Former Congressman Tom Tancredo speaks to a group of voters as he campaigns for the GOP primary.

(Photo: CPR/Ben Markus)
Republican voters in Colorado will choose their candidate for governor from a crowded field next Tuesday. Whoever wins the primary will face Democrat John Hickenlooper - and long odds: an elected, incumbent governor hasn’t lost re-election in Colorado since 1962.   

That hasn’t dampened Tom Tancredo’s enthusiasm. He’s running for governor for the second time after losing by 14 points to Hickenlooper in 2010 as a third-party candidate. 

“I think that there are enough people out there who do feel as I feel, about a state that I’ve lived in all my life that’s sort of slipping away from us,” Tancredo says. 

Specifically slipping away is the erosion of personal liberties, especially when it comes to gun rights and what he views as excessive taxation. 

Tancredo is infamous for his far-right and sometimes inflammatory rhetoric. He’s called President Barack Obama more dangerous than al-Qaida. The tea party favorite acknowledges he’s not the establishment’s choice.

“If we run a traditional candidate and a traditional campaign we will have a traditional outcome, and that is we lose,” Tancredo says. 

Democrats hope Tancredo is the nominee. An independent expenditure committee of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) has been running what seem like attack ads, but which actually bolster Tancredo’s conservative credentials. The TV ads note, for instance, his strong opposition to Obamacare, a positive in a GOP primary. 

The DGA is simultaneously running ads trashing Bob Beauprez - a more moderate challenger to Tancredo and establishment favorite - as “another Washington politician that Coloradans can’t trust.”

“As my wife points out, I should be flattered,” Beauprez says. “In politics that’s a strange sort of flattery.”

Beauprez, like Tancredo, is a former congressman and failed candidate for Colorado governor. He lost handedly to Democrat Bill Ritter in 2006 by 15 points. 

The former banker has been forced to loan his campaign more than $300,000 to stay ahead of his challengers. That’s prompted some to ask why he would give up a cushy gig with his son running a buffalo ranch.

“Because I love this state,” Beauprez says. “I look at Colorado right now and some are getting along pretty well. There isn’t any doubt about that, but you travel around this state and there’s a whole lot of people that aren’t getting along so well.”

That message of uneven prosperity across Colorado may resonate with voters. But there’s a problem. Beauprez is competing against two other mainstream candidates: Secretary of State Scott Gessler and former state senator Mike Kopp. 

“This all plays to Mr. Tancredo’s advantage here,” Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli says. “Because to some extent all three of these candidates are dividing the non-Tancredo vote.”

Ciruli says the establishment would rather not have a firebrand like Tancredo, whose controversy could jeopardize fellow Republican Cory Gardner’s run for U.S. Senate

Some of that same concern surrounds Gessler, who was investigated for months by a Denver grand jury over travel reimbursements. Gessler calls it a witch hunt.

“Apparently there’s not enough crime in Denver,” Gessler says.

He was cleared of criminal charges, but was slapped on the hand by the state’s ethics commission.  

As Secretary of State, Gessler constantly sparred with liberal groups over what they saw as a purely political effort to stamp out voter fraud. Gessler’s office attempted to cross check voter records with federal databases to verify citizenship. Hundreds of letters were mailed to voters asking them to prove citizenship.

“I think everyone would admit, I think, Republicans and Democrats would admit, before I came into office the Secretary of State’s office was some sleepy backwater,” Gessler says. “And since I’ve been in office I have made an impact.”

Gessler points to his successes such as increasing voter turnout in the last presidential election and slashing fees at his office. He also dismisses polls that have him well behind Tancredo and Beauprez.

“I don’t know if that’s true,” Gessler says. “If you look at the last two fundraising periods I’ve come out well on top on both of those.”

He notes that primary polling is notoriously inconsistent.  

Mike Kopp, the fourth and final candidate in this race, hopes that’s true: the former state senate minority leader trails in polls, money and name recognition. Delegates at the state convention, however, put him at top of the ticket. Kopp says that’s good for a modest bump.    

“I’d rather have Kopp on top than on the bottom,” Kopp says.

Kopp is an Army veteran who dropped out of politics after his first wife died of cancer in 2011. His pitch is simple.

“I believe that more money held in the hands of people that want to invest and grow their businesses does more good than any number of new government programs and projects,” Kopp says.

The message isn’t substantially different, but the messengers in this race are. Voters will decide at next Tuesday’s primaries who faces Gov. Hickenlooper in November.