Watching from afar as Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) becomes increasingly vituperative in his battles with House GOP leaders, Colorado Republicans can’t help but wonder whether the nine-term Congressman is heading for retirement.
“Every year it seems more likely that he won’t run again,” said Jack Stansbery, executive director of the Colorado Republican Party. “It seems to be a legitimate rumor out there.”
It would certainly explain, some Republicans believe, Hefley’s apparent estrangement from House GOP leaders.
Despite serving as chairman of the ethics committee, Hefley has been increasingly critical of the House GOP since being denied the coveted chairmanship of the Resources Committee late last year. Hefley did not hide his disappointment with the snub or his disdain for the budget that passed in the House earlier this year, and he has angered some Republican colleagues by considering a Democratic staffer to run the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
Further fueling the speculation about Hefley, who turns 68 next week, is the fact that he has had some health problems, including shingles, in the recent past.
Hefley insists he will run for re-election next year, and several GOP strategists in Washington, D.C., and Colorado said they haven’t heard anything different.
“Mr. Hefley still enjoys his job and he’s still planning to run,” said Sarah Shelden, the Congressman’s press secretary.
Nevertheless, at least half a dozen Republicans from the Colorado Springs area are watching Hefley’s every move very closely, and all could wind up running in a GOP primary if he doesn’t.
The list of possible candidates, according to several Colorado political operatives, includes: Realtor and GOP activist Jack Gloriod; state House Majority Leader Keith King; state Sen. Doug Lamborn; U.S. Attorney John Suthers; former state Senate Majority Leader Jeff Wells, who is now executive director of the state Department of Labor and Employment; and El Paso County Commissioner Wayne Williams.
“All pretty heavy-duty names,” said Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster based in Denver.
In one of the most conservative House districts in the country, the Republican contest would also certainly determine who next serves Colorado Springs in Congress.
In a primary, “There might be some personality factors,” Ciruli said. “But the overall question is who’s the most conservative?”
The 5th district is home to stunning scenery, but also several national conservative organizations, such as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and military installations including the U.S. Air Force Academy. GOP voters are also likely to put a premium on experience, given Hefley’s 17 years in Congress and his prior service in the state Senate and House of Delegates.
Lee Gilbert, chairman of the El Paso County GOP, predicted that in an open-seat race, voters would probably look for a new Congressman very much like the old one.
“All you have to do is look at the things that Congressman Hefley has run on,” he said.
Everyone in the prospective field is conservative, but each has different strengths.
Through his eight years as El Paso County district attorney, his unsuccessful run for state attorney general in 1998 (losing to Democratic rising star Ken Salazar by a narrow margin) and his service as state corrections commissioner and as one of President Bush’s U.S. attorneys, Suthers is probably the best known. But while his law and order credentials are impeccable, he has fewer ties to social conservatives than some of the other potential candidates, and would be considered one of the moderates in the race.
Wells might be considered the other moderate by some observers, though he earned his partisan stripes as Senate Majority Leader and as the Colorado GOP’s point man on redistricting after the 2000 Census. He was forced out of his Senate seat by term limits and now serves in state government as an appointee of popular Gov. Bill Owens (R).
King and Lamborn have both compiled solid conservative records in the Legislature. King is also a teacher and part owner of the Waterbed Palace store in Colorado Springs.
Williams, who is serving his first term on the county commission, is the youngest of the group at age 39. He has an appealing aw-shucks demeanor, but is also close to social conservatives and is known as a fierce political brawler.
Gloriod is the biggest developer of luxury homes in the Colorado Springs area and would have his personal fortune to use on a Congressional race. But Gloriod is not just another rich guy: He has worked as a volunteer, donor and operative for the local GOP for years and has plenty of friends in politics and out.
So far, none of the potential candidates has been out front about the possibility of running, saying they will take a look at the race if and when Hefley decides to retire.
Lamborn said he hopes Hefley stays on, but expressed confidence that he could raise enough money to win a Republican primary if Hefley retires.
“The price of admission will be very high because it’s extremely expensive to run in a competitive primary,” he said.
The Colorado GOP has a multi-tiered nominating process. First, 5th district Republicans would hold a caucus. Any candidate who gets 30 percent or more of the caucus vote is automatically on the primary ballot. Any candidate who gets between 10 percent and 30 percent of the caucus vote must obtain petition signatures from registered Republicans to wind up on the primary ballot. Candidates who forgo the caucus process altogether can get on the primary ballot by obtaining a greater number of petition signatures.
Gilbert said the position on the primary ballot would be determined by the order of finish at the local convention.
In a district where the Republican primary is certain to be competitive — but not divisive enough to give Democrats any hope of winning — state and national party leaders are unlikely to anoint a favorite candidate.
“It’s a pretty safe Republican district, and we’d probably be happy with anyone that emerges,” said Carl Forti, a National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman.
But Wells, one of the potential contenders, cautions would-be Members of Congress and their supporters against getting too eager.
“Let’s wait and see what Joel decides,” he said. “We’ve heard similar rumors [about Hefley retiring] for the last two or three elections.”