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In Colorado, Dearth of Challengers to Face Udall

Republicans insist Sen. Mark Udall is beatable in 2014. Colorado, after all, increasingly has been at the center of national politics for more than a decade. But the party has one big problem: It has no candidate.

Republicans on the ground insist that if they can find someone talented, they have the organizational and fundraising apparatus to support that person’s campaign. But when asked for names, they struggle.

For some observers it’s baffling that local GOP operatives are on an all-out talent search in such a top battleground state. And while tea party versus establishment skirmishes already are shaping up elsewhere on the Senate landscape, neither side has an obvious candidate in Colorado.

The candidate most hoped for by Republicans — and feared by Democrats — is sophomore Rep. Cory Gardner. He wins begrudging praise from Democrats for his political instincts, and many GOP operatives in Colorado hope he makes a Senate run. But at this stage, he doesn’t sound like a candidate.

“I am in no hurry to make a decision,” Gardner said when asked if he planned to run for Senate. “I have no timetable, I’m not in a hurry to decide.”

The sense of political operatives on the ground is that he will not run, especially given he is on the fast track to move into House leadership and has much to lose if he leaves his seat.

Months ago, Democrats were fairly open about their fear of Gardner. But as the conventional wisdom has evolved that he will not run, there is a marked swagger in their attitude about Udall’s re-election.

“It’s frustrating as hell,” a state GOP strategist said about the entire recruitment situation.

The other names on the Senate radar include: former Rep. Bob Beauprez, state Attorney General John Suthers and state Treasurer Walker Stapleton.

Some, but not all Democratic operatives, say they see the state trending into the safe column. President Barack Obama won the state in 2012 by a 5-point spread. And part of the bench problem for Republicans has been that the party has struggled to win major statewide offices over the past decade.

Amid the recruitment frustration in Colorado, there is GOP optimism about the Senate playing field as a whole. Democrats are defending 21 of the 35 seats that are on the ballot next year, several of which are in very conservative territory such as Louisiana and Arkansas.

“I think that 2014 will be a good year,” Gardner said. “Regardless of what happens, it will be a chance for us to take that seat, but possibly take control of the U.S. Senate.”

Other Republicans find confidence in history. One national GOP strategist pointed to the environment in early 2009, long before the Republican wave of 2010 was apparent.

The GOP was struggling from the aftermath of the 2008 Democratic sweep in states such as New Hampshire and in that environment, they found and recruited now-Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who went on to win her general-election campaign by 23 points.

The difference, though, is that Ayotte was running for an open seat and Udall has the benefits of incumbency, which include name identification and fundraising.

Udall has about $1.1 million in the bank — a respectable sum going into a re-election cycle. Fundraising will not be a problem for him, especially with his party still in control of the White House and his home-state colleague Sen. Michael Bennet chairing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Also, DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil has statewide campaign experience in Colorado.

What may be most effective for Udall — and no doubt a factor contributing to Republican candidates’ reluctance to take him on — is the brand he has built over the past five years.

“He feels like the Colorado guy,” one Democrat said. The sentiment about Udall’s authenticity was echoed among a number of party operatives. They add that the brand is not tied to his being a member of the storied Udall family of Arizona.

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