When beer magnate Pete Coors (R) made his first trip to Washington as an announced candidate for the open Colorado Senate seat on Tuesday, seven Senators — including National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.), Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) and Budget Chairman Don Nickles (Okla.) — showed up.
Not to be outdone, Coors’ GOP primary opponent, former Rep. Bob Schaffer, has been feted at fundraisers hosted by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), and 11 of his old House colleagues since entering the race in March. Schaffer also carries the backing of Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard (R).
Most politicians are loath to wade into contested primaries. They’re wary of offending their colleagues and unwilling to do anything that could damage their future ambitions. And when sitting Members do back a candidate in their own party’s primary, they almost always unite behind a single candidate.
But Colorado this year is different. Retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R), Gov. Bill Owens and GOP Rep. Scott McInnis are backing Coors, while Allard and Reps. Marilyn Musgrave and Tom Tancredo are supporting Schaffer.
In no race in recent memory have a state’s two sitting Senators endorsed different candidates in a contested primary.
“It’s a peculiar situation,” admitted Rep. Bob Beauprez, one of only two Republican House Members from Colorado who have stayed neutral in the race. (Rep. Joel Hefley is the other.)
An examination of endorsements in the race reveals two likely causes for Colorado’s break with tradition.
The first is that a number of public officials endorsed Schaffer right after Campbell’s March retirement — long before Coors entered the race on April 13. That may have put some early endorsers of Schaffer in a tight spot.
The other factor is a split between so-called movement conservatives and establishment conservatives. It also highlights the contrasting approaches that guide the two sides’ endorsement strategies.
“Despite the efforts of some to portray Pete Coors as the presumptive nominee, there are clear divisions within Colorado’s elected officials and leaders about who is the best candidate and who would be the best Senator,” said Schaffer campaign manager Pat Fiske.
The divergent philosophies on making endorsements is manifest in the choices made by Tancredo and McInnis.
“When Members look at this [race], they make a decision based on different criteria,” said Tancredo. “I make it based on who would be the best person for the job. Others make it on who they think would be the most likely winner.”
McInnis, by contrast, said he is backing Coors based on “electability and capability.”
The winner of the Aug. 10 primary is expected to face state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) in November. Salazar faces a nuisance primary from educator Mike Miles.
For now, though, the action is almost entirely on the GOP side.
Schaffer, a former three-term Congressman from the eastern third of the state, is a favorite among the party’s most conservative voters. He touts the backing of former Sen. Bill Armstrong (R), the godfather of the ideological right in the state.
“It is very evident who the party activists are supporting,” Fiske said. “When Bob goes to county assemblies, he is like a rock star.”
Coors has said repeatedly that he and Schaffer are twins on the key issues of the day. But Tancredo expressed skepticism, noting that Schaffer has a record burnished during his 10 years in the state Senate and six years in Congress, while Coors has never cast a single vote.
“I know how Bob would vote on nearly every piece of legislation,” the 6th district Congressman said. “Other than on a social basis, I don’t know Mr. Coors at all.”
Both Coors and Schaffer will attend the June 5 state assembly in hopes of getting their names on the Aug. 10 primary ballot. Both men must receive a minimum of 30 percent of the delegate votes cast to qualify for the primary.
“Going into the state convention it is good to have the leader of the state party, Gov. Bill Owens, and Senator Campbell’s support,” said Coors spokeswoman Cinamon Watson, who added that Owens is one of the most prominent conservatives in the state.
It remains uncertain whether Schaffer can turn his grassroots appeal into enough campaign dollars to compete with business mogul Coors, who has already raised more than $750,000 since entering the race last month.
At the end of March, Schaffer had raised $187,000.
Schaffer’s fundraising challenge is complicated by the fact that Coors is clearly the implicit favorite of national Republicans, a fact evidenced by the strong turnout at his fundraising event on Tuesday.
Campbell and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) co-sponsored the event, and Allen spoke at the luncheon, though aides said he did not donate to Coors. Contribution or no, Allen has met face-to-face with Coors, something he has not yet done with Schaffer, sources said.
Coors backers argue that the divided endorsements speak more to the timing of their candidate’s announcement than to any particular affection for Schaffer in the state.
Schaffer decided to run just days after Campbell announced his retirement in early March, whereas Coors didn’t officially enter the race until after Owens and his top aides had conducted a public — but unsuccessful — search for an alternative to Schaffer.
Beauprez, who was the establishment’s second choice after Owens decided not to run for Senate, called the period following Campbell’s announcement “absolute pandemonium.”
“Some probably endorsed out of a sense that I can help my guy along,” said Beauprez. “Some endorsed because they thought the gates had shut.”
McInnis, who turned down a Senate bid himself, offered a more aggressive assessment.
“Some out there think Schaffer should be anointed simply because he was the first one in the race,” McInnis said. “That does not give you an automatic pass.”
McInnis added that Schaffer focused heavily on securing endorsements in the early days of his campaign, and many of his colleagues pledged support without thinking that other candidates would run.
“Schaffer’s endorsements have a lot more to do with the timing of the announcement than conviction,” McInnis added.
Fiske rejected the notion that any of Schaffer’s supporters are tepid on their decision to back him, dismissing it as “Coors campaign spin.” He noted that Tancredo emceed a house party for Schaffer last Saturday and said that Allard has been “very supportive” thus far.