When I heard the news that Ken Buck wouldn’t run for a second term as state GOP chair, I figured the decision amounted to a cold splash of reality.
It’s not just that something has to change for Colorado Republicans. At this point, everything has to change.
Although Buck was a disaster as state chair — I’m not sure why anyone thought it would be a good idea for Buck, the 4th CD congressman, to double dip here — you couldn’t really pin the GOP’s 2020 debacle in the state on him.
I mean, Donald Trump didn’t just lose in Colorado. He lost by 13.5 points. And a note to Lori Saine, nobody rigged the vote. And Cory Gardner didn’t just lose his Senate seat, his first political defeat ever, he lost by more than 9 points — the biggest loss for an incumbent Colorado senator in living memory.
And then there’s the fact that the lone statewide Republican office holder is a, uh, University of Colorado regent. And as Jesse Paul pointed out in The Sun Friday, no Republican running statewide in the past two elections has won more than 45% of the vote.
So, yeah, Buck had to go, because, well, it’s like baseball managers. You can’t fire the team, even if you should. The last time we saw GOP legislators in action was during the recent special session on the pandemic when many of the team members were refusing to wear masks. You think there’s a disconnect between the party and Colorado voters? (The guessing, by the way, is that Scott Gessler, the former secretary of state, will run to replace Buck as chair. Kristi Burton Brown, the vice chair, is also a possibility. You think either is the bright, new face the Republican Party needs?)
Of course the last time I saw Buck in action was Friday when he was saying on Fox Business he wouldn’t take the COVID vaccine because, as an American, “it’s my choice.” He also said he was more concerned about the side effects of the vaccine than “the side effects of the disease.” Later, he said he encouraged at-risk people and health care workers to take the vaccine, apparently unconcerned about what the vaccine might do to them. That’s the Ken Buck we all know.
But then, just as I was digesting all this, someone pointed out to me what Buck actually said in his statement noting that he wouldn’t run again for party chair — that “I’m proud to be a Colorado Republican and feel that I can best continue to fight for our state and conservative values in other capacities.”
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What he didn’t say was that he could best continue his fight for the state and conservative values by returning to Washington in his role as a right-wing congressman, prepared to vote, once again, against any stimulus bill to help the economy during the pandemic. He said “other capacities,” which suggests, I don’t know, something else entirely. And the only something else I can think of is that he might run against Michael Bennet in 2022. Someone has to, and do you have any better ideas?
Buck did run a close Senate race against Bennet — losing by just under two points — in 2010. But that was 2010. Buck was running as the Weld County District Attorney and didn’t have years of right-wing votes to defend. Bennet was running as the accidental senator, who had been the surprise pick by then Gov. Bill Ritter to replace Ken Salazar, who left the Senate to join Barack Obama’s cabinet as secretary of the interior.
You may remember the Buck-Bennet race was neck and neck until Buck, in the closing days of the campaign, explained in a debate on Meet the Press that being gay was a choice and said it was not unlike being an alcoholic. That didn’t play well in 2010. Imagine how it would play today.
All I can say is, if Buck were to run against Bennet, Bennet would roll out the red carpet. In Bennet’s failed run for president, he did accomplish a few things, including raising his national profile. And he has worked hard to claim the hard-earned territory as the insider’s outsider — writing an entire book, The Land of Flickering Lights, about the dysfunctional Congress and how it is failing America.
If Buck were to run for Senate, you would see every available Republican rushing to run in the GOP primary to replace him. But there’s another race Republicans have to figure out, too, and that’s the governor’s race, and I don’t know who wants to run against Jared Polis in 2022. In 2018, Polis clobbered Walker Stapleton, winning by nearly 11 points, and that’s back when Republicans were running against Polis the would-be radical.
Since Polis has been in office, he has often been more moderate than fellow Democrats in the state legislature. Here’s an example. George Brauchler wrote an op-ed in the Denver Post blasting Polis for a draft COVID vaccine plan that, in his words, “elevates imprisoned pedophiles and career criminals above grandparents and adults with lung and heart disease.”
Vaccinating the incarcerated is a tricky political issue, but an easier epidemiological one. According to data from the Marshall Project, in conjunction with the Associated Press, we learn one in every five state and federal prisoners has tested positive.
Polis responded almost immediately, saying, “That won’t happen. There’s no way that prisoners are going to get it before members of a vulnerable population . … There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime. That’s obvious.”
That’s not exactly the liberal take on the issue. It’s obvious unless you consider that prisoners are also human beings — as Polis, to give him credit, did note — and that the spread of the pandemic in prisons is a serious issue that affects not only prisoners, but those working in prisons and those in the adjacent communities.
Brauchler considered running for governor in 2018 before running, and losing, in a race for attorney general. He might run for governor in 2022. Somebody has to. But, again, I doubt it. To run against Polis, you’re running against someone with unlimited funds and someone who has seemed to navigate the political minefield that all governors have faced in dealing with the pandemic.
In an article for Colorado Politics, Ernest Luning looks at the Senate race and notes that Buck might run against Bennet. He listed other possibilities — Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams, state legislators Sen. John Cooke and Rep. Patrick Neville, and even 2016 GOP nominee Darryl Glenn. That list doesn’t put a scare into anyone. You might as well throw in Lauren Boebert.
In fact, the only person who might put a scare into Bennet would be Cory Gardner if he decided to try again for the Senate. When Gardner beat Mark Udall in 2014, he became the only top-of-the-ballot Republican to have won a race since 2004. There hasn’t been one since.
But Gardner is only 46, and he has plenty of time. Even if the 2022 midterm election turns out well for Republicans nationally, that bump isn’t likely to show up in Colorado any more than it did in 2020.
So, here are my predictions. Gardner almost certainly won’t run in either race. Buck shouldn’t run. I doubt if Brauchler will run. But somebody has to run. And that’s just the start of the challenges facing whoever does succeed Buck as party chair.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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