DENVER | When Ken Salazar leaves the Senate to head the Interior Department, as expected, there won’t be any shortage of prominent Colorado Democrats to succeed him.
“Colorado Democrats used to say they had no bench, and now they’re falling off the edge,” Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said.
At the top of the shortlist would be Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, followed in no particular order by Rep. Ed Perlmutter, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, former Denver Mayor Frederico Pena and Mr. Salazar’s brother, Rep. John Salazar.
Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. would appoint the first-term senator’s successor, who would then have to run for the seat in 2010.
While the scenario sent a shiver of excitement through the state Democratic Party ranks, it also gave state Republicans a rare glimmer of hope for the next election cycle.
Ken Salazar, 53, would never be described as unbeatable by Republicans — at least not in public — but the GOP wasn’t exactly lining up to take on the popular Democrat in the white cowboy hat.
With his departure, the Colorado GOP has a chance to run against a Democrat never elected to the seat and unlikely to have Mr. Salazar’s statewide name recognition and positive image.
“The speculation we’d heard is that [Republicans] would give Ken a ride and go after the governor,” said Denver Democratic consultant Steve Welchert. “But now they could go after both.”
Republicans agreed, sort of.
“I never thought Ken Salazar was invincible even before this surprise announcement,” said Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams. “But the lack of an elected incumbent certainly enhances our ability to compete for the seat.”
Possible Republican candidates for the seat include former Gov. Bill Owens, outgoing Rep. Tom Tancredo, former Rep. Scott McInnis, former state Treasurer Mark Hillman and conservative radio host Dan Caplis.
At the moment, however, the strongest candidate to fill the seat’s remaining two years would be Mr. Hickenlooper, the lanky, earnest Denver mayor who drew national attention as host of the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Whether Mr. Hickenlooper, 56, would accept the post is another question. So far, he hasn’t shown any inclination to give up his current job, declining to run for governor in 2006 and the open Senate seat in 2008.
The party favorite could be Mr. Romanoff, 42, a rising star with degrees from Harvard and Yale who found himself term-limited this year after three years as House speaker.
“Within the party itself, he would probably be the front-runner. They’d love to see him restart his career,” Mr. Ciruli said. “Whether they see him as the strongest candidate in 2010 is another question. He’s only won election in one Denver legislative district.”
What’s more, Mr. Romanoff could be out of the running by early January: He’s a finalist to succeed Secretary of State Mike Coffman, who leaves office next month to succeed Mr. Tancredo in the state’s 6th Congressional District.
Within the congressional delegation, Mr. Perlmutter, 55, and John Salazar, 55, are receiving most of the attention. But Mr. Salazar was recently named to the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which would presumably give him more clout in Congress than he would have as a freshman senator.
Then there’s the nepotism issue. With Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagejovich recently accused of trying to sell a Senate seat, the naming of John Salazar to the Senate could give rise of speculation that his younger brother had somehow brokered a behind-the-scenes deal.
“Post-Illinois, it doesn’t pass the smell test,” one Colorado political observer said.
A long-shot pick would be Mr. Pena, who headed the transportation and energy departments in the Clinton administration. Despite his Clinton connection, Mr. Pena was a national co-chairman of the Obama for President campaign.
Mr. Pena, 61, could benefit from pressure to keep the seat in Hispanic hands. Similarly, Mrs. Kennedy, 40, who defeated a Republican incumbent to win the state treasurer’s job in 2006, could be the choice of Democrats eager to see more women in the Senate.