Seeking the next Gardner in Colorado
© Greg Nash

Republicans in Colorado caught lightning in a bottle in 2014 with Rep. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDems look to use Moore against GOP McConnell: 'No change of heart' on Roy Moore US trade deficit rises on record imports from China MORE’s (R-Colo.) impressive victory over Sen. Mark UdallMark UdallDemocratic primary could upend bid for Colorado seat Picking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups Gorsuch's critics, running out of arguments, falsely scream 'sexist' MORE (D). 

But the GOP might have trouble replicating that success in two years as the party tries to knock off Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetAvalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign GOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Schumer downplays shutdown chances over DACA fight MORE (D-Colo.) in the perpetual swing state. 

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“Gardner was the potential Republican rock star who turned into the actual rock star,” said Colorado political analyst Eric Sondermann. “If he couldn’t win [in 2014], then the Republican Party in Colorado would have been dead for a generation. They ran their best possible guy in the best possible year.”

Republicans might be newly optimistic about their success, but the brutal reality is their bench beyond Gardner wasn’t deep.  

For 2016, political operatives in the state mention two names as leading the pack of potential GOP candidates with a chance to unseat Bennet: Rep. Mike Coffman and Walker Stapleton, the 40-year-old state treasurer who cruised to reelection this year. 

“After that, there aren’t any names that are immediately apparent right now,” said Floyd Ciruli, a Colorado pollster and political analyst. 

Former Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams acknowledged that neither Coffman nor Stapleton has the “presence” of Gardner, but he said they shouldn’t be so easily dismissed in the search for the next great GOP hope in the state.

Coffman has impressed by winning several competitive House races, and his current district takes in the southern portion of liberal Denver and the nearby suburbs. In 2014, he defeated former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, a top Democratic recruit, by 9 percentage points. Coffman has also won statewide elections for secretary of State and Treasurer, and his time in Washington has connected him to the national Republican donor base.

“You can’t argue against his political abilities,” Wadhams said.

Coffman also has a secret weapon — his wife, Cynthia Coffman, won the election to become Colorado’s attorney general in 2014. The Republican was the second highest vote-getter in the state this year, with only Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) turning out more supporters in the midterm elections.

As for Stapleton, his run for state treasurer proved he already has the ability to leverage the substantial political ties in his family.

Stapleton’s mother is the cousin of former President George H.W. Bush, and his father has been a business partner of former President George W. Bush’s. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), a potential 2016 presidential candidate, fundraised with Stapleton in Colorado earlier this year.

However, political analysts in Colorado say Stapleton might decide to keep his political career in-state and instead run for the open governor’s seat in four years.

But regardless of who emerges from the GOP pack, experts say Bennet, the outgoing chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, will be far more difficult to dispose of than Udall was this year.

“Bennet is a realist and sober-minded politician,” Sondermann. “He’ll take this very seriously and give it his all, and I think he starts this race in much stronger shape than Udall.”

In addition to running a lackluster campaign, Udall might have run into a perfect storm of Election Day headwinds. With President Obama’s approval rating near historic lows and a predictably whiter and older midterm electorate that turned out, the GOP racked up victories in statehouses, governor’s mansions, and in the U.S. Congress in red and blue states across the nation.

Udall also had to contend with Gardner, who was among the best candidates in the 2014 cycle. Republicans pushed Gardner to run for months, before he entered the Senate race. When he finally jumped in, the two-term congressman was ready to marshal the full support of the GOP establishment and their strong ties to national donors from a very early point in a race. 

The stars likely won’t align so neatly for the GOP candidate that emerges to take on Bennet, which is why it will be crucial for Republicans to land another high-caliber candidate.

That might not be as simple as Coffman or Stapleton merely declaring their candidacies. There continue to be fissures between centrists and conservatives in the state, and Republicans in Colorado have a history of nominating weak candidates, like newly elected Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), whose Tea Party campaign against Bennet in 2010 fizzled in a year when the GOP otherwise swept into office.

“What Republicans often do here is, they choose the candidate who makes arch conservatives’ hearts go pitter-patter in primaries and then watch them turn into ducks in the general election,” Sondermann said.

Still, Gardner’s win shows Republicans can compete in Colorado, which just two years ago looked to be part of a rising Democratic coalition in the Mountain West, thanks to demographic changes and the party’s superior campaign field operations. 

While demographics might be a long-term issue for Republicans in the state, analysts say the GOP has closed the gap with Democrats in Colorado, when it comes to the ground game.

“That’s no longer a competitive advantage for Democrats,” said Allen Fuller, the campaign manager for Republican Bob Beauprez, who lost a close race to Hickenlooper for governor earlier this month.

In addition to defeating Udall, Republicans in Colorado reclaimed the state Senate, breaking the stranglehold of power Democrats have enjoyed in the legislature. They also nearly took out Hickenlooper, who had been a supremely popular political figure and long considered a rising star in the Democratic Party.

If Republicans can find the right candidate, they’ll bank on carrying that momentum into 2016 as they eye Bennet’s seat.

“His Senate seat will be competitive,” Ciruli said. “Nobody is saying he’s unbeatable.”