COVER STORY | Bennet’s GOP challengers slow out of the gate, post modest fundraising totals | Colorado In DC

COVER STORY | Bennet's GOP challengers slow out of the gate, post modest fundraising totals | Colorado In DC

Colorado voters won’t be marking their ballots to pick their next U.S. senator for another year, but already the match-up between U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, the Democratic incumbent, and his Republican challenger is beginning to take shape.

Following a flurry of candidate announcements in early October — after the end of the third fundraising quarter — the number of potential Bennet opponents has doubled to eight. While the state’s primary fields in top-ticket races have typically been clear by this point in the cycle, the number of fresh and largely untested faces suggests it could be a while before obvious frontrunners surface.

Unlike two years ago, when the number of Democrats jostling for the chance to run against Republican Cory Gardner had already climbed into the high teens — with as many candidates already having withdrawn by this point in 2019 as are currently running in the Republican primary — this year’s field of challengers has assembled more slowly, and fundraising, the most concrete measure of the field’s early strengths, is lagging.

GOP consultant Ryan Lynch — one of the few in the state who isn’t signed on to a Senate campaign — said the primary’s contours are still up for grabs.

“It’s a deep field,” he said. “No frontrunner has emerged, and while I do think Bennet is potentially beatable, most of the national interests haven’t labeled this race as competitive. What you’re not seeing yet is national money coming into the state. That can change with a few favorable polls.”

There has so far been scant publicly available polling in the race. A June poll by Denver-based Global Strategy Group, a Democratic firm, found Bennet with an eight-point lead over a generic Republican candidate among registered voters, 48%-40%, with a 3.5% margin of error. The same poll found Bennet was viewed favorably by 46% of voters and unfavorably by 29%.

The candidates are so far off to a slow start through the end of the year’s third quarter, according to the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission.

While eight Republicans have launched campaigns to face Bennet, who is seeking a third term, just three of them have been in the race long enough — and raised enough money — to meet requirements to file campaign finance reports covering the three-month period that ended Sept. 30.

Between them, former oil and gas executive Erik Aadland, former congressional candidate Peter Yu and 2008 Olympian Eli Bremer raised $543,500 for the period, or a little more than one-fourth of the $2.08 million brought in by Bennet, who set a record for the most he’s raised in an off-year quarter.

Yet to post numbers are state Rep. Ron Hanks of Cañon City, former Fort Collins Councilman Gino Campana, construction company owner Joe O’Dea and conservative talker Deborah Flora.

Bennet’s $3.5 million cash on hand at the end of the quarter is more than eight times the $405,426 the three GOP candidates reported they had in the bank. (The Democrat’s total includes about $200,000 transferred from his 2020 presidential campaign committee.)

Bremer led the pack with nearly half the total raised by the GOP candidates, reporting $253,838 in receipts and $209,366 on hand at the end of his first quarter in the race. He was followed by Aadland, who raised $157,903 and had $82,352 on hand, and Yu, who raised $131,810 and had $113,708 in available funds.

The numbers posted by Aadland and Yu, however, include large loans from the candidates this quarter — $102,000 from Aadland and $50,000 from Yu. While the loans spend the same as dollars from donors, the total receipts can mask a measure of fundraising strength that helps determine candidates’ viability for the long haul.

Not counting the money they loaned themselves, Aadland received $55,903 from donors for the quarter, and Yu received $81,810.

Aadland, in the race since June, reported raising $14,153 in the second quarter, including $10,000 he loaned his campaign in that quarter. Yu spent months operating an exploratory committee before formally declaring his candidacy in July, during the third quarter.

Republican Juli Henry, who launched her campaign in January, has yet to raise or spend $5,000, the threshold that triggers a requirement to file a report with the FEC. 

Challengers set pace last cycle

It’s a sharp contrast to the picture two years ago when four Democratic candidates had each raised more than $1 million apiece by the third quarter of 2019 for their campaigns to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who wound up losing his bid for a second term to former Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Gardner, routinely pegged last year as among the most vulnerable GOP senators on the ballot, attracted more than 20 Democrats to the primary for his seat, including several who had raked in record-setting hauls by this point in the cycle.

Former state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, set the pace in the year before Colorado’s last U.S. Senate election, raising $1.8 million in the first quarter of 2019, his first quarter in the race.

Johnston followed that with $1.6 million raised in the second quarter, the same period when former diplomat Dan Baer raised $1.1 million, for his initial quarter in the race. (Baer also transferred about $250,000 to his Senate campaign left over from a brief congressional run the previous cycle, bringing his total receipts for the quarter to $1.35 million.)

Also in the second quarter, former U.S. Attorney for Colorado John Walsh raised about $750,000, including about $15,000 he contributed.

Former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, raised about $500,000 in the first quarter and pulled in roughly the same total in the second quarter.

By the time 2019’s third quarter drew to a close, the race had already been upended by Hickenlooper’s entry into the primary — after dropping a brief presidential run — when the newcomer reported raising an eye-popping $2.1 million in the quarter, his first in the race.

Hickenlooper’s entry prompted Johnston, Baer and Walsh to withdraw, though not until after they’d raised an additional roughly $500,000 between them before rumors that the former governor might join the primary dried up their fundraising.

Romanoff brought in another $500,000 in the third quarter, leading the other candidates who remained in the primary. Those candidates, who raised another $230,000 total, included then-state Sen. Angela Williams, former congressional candidate Stephany Rose Spaulding, nonprofit executive Michelle Ferrigno Warren, climate activist Diana Bray, scientist Trish Zornio and community organizer Lorena Garcia.

In all, the five leading fundraisers among Gardner’s potential challengers at this point in the previous cycle — Johnston, Baer, Romanoff, Walsh and Hickenlooper — had raised about $9.6 million, more than 15 times the $543,000 reported so far by Bennet’s potential challengers.

In each of the first three off-year quarters of the 2019, the total raised by Gardner’s Democratic opponents surpassed the sums raised by the incumbent, though Gardner was no slouch, raising $2 million in the first quarter, another $2 million in the second quarter and $2.45 million in the third quarter.

Potentially strong fundraisers join field

The four other Republicans running in next year’s Senate primary made their candidacies official in October, after the end of the third quarter, so won’t have to file FEC reports until the end of January.

Among them are two wealthy business owners, a former talk radio host with ties to Hollywood’s conservative and faith-oriented communities, and a first-term legislator whose all-out support for former President Donald Trump could help tap a trove of online and small-dollar donors.

Lynch noted that the year’s fourth quarter is a notoriously difficult stretch for candidates trying to raise money. 

“Between Thanksgiving and Christmas is essentially a dead period, giving an advantage to self-funders,” he said.

“That said, a candidate’s initial quarter in the race demonstrates what low-hanging fruit is available to the candidate,” he said, noting that the roughly quarter-million dollars raised by Bremer could spell trouble.

“Being the first semi-legitimate candidate in race, he had the opportunity to really make a splash, and he didn’t do it,” Lynch said. “That leaves it open for more people to get in.”

Hanks, the controversial state lawmaker, is almost certainly attempting to leverage donations with his attention-getting antics — including blowing up a piece of office equipment in his Senate campaign’s launch video and making a pilgrimage to Arizona earlier this year to witness the election audit conducted by Trump supporters.

Flora is a former Miss Colorado and one-time actress who founded two entertainment production companies and whose husband is also in show business. She has a loyal following among right-leaning radio listeners and others familiar with her advocacy work, though it remains to be seen if that translates into big donations.

Campana, the Northern Colorado developer, and O’Dea, the Denver-area construction company owner, haven’t said whether they intend to self-fund their campaigns on a scale similar to recent Colorado Senate candidates with deep pockets, though both have the potential to pour millions into the race.

The two wealthy challengers should also be able to bring in substantial sums from their networks at the outset of their campaigns and call on regular Republican donors who have so far been sitting on the sidelines once they’ve established they’re formidable candidates.

O’Dea, for instance, told reporters he raised $250,000 from donors while testing the waters for his candidacy before formally announcing — and chipped in another $250,000 of his own cash on top of that.

In 2016, Republican Jack Graham put $1.9 million into his campaign to challenge Bennet’s previous re-election bid but lost in a five-way primary to grassroots favorite Darryl Glenn, an El Paso County commissioner, who only spent around $100,000 during nearly 18 months leading up to the primary.

Beer magnate Pete Coors put about $1.2 million into his 2004 run but lost to Democrat Ken Salazar.

In his initial run for a full, six-year term in 2010, Bennet loaned his campaign $800,000. FEC documents show Bennet’s campaign committee has only repaid the candidate a little over half the loan amount, which carries a zero-percent interest rate.

A spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party said the looming presence of former President Donald Trump, who lost Colorado twice by increasingly large margins, will do more than anything else to define the GOP primary.

“The crowded and messy Republican field shows there is an audience of one for this primary and it is former President Donald Trump,” said Nico Delgado in an email.

“Ron Hanks is an early frontrunner and his rhetoric about the 2020 election is only going to force other candidates in this race to embrace Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories and alienate Colorado voters. The primary will be a race to the bottom defined by who Donald Trump endorses.”

Dick Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado GOP and the strategist behind the only Republican governor and senator to win re-election in Colorado in the last 20 years — Bill Owens and Wayne Allard, respectively — said he believes Bennet can be defeated, but he cautioned Republicans against embracing Trump and his theories if they want a chance at attracting voters.

“We’ve already got big challenges with 43% of the electorate being unaffiliated, and the voters rejected Republicans in 2020 and 2018,” he said. “But one way we can ensure they will take that same attitude about Republicans in 2022 is if we have candidates who say it was a fraudulent election in 2020.

“Republicans should have to answer that question — both from a political standpoint, being viable in a general election, but more importantly, this is undermining our system of government. There is serious damage being done to our process right now.”

Wadhams said the candidates could win the primary and give Bennet a run for his money if they stick to what’s worked in the state.

“We’ve got to have candidates who will run for governor and senator who will conduct their campaigns in the way our winners have,” he said.

“There’s a reason why we’ve had some who have won and most who didn’t. Bill Owens and Wayne Allard ran aggressive campaigns, laid out clear reasons why they’re running. We’ve had candidates who, frankly, there was no discernible agenda whatsoever. The electorate has changed, but those fundamentals haven’t changed.”

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