For Colorado GOP, nominee for Senate may be a fresh face

Either the fresh face of the national Republican Party is making its first major appearance in Colorado’s Senate race, or the GOP is stuck with second-tier candidates in a top-tier race.

Only time will tell.

Two little-known GOPers have entered the primary against appointed Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch The Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes The Hill's Morning Report - Trump searches for backstops amid recession worries MORE (D-Colo.) in what is looking like the most unpredictable Senate race of the election cycle.

There is a good bit of early buzz about Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier and, to a lesser extent, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck. But even supporters say it remains to be seen how formidable either will be — particularly on the fundraising front.

Republicans lately have been talking a lot about fresh faces, with mixed success in actually obtaining them. While the GOP has lined up current and former House members in most other open primaries, Colorado stands out as the one where they may be content to go with a wholly new brand.

That change would be particularly stark with Frazier, a 31-year-old African-American city councilman who has opened an exploratory committee for the race and appears set to run.

But it’s also apparent with Buck, a conservative district attorney who switched his focus to the Senate race when Attorney General John Suthers surprised many by opting not to run. Buck had been preparing to run for Suthers’s current post.

 Colorado GOP consultant Katy Atkinson said the rank and file who are responsible for endorsing a candidate are keeping their powder dry.

“The [Democratic] tsunami has taken out a good many of the people who made up the Republican bench,” Atkinson said. “People are really kind of intrigued by Frazier, but they’re not willing to commit. And they may very well be intrigued by Buck, but he doesn’t have quite as much exposure with the rank-and-file Republicans.”

If neither Buck nor Frazier asserts himself in the next few months, a much more — or maybe all-too- — familiar face looms as an alternative, as 2006 gubernatorial nominee and former Rep. Bob Beauprez is also weighing the race.

Beauprez was labeled the future of the state GOP when he ran in the open governor’s race three years ago, but he wound up getting thumped by Democrat Bill Ritter by 17 points. State Republicans have therefore been hesitant to go down the statewide path with Beauprez again.

“He immediately would be the Republican favorite from the standpoint of his name ID advantage,” said a well-placed Colorado GOP source. “But maybe more than any other time, people are looking for new leadership and new faces who can win.”

For his part, Beauprez isn’t in any hurry, telling The Hill last week that he is “certainly interested” but is being “very deliberative.”

“I still think it’s very early in the process,” Beauprez said. “We’re talking to people, reading the political winds as they blow, and we’ll make a decision sometime later on. I’m not completely certain when later on is.”

A source close to Beauprez said the former congressman, who is also a former state party chairman, is unlikely to mess with the primary if Republicans already have a good thing going.

“He’s a party guy, so if it was a circumstance where one of them all of a sudden really clicked and was getting some real traction and raising money, I don’t think he’d feel a real urgency to go take him on,” the source said.

Both Buck and Frazier will have the better part of a full quarter to raise funds, and top Republicans are hoping to see them raise at least a few hundred thousand dollars in their second-quarter report — especially after Bennet pulled in a strong $1.4 million in the first quarter.

It remains to be seen whether either Buck, Frazier or some other candidate gains that kind of momentum, but the early edge goes to Frazier, who has been earning rave reviews as he makes the rounds with conservative groups.

The state has also shown a proclivity for putting black Republicans in statewide office, having elected Secretary of State Vikki Buckley and Lt. Gov. Joe Rogers in the 1990s.

Buck, meanwhile, has stumbled out of the gate with an awkward launch. Even after his campaign website went live, Buck denied he was a candidate. Finally, just a day after making that denial, Buck officially entered the race.

But the state also has a history of electing law enforcement officers — the most notable being former Denver district attorney Ritter. Buck comes from a much smaller population base, though, and he’ll have to put in plenty of work to become known.

For now, it seems that whoever Republicans put up might have a shot. A survey from late April by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) showed more Coloradoans disapprove of Bennet’s job performance (41 percent) than approve of it (34), and he led Frazier by just four points and Buck by just six.

Beauprez, with much higher name recognition than any of the other three, led Bennet 43-42. But his favorability was worse than Bennet’s job approval, at 33 percent favorable and 43 percent unfavorable.

Bennet’s camp has cast doubt on the robo-dial poll, noting that every candidate tested had negative favorability.

Nonetheless, independent pollster Floyd Ciruli said the poll bodes badly for Bennet.

“I’d give him five points, and he’s still in a bad position,” Ciruli said. “There is absolutely no doubt that no one knows who Bennet is.”

The PPP polls did not test former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D), who has left open the possibility of challenging Bennet in a primary and would pose a formidable threat.