National and Colorado Republicans and their conservative allies piled on U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter after the Arvada Democrat announced Monday he’s changed his mind and plans to seek reelection in the 7th Congressional District, although the GOP doesn’t appear to have a candidate ready to challenge the six-term incumbent for the suburban seat.
And while Perlmutter might be favored to win another congressional term, a veteran Republican strategist suggested that the months-long political hokey pokey — in, then out, then back in — could diminish his legacy even among some of his most ardent supporters.
“The voters of CD7 deserve a congressman with fire in the belly,” Colorado Republican Party Chairman Jeff Hays told Colorado Politics in a text message. “It was admirable of Rep. Perlmutter to admit he doesn’t have it. It’s less admirable that he thinks he should continue to represent CD7 without it.”
Perlmutter declared in April he was running for governor — leaving his congressional seat open — but then announced in July he was dropping his gubernatorial bid, saying he lacked the “fire in the belly” for a protracted, expensive race in a primary that also includes U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Boulder Democrat who has the ability to self-fund his campaign. Just over a week ago, Colorado Politics was first to report Perlmutter was reconsidering his decision not to seek another term in Congress.
“Just weeks after telling voters he lacked ‘fire in the belly’ to effectively serve Colorado in elected office, career politician Ed Perlmutter is changing course,” said Jack Pandol, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, in a statement. “Given Ed’s apparent willingness to say and do anything to further his own ambition, it’s clear Colorado can neither trust nor respect Perlmutter. It’s time for a change.”
Perlmutter’s seat landed on a list of NRCC-targeted seats in February, when there was a good chance it would be an open seat in next year’s election, because Perlmutter was weighing a run for governor. Six months later — after Perlmutter entered the governor’s race and then withdrew, and then jumped back in to run for seventh term in Congress — a few prominent Republicans have said they might run for the seat but none have launched a campaign.
Pandol said the NRCC is working on fielding a challenger.
“We’re continuing to recruit in Colorado 7,” he told Colorado Politics. “Given Perlmutter’s flip-flopping and weakened standing with voters, we feel confident we can recruit the right candidate who will put this seat in play.”
Perlmutter’s two most recent GOP opponents, however, sounded less than enthusiastic about the chances national Republicans will make a play for the seat with Perlmutter back in the race.
Don Ytterberg, who mounted an unsuccessful challenge against Perlmutter in 2014 and has been considering a 2018 campaign, told Colorado Politics Monday it’s unlikely he’ll run against Perlmutter.
“I hate to commit before discussing this with my guys, but I probably won’t run,” Ytterberg said in a phone call from a campground in Nebraska where he had just observed Monday’s total solar eclipse. “It seems the Democrats have determined they need to support Ed to hold onto the seat. This seems to have disrupted a lot of people.”
By mid-afternoon Monday, two of the four Democrats who had been running for the seat — state Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, and state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood — had suspended their campaigns, while state Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, and former ambassador Dan Baer had yet to announce their plans.
Ytterberg, a former chairman of the Jefferson County GOP, said he was confident Republicans will field a Perlmutter challenger but chuckled at the notion the NRCC might go all-out for the seat after the incumbent has reentered the race.
“I’m confident somebody is going to run,” he said. “The calculus changes by the minute, depending on who’s on the ballot, but I would say with Ed on the ballot, I’m sure the NRCC won’t charge in to target Ed.”
George Athanasopoulos, Perlmutter’s 2016 Republican challenger, put it more bluntly.
“The NRCC is unserious about trying to take that seat,” he said. “They just are.”
Athanasopoulos said he wouldn’t be surprised if a self-funding GOP candidate emerged but cautioned against counting on state and national Republicans offering much help.
“I’m guessing they’re trying to recruit someone who’s wealthy,” he said. “Given the number of seats they’re trying to defend, they’re not going to put money into trying to take a seat with a registration advantage for Democrats. If it’s not a Republican who’s willing to sink a couple million dollars of their personal fortune in there, they’re just a name on the ballot. No one is going to give them any support.”
Athanasopoulos lagged Perlmutter by about 15 points in last year’s election. While the seat looks on paper like it could be a battleground, Perlmutter has won every election by double-digits, regardless of the Republican nominee. The Democrat ran up his widest margin — 27 percent — in 2008, his first campaign for reelection, against political novice John Lerew, who didn’t raise much money but got some attention because he rode a Segway whenever possible. Perlmutter’s closest race was a 10-point win in 2014 against Ytterberg. His other Republican opponents — Rick O’Donnell, Ryan Frazier and Joe Coors, in order — lagged Perlmutter by around a dozen points.
“My experience was, running against Ed, the national Republican Party and even the state Republican Party aren’t willing to help any help whatsoever,” Athanasopoulos said. “You’re a one-man or one-woman show. There’s no appetite for trying to defeat Ed, so any Republican who’s willing to jump in needs to recognize the NRCC and state party won’t help, so you’re on your own.”
Another potential 2018 Republican candidate, Jefferson County Commissioner Libby Szabo, declined to comment on her plans.
Kelly Maher, executive director of the conservative Compass Colorado organization, said Perlmutter’s switch highlighted his party’s difficulties.
“Perlmutter’s reentrance into his congressional slot is a microcosm of Democrat’s larger problems,” she told Colorado Politics. “They recycle the same ideas and people which won’t allow fresh blood to invigorate them. Ironically, it’s the ‘progressives’ who won’t allow progress within their own ranks.”
Dick Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party and one of the state’s most seasoned GOP strategists, said Perlmutter won’t have to sweat his bid for a seventh term but will be remembered for his gyrations over which campaign he’s running.
“He’ll get elected again,” Wadhams told Colorado Politics. “I think the longer term impact isn’t really political. I think it gives kind of black eye to Ed’s long-term legacy. There will be some Democrats who will never forget this. He was a beloved figure int he Democratic Party — and for good reason: He works hard, he won a Senate seat in Jeffco that had not been in Democratic hands in many, many years. There’s not going to be any public pillorying of him by Democrats — they’re going to defer to him — but there are four (Democratic) candidate who’ve been running for this seat. They will never forget this. And their supporters will never forget this. Ed will never be the totally beloved figure he was before this.”
Wadhams said it’s likely Perlmutter will emerge still respected but with his reputation tarnished.
“First of all, to be essentially chased out of the race by Polis,” he said. “What about his supporters in the governors race? And now think about all the folks who decided to support one of the candidates to replace him. It just makes him look like another politician — that he can’t give it up, that he just has to be in Congress.”