A head-spinning development in Colorado politics from a game of musical chairs on Feb. 26 resulted in a consensus front-runner emerging in the Republican field of U.S. Senate candidates.
U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner dropped his re-election bid and now has his sights set on unseating Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.
Gardner, who represents the state's 4th Congressional District, takes the place of Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck in the Republican field. Buck — who lost a tight race to Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010 — dropped his Senate bid to run for Gardner's House seat.
"We need to replace Mark Udall in the Senate, and I believe Congressman Cory Gardner is in the strongest position to make that happen," Buck said in a Feb. 26 news release.
Gardner, who could not be reached for comment, was elected to the House in 2010 after defeating incumbent Rep. Betsy Markey. Before that, Gardner served in the state House. The Yuma resident is known as a rising star in the GOP and has been an outspoken critic of President Obama's Affordable Care Act.
With Buck out and Gardner in, the Republicans stand a better shot at taking Udall's seat, according to one long-time Colorado political scientist.
"I would say Cory Gardner is the strongest (Republican) candidate in the race at the moment," said Bob Loevy, a retired Colorado College political science professor. "Having a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives in the race, that's a big improvement for the Republicans."
Loevy, a Republican who is well-respected among politicos for his impartial analysis, said the party is better off not having Buck involved in another Senate race. Buck made national headlines in 2010 for comments he made about women, which cost him in his race against Bennet.
"It's a plus that Buck is out of the race," Lovey said. "He already ran for the Senate and lost, so he already has a loser image which is hard to overcome in politics. I think he is much better off and has a much better chance of getting elected to House."
Buck already has company in the House race. State Sen. Scott Renfroe, of Greeley, announced his candidacy the day after the news broke. Other names have also emerged as potential candidates, including state lawmakers Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling and Tim Dore of Elizabeth.
The 4th Congressional District includes many counties in the eastern plains region of Colorado, but also encompasses some territory close to the Denver metro area, including Parker, Lone Tree, Castle Rock and Elbert County.
The fallout from the Gardner-Buck moves was substantial in the Senate race. State Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, announced through a news release the following day that she was dropping her Senate bid as well to back Gardner, whom she called "an outstanding public servant who will unite our party and communicate our conservative principles."
Stephens thanked her supporters and said she would continue doing her work as a state representative, but did not offer any reason behind her decision to drop out of the race.
But it was clear that Stephens had a tough road, especially because of her sponsorship of last year's legislation that set up Colorado's health insurance exchanges, which came as a result of "Obamacare."
"I think she may have found that while many people may have admired her for 'Amy Care,' I think she may have discovered in a GOP primary that would be a tremendous burden," Loevy said.
Stephens was not at the Capitol the day of her announcement and she did not return a phone call seeking comment.
While Stephens is now out of the race, state Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, vows to continue his candidacy in spite of a party establishment move that he thinks left Republican voters "hoodwinked."
"This has been in the works for a while," Hill said of Gardner's late entry into the field. "This has all been coordinated. This is exactly what's been losing it for Republicans in Colorado for a while - these insider, backroom deals that give people the sense that, 'I'm sorry, you're part of the party, but you have no say in who your candidates are going to be.'
"That makes it feel like it's a coronation and not an election."
Lovey said he doesn't know what was behind the Gardner-Buck switch, but he said that Hill may be on to something when he says that the party establishment played a big role.
"I don't know what the Republican establishment is doing, but I will say this is the kind of move that party big wigs try to engineer so that the party goes into the election in the strongest strategic position as possible," he said.
The field also includes state Sen. Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulfur Springs, and three others who do not hold public office: Mark Aspiri, Tom Janich, and Floyd Trujillo.
Loevy said that Udall would be the favorite regardless of who emerges from the GOP field. The Udall name has been "a magical name for more than a generation in American politics."
But if Gardner becomes the Republican nominee, things could get interesting, he said.
"I think it's a tougher race," he said. "Now I'd say we have a candidate who has a real chance at defeating Udall."