GOP gubernatorial primary: ‘This sucker is wide open’

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DENVER — The primary fight for the Republican gubernatorial nomination is wide open after Republican delegates whittled the field to four candidates at Saturday’s state GOP assembly.

So who’s the front-runner in this four-way primary fight? And how might the field change ahead of the June 24 primary?

A number of top Colorado Republicans, who all spoke candidly to FOX31 Denver in exchange for remaining anonymous, agree that each of the four candidates has a path to winning the party’s nomination, but that two in particular have an inherent advantage.

Even after his surprise top-line victory Saturday, former Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp has his work cut out for him if he wants to finish on top when the primary votes are counted.

For now, he is still viewed as having longer odds to secure the nomination than former Congressman Tom Tancredo, who has a deep base of support, and former Congressman Bob Beauprez, who has the deep financial resources to be the last man standing.

“Kopp did get a huge boost from the assembly but if he is not able to parlay that into substantial fundraising it won’t matter in the end,” one Republican said.

But, Republican sources agree Kopp’s window will never be open wider than it is right now.

“He has the best story to tell about his personal background and from what I can see the most compelling and specific agenda for not only the primary but for a campaign against Hickenlooper,” said a source. “Kopp’s persona and demeanor serve him well as a candidate.”

Tancredo, who didn’t attend Saturday’s assembly having already secured his place on the primary ballot by turning in petition signatures, remains the biggest wild card in the field.

Party insiders recognize Tancredo’s ability to win a primary — and they deeply fear that scenario, no one more so than Cory Gardner’s camp, worried about a potential gubernatorial nominee being a drag on the GOP ticket.

“Tancredo remains the frontrunner in a four-candidate diffused field,” one Republican said. “He starts with a 25-30 percent base vote in a Republican primary, so unless one of the other three can emerge as the Tancredo alternative, he wins by default.”

Rumors abound that party bosses are looking for a way to get Tancredo out of the race, and even that Tancredo may be listening.

One rumor circulating Monday is that the Jefferson County School Board, won by a conservative majority last November, may hire Tancredo, a former teacher, as superintendent.

While GOP and Democratic sources alike believe that the rumors are real and that Tancredo could have an eye on the job, the Republicans interviewed for this article believe it’s a long-shot.

“This would be a controversial hire, and I don’t know that it helps them accomplish what they want out there,” another Republican said. “Douglas County is the model for reforming schools and that board did it by picking its fights wisely and not courting unnecessary controversy.

“The Douglas County reformers never really gave their opponents anything extraneous to latch onto. For better or worse, ‘the Tanc’ has made a career of extraneous controversy.”

But many believe Tancredo is indeed looking for a way out.

“Tancredo is looking for a way out,” one said. “It isn’t just the party that would like him to get out; I have heard he needs a job and doesn’t relish going through a four-way primary.”

Tancredo responded to this story Tuesday afternoon, telling FOX31 Denver that he’s not the least bit interested in the Jefferson County superintendent’s job, or looking for an exit.

“The state government would be a hell of a lot easier to run than the Jefferson County School system,” Tancredo said. “And there’s no way in hell we’d be busting our butts and spending all this money getting signatures if we weren’t committed.

“I’ve said all along that if there’s someone who emerges who’s polling better and more competitive with Hickenlooper than me, I’ll hand them the baton,” he added. “But I don’t see it right now. I think I’ve got as good a shot of winning as anyone.”

If Tancredo were to get out before the June 24 primary, it’s unclear where his support might go.

“Gessler has been trying to position himself as the ‘conservative’ insurgent in the race, but I have a hard time believing that works,” one Republican said. “Do Beauprez and Kopp split the ‘establishment’ vote?

“At bottom, I think the logical home for most of Tom’s supporters is Beauprez. If he can bring them home, he’s got it.”

One party stalwart buys into the conventional wisdom that Beauprez’s resources may give him the inside track, but isn’t sure his message is resonating.

“Beauprez signed up a lot of major donors and has indicated he would self fund to some extent but he still has the same fundamental weaknesses from 2010 when he could not articulate why he wanted to governor nor could he define a coherent agenda,” he said. “I’ve heard several interviews with him and he only states his ambition to be governor, which is not enough.”

Beauprez may be the front-runner “through a process of elimination”, one Republican said, noting that the next fundraising quarter will serve as an indication of who’s really in the driver’s seat.

The sources all agree that Gessler, who’s stock appears to be trending down, is still formidable.

“Gessler did take a hit at the state assembly after promoting himself as the frontrunner, but he still has residual name identification from his 2010 run and having served in statewide office the past four years,” one Republican said.

Another source, noting that Beauprez’s entrance into the race has made it tougher for Gessler to raise money, believes that the Secretary of State, despite winning 33.1 percent support at Saturday’s assembly, appears to be losing steam simply by virtue of failing to meet the expectations he set for his campaign.

“He told us all he would get top-line at the assembly, how he’d spent so much time and money working delegates over the last few months,” he said. “For all that time and money, Honey Badger didn’t get much honey.

“He’s not totally dead in the water, but the climb is steep.”

At this point, each candidate has a path to a primary victory on June 24.

“This is an example of a race where the campaigns will actually matter,” one source said. “The performance of the candidates at events and on the stump, as well as fundraising, will determine the outcome of the Republican primary.

“There is no prohibitive favorite; it’s a jump ball at this point.”

Another source put it, well, more colorfully: “This sucker is wide open.

“If Hickenlooper hadn’t pardoned the Aurora equivalent of Hannibal Lector, he could go on vacation.”

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