• More than a dozen vie for Colorado seat that could play a role in control of the chamber

    The chance to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet lured eight GOP candidates to a forum last week in Centennial, Colo.   The chance to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet lured eight GOP candidates to a forum last week in Centennial, Colo. Photo: Theo Stroomer for The Wall Street Journal

    CENTENNIAL, Colo.—Eight Republicans sat, elbow-to-elbow, at a recent forum here, each squeezing in a handful of comments during the three-hour event. And they made up just over half of the GOP pack running for a Colorado U.S. Senate seat.

    While the Republican field vying to be the party’s presidential nominee has shrunk to a trio, the GOP Senate contenders in Colorado have ballooned to more than a dozen.

    That is sowing confusion among voters and anxiety among some Republicans, who fear that a long, expensive primary could jeopardize one of the party’s two best opportunities to win back a Democratic-held seat in November’s fight for control of the Senate. Republicans currently hold 54 of the chamber’s 100 seats.

    The winner of the June 28 GOP primary will take on Sen. Michael Bennet, long considered the chamber’s only vulnerable Democrat this cycle. But settling on the Republican nominee is likely to be a costly and divisive fight that delays the start of a one-on-one matchup with Mr. Bennet in the swing state.

    “Whoever does limp across the finish line in the primary election in late June is going to be beaten up and broke,” said Ryan Call, a former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. The nominee “will have to start from there to make their case against a well-funded and unified Democratic Party and a well-funded Democratic incumbent,” he said.

    Mr. Bennet had more than $6.7 million in cash on hand at the end of 2015, according to campaign-finance filings.

    Two years ago, Colorado Republicans quickly coalesced behind then-Rep. Cory Gardner, who ousted Democrat Sen. Mark Udall, raising GOP hopes that Mr. Bennet could meet a similar fate this November.

    But after a string of popular Republicans, including Colorado GOP Reps. Mike Coffman and Scott Tipton, declined to enter the race, the political vacuum enticed a wider range of candidates to jump in. No front-runner has emerged, and GOP voters said they are trying to parse policy differences among the pack.

    “It’s ridiculous,” said Littleton resident Ron Eberly, a Republican and the retired vice president of a horticultural and agricultural distribution company. “It’s very hard to focus on any one individual when there are that many people running.”

    But not all the candidates are considered serious contenders. And Colorado’s process for making it onto the primary ballot will winnow down the field. Candidates must either secure 1,500 Republican voter signatures in each of the state’s seven congressional districts with no overlapping signatures, an expensive process, or win at least 30% of votes cast by delegates at the state assembly April 9.

    Four candidates plan to gather signatures to qualify for the ballot: businessman and Navy veteran Ryan Frazier; combat veteran and former state Rep. Jon Keyser; former professional football player and Colorado State University Athletic Director Jack Graham; and businessman Robert Blaha, who asked his daughter to display her tattoo of the family motto, “Make a Difference,” at a recent event.

    Conservative state Sen. Tim Neville is expected to have the best shot at securing 30% support at the state assembly, considered a stiffer climb for others, including El Paso County Commissioners Peg Littleton and Darryl Glenn and businessman Jerry Natividad.

    Many Republicans remain undecided about whom to back. The candidates, who include African-American and Hispanic politicians, said they are sharpened by the competition. “I appreciate the breadth and diversity of our field,” said Mr. Frazier, a more centrist candidate who supports overhauling the criminal justice system. “It’s a good thing to offer to our Republican electorate a choice.”

    The contenders have yet to train their fire on one another, with most for now criticizing Mr. Bennet’s national-security policy, particularly his vote to back last July’s nuclear agreement with Iran. Republicans are also emphasizing Mr. Bennet’s endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a state where caucuses were easily won by her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders.

    “Bennet has joined the triad: Obama, Hillary Clinton and Michael Bennet,” Mr. Graham said at the forum in Centennial. “He’s become part of the Democratic establishment.”

    Democrats say linking Mr. Bennet to President Barack Obama isn’t a devastating criticism in a state that the president won twice. And this year’s presidential election is expected to boost turnout among demographic groups more likely to support Mr. Bennet, including the state’s 20% Hispanic population.

    “There are now more than a dozen barely known Republicans running in the country’s most crowded and divisive primary, and if elected, each would join D.C. Republicans in making Washington more dysfunctional,” said Andrew Zucker, spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party.

    In one measure of just how crowded the race has become, candidate Jerry Eller, a U.S. Army veteran, noted he shares a first name and a similar-sounding last name with two rivals. “I’m not the only Jerry and I’m not the only Eller, but I’m the only Jerry Eller in the race,” he said.

    Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com


    Posted by Dana West @ 2:23 pm for Candidates, Colorado politics, Elections, National politics |

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