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GOP Candidates Still Vying For Attention To Earn The Right To Run Against Sen. Bennet

Chris Hansen
The five GOP candidates on stage during 9News' primary candidate debate.

It's crunch time for the Republicans striving to be the nominee to campaign against Democrat Michael Bennet in Colorado's U.S. Senate race. The primary is still wide-open, and when the mail ballots are counted June 28, each candidate has a plausible shot of winning.

"I cannot pick a frontrunner. I couldn't even come close to picking a frontrunner," said political consultant Eric Sondermann.

"There's not a dominant figure in this race."

Republican voters have five candidates to choose from, and if that seems like a lot – it's worth noting that earlier in 2016 the race had roughly a dozen candidates.

Colorado Springs businessman Robert Blaha is trying to run a less disciplined Donald Trump style campaign. Former Aurora City councilman Ryan Frazier has relatively good name recognition in the Denver metro area, and has done well in debates. El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn bills himself as the true constitutional anti-abortion conservative. Fort Collins businessman Jack Graham is the most moderate. And the fifth candidate, former state lawmaker Jon Keyser, has a strong resume and is an establishment favorite.

"This is a pretty sleepy primary, as primaries go," said Sondermann. "All the Republican attention and all the oxygen has been taken by the presidential race and the weirdness of that."

"Here you have a presidential year, a more potent incumbent and no one of Cory Gardner's stature or skill set running on the Republican side. If you're in Vegas, you still have to like Bennet's odds."

That's why Sondermann thinks the ultimate winner may only need 30 percent of the vote. As for the keys to winning, he thinks the first key will be money and advertising.

"Secondly it will be who has a constituent base of support that they can mobilize," Sondermann said.

The candidates tried to work that base during a recent debate hosted by 9News. Presidential politics, mostly on the subject of Donald Trump, caused some lively exchanges. Jack Graham came out forcefully against Trump's statement that a federal judge was biased because of his Mexican heritage.

"Based upon what he has said he has lost my support," said Graham. "I've wanted different, I've wanted better. I was offended by what he said earlier about women, about Mexicans, about Muslims, how he handled the David Duke question."

Ryan Frazier was also not willing to back Trump until he received more information.

While the other candidates didn't go that far, they still condemned Trump's statement.

For Colorado State University political science professor Kyle Saunders, this race is especially hard to gauge because of the lack of recent campaign finance figures and polling. But he thinks the candidates will have to do something to stand out from each other.

"When political figures take extreme stands or criticize candidates it does get covered," Saunders said. "I would be surprised if it did not get more contentious."

That's already happening. Darryl Glenn recently questioned Jon Keyser's military record as an intelligence officer in the Air Force. The exchange between the two happened at a debate hosted by KKTV, the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, and the Colorado Springs Gazette.

"Mr. Keyser, you have repeatedly stated that you have won a Bronze Star," Glenn said. "You have repeatedly stated in each forum that you have personally kicked in doors to be able to do that. What is on your write up of the Bronze Star? Does it reference the fact that the Bronze Star was affiliated with a software program?"

Keyser was awarded the Bronze Star when he was an intelligence officer in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. During the final moments of the debate Keyser responded to Glenn's charge that he just sat behind a desk. Keyser said he was personally involved in combat missions.

"We would find the world's most dangerous terrorists, typically at night, using the tactical advantages we would have with things like night goggles, and we would apprehend the or kill them, it's pretty simple," Keyser said.

Another issue working against Keyser has been his signature petitions to get on the ballot. One of the people at the company he hired to collect names is now facing felony charges for allegedly forging signatures. Kyle Saunders said that could hurt Keyser even if he wasn't directly involved.

"How he handled that publically, didn't have good optics," Saunders said. "And I'm sure hasn't helped him with how the public perceives him, but we have no hard data."

Because the Colorado Republican Senate primary race has largely flown under the radar so far, any missteps may have a smaller impact. Despite all the unknowns, Eric Sondermann said one thing is certain; whoever wins will face a tough race against Democrat Michael Bennet.

"Here you have a presidential year, a more potent incumbent and no one of Cory Gardner's stature or skill set running on the Republican side. If you're in Vegas, you still have to like Bennet's odds," said Sondermann

There's also the issue of Donald Trump and how his name at the top of the Republican ticket will impact down ballots races such as this.

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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