trust either one. you've told me on more than one occasion that your opinions of scott mcinnis are -- let's see. let me think of the exact term. untrustworthy. your opinion of dan maes, a joke. those were your words.

    >> you said the same thing to me on more than one occasion. i'm not lying to you. you said that. i no idea.

    >> i have been open that these two guys have problems.

    >> well, he went on to ask tancredo will you keep talking about impeaching obama and bombing mecca and all that stuff? it was a bunch of dirty laundry in the republican party aired publicly in the radio show . if you're a political junkie, it's compelling. the state republican party on the record saying both candidates have problems. essentially saying they're unelectability. what's going on behind the scenes and trying to figure out how to replace the eventual primary winner and tancredo jumped the gun. it is a mess out there. the big winner is probably the denver mayor at this point. if it's tuesday, somebody's voting somewhere. today, that somewhere is the beautiful morning , oklahoma. where polls are open in the state's gubernatorial race. there's a compelling race for the term to replace the term limited governor there, democrat brad henry . very crowded primary. four-way race of the republicans. mary fallin and randy brogdon and national republicans falling in line behind her. sarah palin , jan brewer . he's trying the to narrow the gap hammering her for the bank bailout in ads like this one.

    >> i do not support the bailout. my opponent in this primary race did. that bailout vote was unconstitutional.

    >> it's the easy way out. it's the easy way out.

    >> wow. more use of a founding fathers . i swear we have seen more founding fathers in political ads this year than any cycle ever. the democratic side, attorney general drew edmondson is a once aspiring governor seems like forever. jari ask ns trying to keep the governor's mansion in democratic hands. savannah, oklahoma may be a very republican state, but the governor's race is usually a fairly bipartisan and competitive fare.

    >> one more show tune ?

    >> you know, i don't know. i keep thinking of -- what is it? i keep thinking 0 of what's his name? totally drawing a blank and he starts dancing and doing the karoke machine. drawing a blank on our friend mr. hymn.

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