DENVER — The “Republicans are racist” narrative pushed by Democrats has been a tough sell this year in Colorado, maybe because there are too many black Republican candidates.
Colorado Democrats have nominated no minority candidates for Congress this year, but Republicans have made history by throwing their support behind El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn in the Senate race as well as business consultant Casper Stockham in the 1st Congressional District.
Both are underdogs in their bids to unseat white Democratic incumbents. In the Senate race, Sen. Michael F. Bennet holds an 11-point lead in the Real Clear Politics polling average, and Rep. Diana DeGette is favored to win an 11th term in the heavily Democratic district that represents Denver.
Still, Colorado Republican Party Vice Chairman Derrick Wilburn, who is also black, said the Glenn and Stockham campaigns have benefited the Republican Party by demonstrating what he has long maintained: that white Republicans “would crawl through glass to vote for a black Republican candidate.”
“There is something historic going on in Colorado right now, and that’s the rise in black Republicans,” Mr. Wilburn said. “It’s evidence of the fact that Republicans are not obsessed with race. There’s only one party that’s obsessed, and it’s not the Republicans.”
His message is a sharp contrast to that of the Democratic Party, which has ramped up racism charges against Republicans this year, starting with presidential nominee Donald Trump. Democrats are struggling to keep black voters engaged without President Obama on the ballot.
At the Sept. 26 debate, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said Mr. Trump had engaged in “racist behavior” and denounced “the whole racist birther lie,” marking what is believed to be the first time in a televised presidential forum that one candidate accused the other of racism.
Mr. Trump has refuted the charge, and Republicans have accused Mrs. Clinton of her own racist gaffes, such as her April skit with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in which he said he was running on “C.P. time.” “C.P.” apparently stands for “colored people.”
In Colorado, Mr. Glenn and Mr. Stockham have shown that they can go where other Republicans often fear to tread, such as by tackling the racially charged divide between the black community and police.
“Here’s a fact: I absolutely understand the humiliation of being stopped for no reason other than driving while black,” Mr. Glenn said in a video released Thursday titled “Relentless.” “But here’s my commitment: I’m dedicated to healing the wounds between police and minority communities so both sides feel safe again.”
Their candidates have placed Democrats accustomed to holding the upper hand on racial issues in sometimes awkward predicaments. For example, Mr. Stockham turned the tables last month on Ms. DeGette by accusing her of “white privilege” for dragging her feet on scheduling debates.
He also held catered protests outside Ms. DeGette’s office under the slogan “No debate, no peace.” The two did appear this month at a forum televised on local Channel 8.
“I think it puts [Democrats] in a difficult position because it forces them to go face to face with the inaccuracies of their own allegations,” said Mr. Wilburn.
Meanwhile, Mr. Glenn has contrasted his own upbringing in a home marred by domestic violence with that of Mr. Bennet, who hails from a wealthy, prominent East Coast family.
“Michael Bennet can’t possibly understand the impact of flooding our job market with workers that aren’t citizens of this country, and when we fight, they call us racist,” said Mr. Glenn, who went on to become an officer after a career as a college athlete at the U.S. Air Force Academy. “When did wanting to feed your family become racist?”
In another moment, a dozen conservative luminaries and candidates gathered last month at a press conference in Five Points, Denver’s historic black neighborhood, to promote economic development in a community hit hard by the economic downturn.
Mr. Stockham took on the city’s Democratic establishment, noting that Denver’s unemployment rate stands at just 3 percent but that black unemployment is five times higher.
“So my question is, why is that? Explain that to me when you have a black mayor and you have a Democratic governor. How is that possible?” asked Mr. Stockham. “It’s not all the Republicans’ fault. This is the most Republicans that have been here ever. Ever. So you can’t blame the Republicans because they’re not here. You’ve got to blame the people who run this city. That’s who you have to blame.”
What may be unique about Colorado is that successful black politicians, both Republican and Democrat, are not unique. Blacks have risen for years to positions of prominence in a state with a black population of just 3.8 percent.
Two of the past three Denver mayors have been black: Wellington Webb and Michael Hancock. Black Republicans elected statewide include Lt. Gov. Joe Rogers, elected in 1998 on a ticket with Gov. Bill Owens, and Secretary of State Victoria Buckley, who was elected to two terms.
“So, in other words, these black Republicans are being elected by white Republicans,” said Mr. Wilburn, who got his start in politics as founder of the Rocky Mountain Black Conservatives.
That was certainly the case with Mr. Glenn, who stunned politicos by capturing 70 percent of the delegate vote at the Republican Party’s state convention in April to gain a slot on the June 28 ballot, then besting a five-candidate field for the Senate nomination.
Whether Mr. Glenn can overcome the obstacles of this year’s Senate campaign is another matter. Despite the backing of the Restoration PAC and the Senate Conservatives Fund, he trails Mr. Bennet badly in fundraising.
Mr. Wilburn has said the black Republican candidates have received short shrift in the media. In its Monday endorsement of Mr. Bennet, The Denver Post never mentioned Mr. Glenn by name, calling him “a challenger who, well, hardly seems a challenge.”
After denouncing the media “blackout” in an August op-ed, Mr. Wilburn said the situation has improved a little. At least two publications, The Denver Post and The Colorado Statesman, ran stories about Mr. Stockham’s campaigning as a part-time Uber driver.
“I don’t think either of them have gotten the attention they deserved, but both of them are getting more than they were,” Mr. Wilburn said. “But when you were getting next to nothing, that’s not saying a heck of a lot.”
Whatever the outcome of the election, Mr. Wilburn wants Colorado Republicans to take advantage of this year’s high-profile candidates to build alliances with minority communities.
At last month’s press conference, Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House said he wanted to open the first GOP office in the Five Points neighborhood, one that would offer educational and professional mentoring.
He made reference to Mr. Stockham’s campaign slogan, “Planting seeds of dignity.”
“I think the Republican Party needs a presence here because we want to show people that we also feel a sense of dignity by being in this neighborhood,” said Mr. House. “I think he’s absolutely right to pursue that, but I can promise you that Casper’s not going to be alone because the Republican Party likes the idea of not just planting seeds of dignity, but watering the ones that have already been planted.”