The wide-open, four-way Republican primary in Colorado’s 6th district appears in its early stages to be a contest between an institutional figure and an institutional name — although two wild cards with equally strong résumés could upset the apple cart.
Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman is the institutional figure. He previously served as state treasurer and has strong name recognition in the solidly Republican, suburban Denver 6th district, now held by retiring Rep. Tom Tancredo (R).
Businessman Wil Armstrong, whose father is popular former Sen. Bill Armstrong (R-Colo.), is the institutional name. Armstrong has been endorsed by Sen. Wayne Allard (R), and he outraised Coffman in the fourth quarter of 2007 despite jumping into the race after his main rival did.
“It will be a decision between electing the older Coffman, who has a voting record, or electing the young change/fresh-face candidate in Armstrong,” predicted a Republican strategist based in Washington, D.C.
Coffman and Armstrong are considered the two frontrunners in the Aug. 12 primary. But with six months to go before Colorado’s Congressional nominating contests, don’t count out the two other candidates: state Sens. Ted Harvey and Steve Ward.
Harvey has a large following of committed, grass-roots Republicans. Ward is a Marine who recently returned from combat duty in Iraq and has represented 6th district voters for years as a county commissioner and state Senator.
“I think the 6th Congressional district is wide open, and if anybody is handicapping candidates right now, they know a lot more about the ground than I do,” Ward said during a telephone interview Tuesday.
Both Harvey and Ward view Armstrong and Coffman as their main competition. Not surprisingly, the two frontrunners view each other similarly. The two were relatively even in fundraising as of Dec. 31, with Armstrong banking $180,000 and Coffman reporting $194,000 in cash on hand.
The primary winner will be heavily favored to hold the seat in a district that gave President Bush 60 percent of the vote in the 2004 White House election.
Coffman’s campaign accepts its frontrunner status enthusiastically, noting that its candidate has won statewide three times — twice as treasurer, once as secretary of state. According to a poll conducted by The Tarrance Group for the Coffman campaign on Jan. 22 and 23, the secretary of state had a wide advantage over his Republican opponents, garnering 44 percent, compared with 10 percent for Armstrong, 8 percent for Harvey and 1 percent for Ward.
The poll of 300 likely GOP primary voters had an error margin of 5.8 points.
“There’s no question he’s the frontrunner,” Coffman campaign manager Dustin Zvonek said.
But Coffman’s opponents contend that his candidacy is in trouble. Because Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) almost certainly would appoint a Democrat to replace Coffman as secretary of state should he advance to Congress, some Republicans speculate that GOP primary voters might reject him.
Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams has gone on record opposing Coffman’s Congressional bid for this very reason. Said Wadhams in a letter he circulated to state GOP leaders late last year: “I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to publicly state that I oppose Secretary of State Mike Coffman running for Congress and possibly handing the office over to the Democrats.”
Armstrong, a businessman, is running as the Washington outsider, even as he embraces the benefits of being connected to the establishment via his father’s status as a former Congressman and Senator.
The elder Armstrong’s popularity among conservative grass-roots Republicans and relationships with the GOP establishment are helping the younger Armstrong raise money and compensate for the fact that he is a political unknown, having never run for or served in elective office.
Zvonek questioned Armstrong’s ability to run as the “change” candidate while benefiting from the help of Republican insiders. But the Armstrong campaign said doing so is central to its strategy for victory in August.
“If you want to send the same types of people back to Washington, then you’ll get the same types of results,” Armstrong deputy campaign manager Debbie Brown said. “Wil is focusing on his résumé as a businessman and entrepreneur.”
None of the candidates is likely to get Tancredo’s blessing, at least not publicly.
Two of the Congressman’s former House aides now work for Coffman, including one on his staff in the secretary of state’s office and one on his 6th district campaign. But Republicans say the outgoing Congressman has pledged to sit on the sidelines throughout the primary, unless one of the candidates pushes a position on illegal immigration that he finds untenable.
Tancredo remains well-liked in his district, despite being seen as a firebrand nationally because of his long-standing, outspoken opposition to illegal immigration.
Colorado’s quirky nominating process could ultimately benefit Harvey, who could muster the kind of grass-roots support from Republicans who tend to vote in primary elections.
On Tuesday, the state GOP held caucuses to determine delegate selection for the late-May nominating conventions. Harvey is the only candidate thus far to commit to the convention process. Candidates preferring to bypass the convention can get on the primary ballot by petitioning with 1,000 valid voter signatures.
Armstrong has announced he’ll petition onto the ballot, as many winning Colorado Congressional candidates have done in the past — Coffman has yet to commit to the convention or petitions — but Harvey could benefit in the primary if he ends up as one of the few candidates to court conservative activists through the convention process.
To earn a spot on the ballot via the convention, a candidate must be supported by 30 percent of convention delegates. Candidates who bypass the convention are sometimes shunned by grass-roots activists on primary day.
“Armstrong, with his ties to the business community, will be able to raise money,” said one Republican strategist based in Colorado. “But Harvey will have the conservative activists on his side.”
Harvey closed the fourth quarter of 2007 with just $31,000 on hand, but he vowed in a telephone interview that he would have enough money to compete in August.
Ward, with an extensive military background, could be primed to compete with Coffman, who has also served in Iraq and is a Gulf War veteran.
He has represented a significant portion of the 6th district both at the county level and in the state Senate, and believes the bad publicity Coffman has received in the secretary of state’s office in recent months over voting issues could be fatal. Ward sees Coffman as his main competition in securing the nomination.
But the GOP strategist based in Colorado questioned Ward’s ability to compete in a Republican primary.
This strategist said Ward has been a maverick in the state Legislature and does not have a natural constituency among the kind of committed Republican activists that tend to vote in primary contests. If the winner of the primary is not Armstrong or Coffman, it’s likely to be Harvey, this individual said.
“Those three candidates all have strengths and weaknesses,” this strategist said, pointedly excluding Ward from the field of potential winners.