DENVER — Back in November, Colorado Republicans took an important first step toward regaining their former status as the state’s dominant political party: They lost.
Colorado voters swung for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, ousted Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave and kept Democrats in charge of the state’ General Assembly. Given that Colorado already had a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators, the election effectively erased the Republicans’ last hold on what was once a bright red state and moved it into the purple - or even blue - column.
But unlike the national Republican Party, which is fighting among itself as it tries to find a voice to counter a popular president, party leaders in Colorado have jumped into action.
“They have to add money and think tanks - in other words, try to reverse-engineer the infrastructure that the Democrats put in over the last four years,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “The good news is that the old guard recognizes the problem and is trying to help.”
Experienced Republican hands like former Gov. Bill Owens and former Sen. Wayne Allard recently met with the party’s emerging leaders to brainstorm, trouble-shoot and plot strategy. In the past few months, at least two Republican-themed organizations have emerged, founded not by the usual Republican suspects, but by newcomers to the political scene.
“One of the prerequisites for victory is to go through a defeat,” said Mr. Owens, who served two terms as governor in the Republicans’ heyday from 1998 to 2006. “I would have preferred it not happen, but that definitely lays the groundwork for victory.”
“Being in the minority focuses the mind,” Mr. Owens said. “It allows us to bring new people into the coalition and reminds us we have more in common with each other than we do with the Democrats.”
State Republicans have taken that advice to heart by building grass-roots support and solidifying their finances. Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams said that the party, which was $600,000 in the red when he took over two years ago, is now debt-free.
In April, about 5,000 Coloradans turned out for the National Tea Party, which wasn’t organized by Republicans but whose themes - individual liberty, smaller government and lower taxes - fit neatly into the party’s philosophy.
“The sheer size of the tea party shows widespread discontent with the new administration and the Democratic majority,” said Mr. Wadhams.
That leads to what may be the biggest advantage for Republicans: They’re not running the show, and therefore can sit back and watch their stock rise when the Democrats blunder.
In Colorado, that phenomenon is already at work in the governor’s race, where Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. is seen as vulnerable. An independent survey released last month by Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, N.C., showed former Republican Rep. Scott McInnis leading Mr. Ritter in a hypothetical 2010 match-up by a margin of 48 percent to 41 percent.
There’s also opportunity for Republicans in 2010 on the Senate side. Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, appointed in January by Mr. Ritter after Sen. Ken Salazar was named secretary of the interior, must face the voters in 2010 to keep his seat.
While the former Denver Public Schools superintendent has raised an impressive $1.4 million, this is his first bid for public office. “They [Republicans] have the benefit of weak-appearing Democratic incumbents,” said pollster Mr. Ciruli. “They’re still searching for the right candidates and perhaps a theme, but they’re better off than they were in the fall when [Republican presidential nominee] John McCain was struggling.”
On the gubernatorial side, Mr. McInnis has already declared his candidacy, as has Evergreen businessman Dan Maes. State Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry is considering entering the race.
Two Republicans have lined up for the opportunity to challenge Mr. Bennet in 2010: Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and Aurora City Council member Ryan Frazier. Neither has much in the way of statewide name recognition, but then again, neither does Mr. Bennet.
Republicans are also making a bid to oust Democratic Rep. Betsy Markey, who defeated Mrs. Musgrave in the predominantly Republican district. State House Minority Whip Cory Gardner and University of Colorado regent Tom Lucero have both entered the Republican primary race.
Avoiding contentious primary battles doesn’t seem to be part of the Republican strategy, which is fine with Mr. Wadhams. “I like contested primaries. I think it makes our candidates stronger,” he said.
Also helping is that the Republican message remains popular. As voters were pulling the lever for Mr. Obama in November, they were also voting down proposed tax increases and school bond initiatives.
“At its core, this state remains fiscally very moderate,” said Mr. Ciruli. “President Obama won here bigger than he did nationally; however, this is a difficult state to run in for anyone labeled a big spender. If it [his approval rating] is substantially below 50 percent, the swing voters, who are highly sensitive to national trends, could swing back to the Republicans.”