DENVER | Technically, he's no longer a Republican, but Tom Tancredo's decision to run for governor as a third-party candidate may have made him the most electable conservative in Colorado.
His decision to run as an alternative to the GOP nominee could have easily disintegrated into a sideshow. Instead, he consolidated most Colorado Republicans behind his third-party candidacy, exceeded all fundraising expectations, and ran a campaign that up until Election Day was on nearly everyone's watch list for upsets.
He lost to Democrat John Hickenlooper by a margin of 50 percent to 37 percent, although he did far better than Republican Dan Maes, who took 11 percent.
Despite the loss, Mr. Tancredo's ability to pull together a viable third-party challenge at the last minute has given him credibility as a statewide candidate beyond anything he ever enjoyed as a five-term Republican congressman or the nation's leading border-security advocate.
"My view is that the campaign was uplifting for him in that Tom had never run statewide, and his presidential run was almost entirely a narrow, single-issue kind of campaign," said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. "Here he was able to run a serious statewide campaign and basically articulate on a range of issues and spend at least part of the time not talking about illegal immigration."
The 64-year-old Mr. Tancredo also showed that he could win over grass-roots liberty groups like the "tea party," which initially backed Mr. Maes, but ultimately saw most of its members switch support to the former congressman.
Post-election polls showed Mr. Tancredo took more than 60 percent of the Republican vote, with Mr. Maes earning about 20 percent and Mr. Hickenlooper getting about 12 percent.
"He's one of the state's best-known Republicans right now, and of all the Republicans in the state, he probably has the most passionate following," Mr. Ciruli said. "The tea party dominated the nominating process, and those are Tancredo people. At the moment, I believe he is the most easily nominated Republican in the state."
Unfortunately for Mr. Tancredo, his newfound visibility comes as the state enters a political lull. State offices such as governor won't be in play for another four years, and the next Colorado senator to come up for re-election is Democrat Mark Udall in 2014.
As a result, Mr. Tancredo says he's in no hurry to switch his party affiliation back to Republican, even though he agrees his days as a member of the American Constitution Party are numbered.
"The only reason I left the Republican Party was pragmatic, not philosophical," Mr. Tancredo said. "I probably will come back to the Republican Party, but in truth, I'm looking for a reason to do that."
One reason might be to run for state Republican Party chairman. He said some of his supporters are pushing him in that direction, but if there's one thing his third-party candidacy demonstrated, it's that the major parties are losing their mojo.
The Colorado Republican Party has come under criticism for coming up short in what should have been a slam-dunk GOP year. Along with Mr. Maes, the party nominated Ken Buck for Senate, who narrowly was defeated by Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet.
It wasn't all bad news for Colorado Republicans. The party won back two House seats by defeating Democratic Reps. Betsy Markey and John Salazar, wrested the secretary of state and treasurer's offices from Democrats, and retook the state House.
But the party leadership doesn't have the power it once did, thanks both to the deluge of tea party activists into the caucus system and the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law's restrictions on party spending and fundraising.
"[State GOP Chairman] Dick Wadhams takes the blame for a lot of what happened here, but what can a chair do if someone likes Dan Maes gets enough support to win the primary?" Mr. Tancredo said. "You can say, 'I don't think this is such a good idea,' but what can you really do?"
Colorado Democrats have solved the problem in part by creating a sort of shadow party in the Colorado Democratic Alliance, a multimillionaire-led fund that focuses mainly on state legislative races.
"They've become the de facto Democratic Party in Colorado, and we [Republicans] have nothing like that," Mr. Tancredo said. "Now if there were people to come out of the woodwork to start something like that, you bet I would want to talk to them."
In the meantime, he said, he plans to concentrate on issues through his think tank, the Rocky Mountain Foundation in Lakewood, Colo. At the top of his list are pushing for public-school vouchers andmaking the e-verify system of verification of employment eligibility as a means of combating illegal immigration mandatory in Colorado.
"I'm issues-oriented right now," Mr. Tancredo said. "But I do want conservatives to succeed, and if my participation in the Republican Party will do that, I'm happy to re-up."
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