It's crunch time for the Republicans vying to be the nominee to run against Democrat Michael Bennet in Colorado's U.S. Senate race. The primary race is still wide open, and when the mail ballots are counted on June 28th, each candidate has a plausible shot of winning.
Republican voters have five candidates to choose from, and if that seems like a lot, it's worth noting that earlier this year the race had roughly a dozen candidates.
"I cannot pick a frontrunner. I couldn't even come close to picking a frontrunner," said political consultant Eric Sondermann. He thinks each one brings something unique to the table.
"There's not a dominant figure in this race."
Colorado Springs businessman Robert Blaha is trying to run a less disciplined Donald Trump style campaign. Former Aurora City councilman Ryan Frazier has relatively good name recognition in the Denver metro area, and has done well in debates. El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn bills himself as the true constitutional pro-life conservative. Fort Collins businessman Jack Graham is the most moderate. And former state lawmaker Jon Keyser has a strong resume and is an establishment favorite.
"This is a pretty sleepy primary, as primaries go," said Sondermann. "All the Republican attention and all the oxygen has been taken by the presidential race and the weirdness of that."
That's why Sondermann thinks the ultimate winner may only need 30 percent of the vote. And the keys to winning …
"Number one is going to be money and advertising, who can get their name and message out there. Secondly it will be who has a constituent base of support that they can mobilize," says Sondermann.
The candidates tried to work that base during a recent debate hosted by KUSA channel 9. Presidential politics caused some lively exchanges--Jack Graham came out forcefully against Donald Trump's statement that a federal judge was biased because of his Mexican heritage.
"Based upon what he has said he has lost my support," said Graham. "I've wanted different, I've wanted better. I was offended by what he said earlier about women, about Mexicans, about Muslims, how he handled the David Duke question."
Ryan Frazier also said he was not willing to back Trump until he received more information. While the other candidates didn't go that far they still condemned the statement. Colorado State University political science professor Kyle Saunders said the race is especially hard to gage because of the lack of recent campaign finance figures and polling. But he thinks the candidates will have to do something to stand out from each other.
"When political figures take extreme stands or criticize candidates it does get covered. I would be surprised if it did not get more contentious," says Saunders.
And that's already happening. Darryl Glenn recently questioned Jon Keyser's military record as an intelligence officer in the Air Force, in an exchange between the two at a debate hosted by KKTV, the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and the Colorado Springs Gazette.
"Mr. Keyser, you have repeatedly stated that you have won a bronze star," said Glenn. "You have repeatedly stated in each forum that you have personally kicked in doors to be able to do that. What is on your write up of the bronze star? Does it reference the fact that the bronze star was affiliated with a software program?" said Glenn.
Keyser was awarded the bronze star when he was an intelligence officer in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. During the final moments of the debate Keyser responded to Glenn's charge that he just sat behind a desk. Keyser said he was personally involved in combat missions.
"And we would find the world's most dangerous terrorists, typically at night using the tactical advantages we would have with things like night goggles, and we would apprehend them or kill them, it's pretty simple," said Keyser.
Another controversial issue for Keyser has been his signature petitions to get on the ballot. One of the people at the company he hired to collect names is now facing felony charges for allegedly forging signatures. Kyle Saunders says that could hurt Keyser even if he wasn't directly involved.
"How he handled that publically, didn't have good optics. And I'm sure hasn't helped him with how the public perceives him but we have no hard data."
Because the primary race has largely flown under the radar so far, any missteps may have a smaller impact. Eric Sondermann said despite all the unknowns, one thing is certain; whoever wins will face a tough race against Democrat Michael Bennet.
"Here you have a presidential year, a more potent incumbent and no-one of Cory Gardner's stature or skill set running on the Republican side. If you're in Vegas, you still have to like Bennet's odds," said Sondermann.
There's also the issue of Donald Trump and how his name at the top of the GOP ticket will impact down ballots races such as this.
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