Gary Hart

In this file photo, Gary Hart, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Colorado, fields a question during a news conference in Denver on April 14, 1987. Hart was the last U.S. senator elected by Colorado voters who hadn't previously served in the U.S. House or held statewide office.

For nearly 50 years, an iron law has ruled Colorado politics.

Republicans look like they'll be spending the next year testing whether they can repeal it.

It isn't the kind of law written in musty statute books or in the state's constitution.

But as Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet campaigns for a third full term in office ahead of the 2022 election, at least eight Republicans are hoping they can evade it or persuade voters not to enforce it.

Think of it more like a tendency or an unconsciously enforced preference — though it's one that's held firm since before today's youngest senior citizens were old enough to vote.

Since 1974, Colorado voters have only elected U.S. senators who've been members of the U.S. House of Representatives or current or former statewide office-holders.

It's more binding even than that.

Except for a couple of notable exceptions elected in the early 1970s, everyone elected to the U.S. Senate from Colorado since 1940 came with one or both of those distinctions — House members or held statewide office.

It's a somewhat obscure law, to be sure, but it's been on the minds of party bigwigs as they consider their lineups of potential Senate candidates in recent cycles.

Colorado's two Democratic Senators — Bennet and John Hickenlooper — both held statewide office before winning their Senate elections: Hickenlooper, elected last year, served as governor from 2011 to 2019, and Bennet, who won his first full term in 2010, occupied the Senate seat for two years after being appointed to fill a vacancy in 2009.

As with most laws, there is some nuance, and the specific phrasing is important. Bennet's adherence to the law comes with a footnote, since he qualifies by virtue of an appointment to statewide office but nonetheless fits the requirement.

Other states are fond of electing senators from all sorts of backgrounds.

Both of the Democrats from Georgia — Jon Ossoff, a documentary film-maker, and Raphael Warnock, a Baptist pastor — arrived in the Senate in January without ever having held office, for instance.

Nationally prominent senators who stepped directly into the chamber include Texas Republican Ted Cruz, the state's former solicitor general, Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who taught at Harvard; Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist with a famous father; and Maine Republican Susan Collins, who held appointed positions at the state and federal level.

But not in Colorado.

Not since 1974, at least.

That's the year voters elected Denver attorney Gary Hart, who had returned to town after managing 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern's ill-fated presidential campaign. Hart, a Democrat who went on to serve two terms, unseated two-term Republican U.S. Sen. Peter Dominick with some help from the Watergate scandal.

Hart joined fellow Democratic senator Floyd Haskell, who won election in 1972 by defeating three-term Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Allott. Haskell, a tax attorney, had earlier been elected to two terms in the Colorado House of Representatives as a Republican but changed his affiliation in 1970 over the GOP's position on the Vietnam War.

For the three decades before Haskell and Hart came along — and the four decades after the pair was elected — voters hewed to the obscure law they've been unknowingly enforcing.

Dominick, the Republican unseated by Hart, represented the 2nd Congressional District before winning a seat in the Senate, and Allott, the Republican toppled by Haskell, served two terms as lieutenant governor before he was elected to the upper chamber.

The senators who preceded those two also fell within the law — Democrat John Carroll represented the 1st Congressional District; Republican Eugene Millikin, like Bennet, was appointed to the Senate two years before winning a full term; and Democrat Ed Johnson, a towering political figure known universally as Big Ed Johnson, was governor and served four terms in the U.S. House before he was elected to the Senate. (Big Ed went on to serve a second term as governor after he retired from the Senate.)

Prior to 1940, Colorado’s senators came from a hodgepodge of backgrounds, but almost none had served in the U.S. House or in statewide office.

After Haskell and Hart's anomalous wins during the tumultuous early 1970s, the rule was restored and has held since.

Republican Bill Armstrong rose from the 5th Congressional District to defeat Haskell in 1978, and then Democrat Tim Wirth moved from the 2nd Congressional District to replace Hart in 1986. Republican Hank Brown stepped up from representing the 4th Congressional District to replace Armstrong in 1990, and in 1992 then-Democrat Ben Nighthorse Campbell was elected from his seat in the 3rd Congressional District to replace Wirth. (Campbell switched parties two years later.)

Republican Wayne Allard followed Brown from the 4th CD in 1996, and Democratic Attorney General Ken Salazar took Campbell's place in 2004. Democrat Mark Udall replaced Allard in 2008 from his seat in the 2nd CD, and Bennet won a full term in 2010 after filling Salazar's seat by appointment. Republican Cory Gardner, another House member from the 4th CD, ousted Udall in 2014, and then Hickenlooper, fresh from his terms as governor, returned the favor last year by sending Gardner home.

The state's politicians and power brokers are aware the law isn't binding — to be clear, it's an observation of the kind of voter preference that can change. After all, at some point Colorado voters will elect a woman to the U.S. Senate, sending the "men only" law into the dustbin of history.

But they're also aware of its existence and are loath to ignore it entirely.

It wasn't the only consideration when GOP poobahs talked Gardner into giving up his safe House seat to challenge Udall's re-election bid in 2014, but when the peppy young congressman from Yuma unseated the dour mountaineer from Eldorado Springs by a narrow margin, it turned out that their instincts had probably been correct.

There was no shortage of star power among the Republicans who had been running for a chance to take on Udall, but once Gardner jumped in at nearly the last minute, just weeks before precinct caucuses, the field mostly yielded and the race was suddenly on the national map. It took a politician with the gravitas, political experience and fundraising strength of a member of Congress to defeat the incumbent.

It was on the minds of some Democrats a little over two years ago, too, when Hickenlooper was prevailed upon to drop his floundering presidential run and jump into a crowded primary field that quickly dwindled once he declared.

Democrats who argued that it was time for some fresh faces on the statewide stage pushed back against Hickenlooper — and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — bigfooting their way into the primary, and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff made a spirited primary election out of it, but Hickenlooper's statewide popularity allowed national Democrats to train their resources elsewhere, for a while at least, in an ultimately successful attempt to take back the gavel in the Senate.

Some Republicans are weighing similar concerns now, as the field of potential Bennet challengers has reached eight Republicans a year before the election.

The declared candidates bring a variety of backgrounds to the table — there's an Olympic athlete, a renowned talk show host and a pair of entrepreneurs with deep pockets, but only two of them have been elected to anything: Gino Campana, who served a term on Fort Collins City Council, and state Rep. Ron Hanks, who won his legislative seat a year ago.

Like Campana and Hanks, the others — Eli Bremer, Joe O'Dea, Debra Flora, Erik Aadland, Peter Yu and Juli Henry — are all attempting to make a case that voters are ready to do something different next year and discard the law that's appeared to govern all but two of the state's Senate elections over the last 80 years.

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