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Who Will Challenge Bennet For His Senate Seat In 2016?

Who will face Sen. Michael Bennet? Mike Coffman and George Brauchler (lower middle) have said no. U.S. Rep Scott Tipton (top right) and state Senator Mark Sheffel are rumored picks, Tim Neville (bottom right) is running in 2016.
courtesy of the elected officials
photo illustration: Jim Hill, KUNC
Who will face Sen. Michael Bennet? Mike Coffman and George Brauchler (lower middle) have said no. U.S. Rep Scott Tipton (top right) and state Senator Mark Sheffel are rumored picks, Tim Neville (bottom right) is running in 2016.

The Republican field to challenge Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet is still very much up in the air, but some possible contenders have not ruled out entering the race.

Bennet's seat is one of 10 Democratic seats across the nation the party must defend in 2016. So far Republicans do not have a clear front-runner. Bright prospects including Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler have both decided not to run.

Bente Birkeland reports from the state capitol

"Republican strategists around the country look at Colorado, perhaps only in addition to Nevada, as their pick up opportunities next year with respect to the U.S. Senate," said non-partisan independent political analyst Eric Sondermann. "But that's all theoretical and elections are not conducted in theory."

The reality on the ground may be different.

While Senator Bennet is vulnerable, Sondermann said he is in better shape than Democratic Senator Mark Udall was two years ago. Udall ultimately lost to Republican Cory Gardner in 2014. Sondermann said that's not the only reason top-tiered Republicans may be taking a pass on the race.

"It is a presidential year, as opposed to that off-year," said Sondermann. "Democrats in Colorado and most other states tend to fare better in those presidential years with big turnout."

Rick Palacio, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, and other Dems feel like the lack of a big name entrant is an early boost.

"The fact that they are lacking really a credible or viable candidate on the Republican side for the U.S. Senate says a lot about the Republican Party in Colorado," Palacio said. "They have been in disarray for some time, they lucked out in 2014 by finding a candidate that they could rally around, and ran a good campaign and that took advantage of really a low tide for Democrats."

Palacio noted that Colorado will still be a battleground state with its divided electorate. For Republican state Chairman Steve House, it's much too early to make any predictions on how tight the race will be. So far there are a handful of candidates but he expects more to enter.

"Our job is to make sure that each and every candidate who enters the race, knows that we're here to support them, we support them all equally. It's going to be an exciting race either way; because I think 2016 is going to be a good Republican year. I'm very, very optimistic about our chance of defeating Michael Bennet," said House.

Former GOP state chairman and political consultant Dick Wadhams said he thinks a robust Republican primary for the Senate nomination is a positive.

"I think a wide-open primary with a lot of different voices and candidates will be good for the party. It will generate interest and from that a good nominee will emerge."

The most high profile candidate in the race right now is Republican state Senator Tim Neville from Littleton. He's known as a strong gun rights advocate, supports fewer tests in public schools, and introduced a contentious bill in 2014's session called the Parent'sBill Of Rights [.pdf]. It would have helped parents obtain additional information from schools on curriculum, medical decisions and school performance records. Democrats defeated it, worried that it would mandate parents authorize all medical decisions including counseling, mental health care, contraception and abuse reporting.

"We're not going to shy away from issues, whether it be issues that we brought up – Parent's Bill Of Rights – or issue that are important to life," said Neville. "We need to actually have the honest debates there. And we feel the American people are ready to have those debates too."

While those on the left have said Neville is too far to the right to win the moderates necessary for a victory, GOP Chairman Steve House believes it's too early to tell.

"Tim's going to have to make his case just like any other candidate would make it," House said. "But I'm not going to pre-label him as too far to the right because I don't know his specific stance on issues in detail yet today."

Some political operatives, like Dick Wadams, believe the eventual Republican nominee must have a broad message.

"It's how you campaign and the priorities you convey to voters," said Wadams.

"I think Cory Gardner, and before him Owens and Allard, prove that you can win in Colorado if you're pro-life and you have to have a strong econ and foreign policy agenda. You have to be able to talk about your social positions in a way that doesn't repel those who disagree with you."

Wadhams also said successful GOP candidates have embraced topics not typically associated with the right, for instance during his campaign Gardner highlighted his support for renewable energy. Political analyst Eric Sondermann concurs with that tracking to the middle.

"The only statewide Republican candidate to win a high profile race in the last decade or more was Cory Gardner, and he spent most of his election year running away from the fringe and trying to become as centrist as possible," said Sondermann.

Candidates would have to jump into the race quickly to build the necessary infrastructure and raise enough money.

The state Senate's second in line, Mark Scheffel, is rumored to be considering a bid but did not want comment for this story. Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton has also been mentioned. His office said Tipton is very happy serving Colorado's 3rd Congressional District, which spans the western slope to Pueblo, but he is not closing the door on any potential opportunity.

Copyright 2015 KUNC

Bente Birkeland
Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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