Political observers think that Republican primary voters were wise to avoid picking a polarizing conservative to match up against Gov. John Hickenlooper in the fall, but can the party's candidate take back the governor's mansion for the GOP?
That question will be answered in November, after voters cast ballots in a race that pits the Democratic Hickenlooper against former Congressman Bob Beauprez.
Republicans haven't won a governor's race in Colorado since Bill Owens was re-elected in 2002 — and Owens was the first Republican to hold the governor's seat since John David Vanderhoof left office in 1975.
So, can Beauprez — who lost a 2006 governor's race to Bill Ritter by 15 points — reclaim the seat for the GOP?
“The answer at this juncture has to be yes,” said Norman Provizer, a longtime political science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “Hickenlooper has a lot of positive things going for him. At the same time, is he in an invulnerable position? No. It's going to be a race.”
While Beauprez may have a chance to win, the political consensus is that he is the underdog in the race.
“It's still a long shot but it's not an impossible shot to beat John Hickenlooper,” said Eric Sondermann, an independent political analyst. “But (Beauprez' emergence from the primary) forces Hickenlooper to wage an intense campaign. Whereas, if it was Tom Tancredo as the nominee, he could have just phoned it in.”
Tancredo — who is also a former congressman and failed gubernatorial candidate — finished in second place in the primary. He was seen by many political analysts as too polarizing of a candidate to win a general election, especially given his views on immigration, which could have scared off Latino voters.
“From the Republican Party — dare I stay establishment — there was a real concern over Tancredo,” Provizer said. “To put it as simply as I can, he was viewed as a threat by many major Republican players in this state, viewed as a loose cannon that would have negative effects on other Republican candidates in state races.”
But how better off Republicans are with Beauprez as their candidate remains to be seen.
Beauprez won't be facing the political headwinds this time around that he was dealing with in 2006, which was a brutal year for Republicans across the country. And Republicans are hopeful that this year's congressional midterm elections will create a national wave that will help their party's state candidates.
But Sondermann said that Beauprez needs more than just a Republican wave in order to win. He'll need mistakes on the part of Hickenlooper — such as comments the governor recently gave to a group of county sheriffs, where he initially indicated a backpedalling of his support of a ban on high-capacity gun magazines. Hickenlooper later clarified his comments and reiterated his support.
Not only that, Beauprez will need to “persuade people that he can actually win this thing, in order for people to invest money and energy in this race,” Sondermann said.
If Beauprez runs a good campaign, he could give Hickenlooper his first real campaign fight. Hickenlooper won his Denver mayoral races fairly easily and won the governor's mansion in 2010 in a rout.
“Hickenlooper is a tough guy to beat,” Sondermann said. “But the flip side is, John Hickenlooper has never been severely tested in a political sense. We'll see if this turns out to be a severe test or not. If it is, (Hickenlooper) doesn't have that experience in a bare knuckle fight.”
Beauprez gave a preview of the kind of campaign he intends to wage against Hickenlooper during his primary victory speech on June 24. He attacked Hickenlooper over his support for gun control legislation and increased renewable energy mandates on electric cooperatives, which he believes has had a negative impact on rural parts of the state.
Beauprez also blasted Hickenlooper for granting a temporary reprieve for death row inmate Nathan Dunlap, who killed four people at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1996.
But Hickenlooper will tout the state's economic uptick and is sure to point to an unemployment rate that has continued to drop while he's been in office.
Provizer thinks that Hickenlooper's personality and governing style is an asset.
“If you think about it, Hickenlooper was mayor and governor at a very difficult economic time,” he said. “He can be pretty `Coloradan.' He's not overly formal and he has a sense of humor. If you look for a leader who says there's only one right way, this is what we're gonna do and everything else is wrong — well, that's not him.”
While analysts think that Beauprez has a shot, they believe that the former congressman needs to run a more inspirational campaign than the one he ran in 2006, in order to win.
“When your opponent gets close to 60 percent in an American election, that's not a victory, that's a slaughter,” Provizer said. “Candidates and campaigns matter, as does the general political environment.”