A stage full of Republican Senate candidates Thursday night took swing after swing at U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, repeatedly tying the Democrat to President Barack Obama and blaming him for everything from a ballooning federal deficit to an unstable and dangerous Middle East.
“Every one of the candidates we have on stage tonight will make a better senator than Michael Bennet,” said Ryan Lynch, executive director of the Colorado Republican Party, welcoming a crowd of about 150 to the Reiman Theater on the University of Denver campus for the primary’s first forum — it wasn’t a debate, organizers emphasized — featuring about half of the candidates who have declared they want to take on Bennet.
Seven of the 13 hopefuls seeking the GOP nomination spent nearly three hours responding to questions posed by the forum sponsors, the DU College Republicans, covering topics ranging from the federal deficit and college affordability to marijuana policy and how each candidate plans to win the election in November.
Republicans choose the party’s nominee in a June 28 primary.
Bennet was appointed to the seat in early 2009, replacing Ken Salazar when he was named interior secretary. He won a full six-year term in 2010, defeating Ken Buck, who has since been elected to Congress, in what turned out to be the closest Senate race in the country that year.
Declaring that he’s the only candidate in the race who has defeated a Democratic incumbent in a swing district, state Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, said he was also the only candidate who has carried legislation to “protect life, liberty and property.”
“Liberty wins, but you’ve got to speak to liberty, you’ve got to work for liberty, you can’t be afraid of it,” he said. “That’s the key.”
“I am going to be relentless when I challenge Michael Bennet this fall, and I will hold him accountable for his reckless and dangerous acts,” said former state Rep. Jon Keyser, R-Morrison, who called Bennet “dangerous and weak.”
“Elections are about contrasts, and I provide a lot of contrast,” said Keyser, pointing out that he comes from blue-collar roots and has served in the military his entire adult life. “I’m the only person standing on this stage that’s gone to war,” the decorated Air Force reservist said. Then, reiterating what has become a theme of his campaign, he ripped Bennet for voting to approve the nuclear deal with Iran.
“I know firsthand how dangerous Michael Bennet has become,” Keyser said, charging that Bennet “voted to give $100 billion to Iran” as part of the international agreement meant to curb the country’s nuclear ambitions.
“I know that because I’ve fought this enemy, I’ve looked them in the eye, and when I stand on stage with Michael Bennet, I’ll look him in the eye and ask how he justifies giving that money to a country that’s killed my friends,” Keyser said.
“This election’s going to come down to who can unify our state and our country and move in a better direction,” said former Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, who pointed to his experience cofounding a charter school and helping redevelop the former Fitzimons Army Medical Center in Aurora.
Saying that Republicans don’t talk enough about “the need for criminal justice reform in this country,” Frazier asserted that the country has “far too many people going to jail for nonviolent offenses” and called on the GOP to get involved in the conversation about fixing the problem.
Frazier, who ran in the 2010 Senate primary for nearly a year before switching to a congressional bid, argued that he’s the candidate to bring together a winning coalition by “[taking] a message to our fellow Coloradans that says we can unify social conservatives, libertarians, tea party and, yes, establishment Republicans with unaffiliated and soft Democrats. We unify around a message that says America is a beacon of light for the rest of the world, and we owe it to ourselves to be the best America we can be.”
“I’m the consistent conservative who’s ready to serve,” he said. “This is not time for AAA ball.”
“The problem is the permanent political class, those in control who want to stay in control,” said business consultant Robert Blaha. “They put our country in this situation. I say we need to hold them all accountable.” He said the country finds itself “at the fulcrum of insanity” and needed to take a different approach. Touting what he termed “the Robert Blaha guarantee,” he said he’ll step aside if he doesn’t fulfill his promises to “blow up the IRS system” and replace it with a simplified tax code that works, secure the borders and bring down the deficit.
He noted in his closing remarks that he hadn’t mentioned Bennet at all during the forum, maintaining that the distinctions with the incumbent would become “crystal clear” once voters learned about Blaha’s record “busting up bureaucracies.” Then he got in a jab at Bennet for good measure, calling him bad for Colorado and “just too extreme.”
“Michael Bennet will be exposed if we stay on message, if we’re calm, if we’re adults, and if we have a message that resonates with people, we will win,” Blaha added.
“We’ve got a problem,” said retired Air Force Master Sgt. Charlie Ehler. “That problem is the federal government. The way I see it, the federal government is squatting right in our road to prosperity.” Calling federal regulatory agencies “the harassment arm of the federal government,” he proposed eliminating “about two-thirds” of the regulations they enforce.
Pointing out that he spent more than two decades in uniform, El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn acknowledged that the candidates shared “a lot of commonality when it comes to the issues,” agreeing that taxes need cutting and the Second Amendment should be defended. The key issue and reason he would be the best nominee, Glenn said, is because the election would turn on foreign policy and national security questions, and proceeded to bash Bennet on those counts.
“Ladies and gentlemen, there are people in this world who want to wipe us out,” he said. “I always joke whether the president has played a simple game of capture the flag,” he said, drawing laughter and applause from the audience. Glenn also argued that he’s the only candidate who has taken part in a Base Realignment and Closure process, which he said needs to happen again soon “in order to make our military more efficient.”
“Our country is on a precipice of no return,” said El Paso County Commissioner Peg Littleton. “Too much is at stake. Our freedom is at stake.” She boasted that she won election twice in a commissioner district with a voter registration profile that mirrors the state’s and was the only one in the race who has “sparred” with Bennet, when he was superintendent of Denver Public Schools and she served on the State Board of Education.
Littleton also took a swing at some of her fellow candidates onstage, calling herself “somebody who is willing to go through the caucus system and represent the people and not buy their way onto the ballot.”
The June 28 primary ballot probably won’t be as packed as the stage at DU, but it could still be crowded. Republicans start the nomination process March 1 at precinct caucuses, followed by county assemblies later in March and culminating in the April 9 state assembly, where whoever wins at least 30 percent of delegate votes gets a spot on the ballot.
Alternatively, candidates can turn in 10,500 valid signatures from Republicans — 1,500 from each of the state’s seven congressional districts — by April 4 in order to make the primary ballot.
At press time, five candidates had pulled petitions: Frazier, Blaha and Keyser, along with former CSU athletic director Jack Graham and Jefferson County Commissioner Don Rosier. Another likely candidate, businessman Jerry Natividad, hasn’t filed for the race or had his petitions authorized by the secretary of state’s office but is planning to launch his campaign and start gathering signatures within a week, sources close to his campaign told The Statesman.
All of the candidates at the DU forum agreed that the federal government needs to cut spending and enforce a balanced budget. They also said the federal government must respect the 10th Amendment and let Colorado’s constitutionally authorized marijuana industry mature.
“We’ve got to bring this industry out of the shadows, so let’s make sure we fix the banking problem,” said Keyser, who also emphasized that the state has to focus on keeping marijuana products out of the hands of children.
“I’m a firm believer in trusting in two things above everything else — trust in God and trust in the voters,” Neville said. He called Amendment 64, approved by voters in 2012, a “horribly written bill that created a tremendous number of problems” and said he was proud of the work he did dealing with marijuana regulations when he chaired the Senate Finance Committee.
Asked about the student debt crisis, the candidates lined up to denounce a proposal by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to make public college free.
“You should be offended that Bernie Sanders wants to give a free education,” said Littleton. “It’s just not going to happen.”
“When you throw money at a problem, it doesn’t usually create a solution,” lamented Neville, adding, “What is debt? It is another word for slavery.” He suggested that a higher education would be devalued if everyone could get one for free. “That’s dumbing down,” he said. “We have the solutions here. The challenge is, we need to get the federal government out of the way.”
Blaha mused that it might make sense to start treating student debt like the financial industry treats mortgages. “What if we let (students) shop it around? What if we let them take their interest off their taxes?” he asked. “It allows those students to get in the marketplace earlier, pay it off earlier, and get out.”
Keyser said that, as a Republican, he was “kind of bummed out” that the GOP doesn’t talk about student debt, but he rejected solutions peddled by Democrats, instead saying the country needs to look to the future.
“You can go to iTunes University,” he said, referring to course offerings available over the Internet. “You can take MIT classes for free on your phone,” he said, adding that students could learn a subject, take a test and demonstrate they’ve mastered it. “I think that’s a great system.” (It wasn’t the only time Keyser referenced what he termed “disruptive” innovations that might have been unfamiliar to some of his fellow candidates. “Hit me up on Snapchat,” he told the audience at the outset of the forum, patting his phone.)
Colorado Democratic Party spokesman Andrew Zucker hammered the field of candidates, though he singled out three for criticism.
“This is the most crowded and divisive Senate primary in the country and tonight not one of their candidates did anything to stand out or add clarity to their 13-candidate field,” he told The Statesman after the forum. “Tim Neville touted his far-right record of pushing legislation to roll back commonsense gun laws and further restrict a woman’s right to choose. Robert Blaha channeled Donald Trump by railing against the Republican establishment and practically recited his own television ad. And Jon Keyser didn’t even try to answer a question on the deficit, the same way he’s ducked and dodged questions like a pro-politician since the start of the campaign.”