McInnis exit would put Schaffer at fore

Reports of former Rep. Scott McInnis’s impending exit from the Senate primary in Colorado have focused state Republicans’ attention on former Rep. Bob Schaffer, who could fill a void in what could become one of the highest-profile Senate races in the country.

McInnis’s putative exit was not confirmed by press time, but state Republicans didn’t seem surprised that he would make such an announcement and seemed ready for Schaffer to carry the party banner.

Schaffer’s name has been bandied about since Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) announced in January that he would not run for a third term in 2008. McInnis was the first in, but that didn’t quell speculation that Schaffer and, more recently, state Attorney General John Suthers would join the race.

Recently, McInnis’s rhetoric about the race has shifted from inevitability to uncertainty. In January he said there was “no question” he would run. But after he formed an exploratory committee a month ago, a McInnis spokeswoman told the Denver Post this week that he’s “exploring whether to get in or out.”

The Post reported today that McInnis has declined all interviews for weeks. He could not be reached for this story.

Meanwhile, Colorado Republicans see Schaffer taking the steps necessary to make his candidacy a reality.

“Bob is going through the same process Scott did,” Allard Chief of Staff Sean Conway said. “He came to Washington recently. He met with the senatorial campaign committee. He met with Sen. Allard and other senators” and has spoken with Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

Schaffer would not confirm any meetings with the NRSC or say whether McInnis’s exit would make him more likely to enter the race.

“As to my involvement, it’s premature for me to suggest any direction at the moment,” Schaffer said. “I’m still interested, I’m still talking to lots of folks, still getting lots of encouragement. I’ll decide when it’s the right time to decide.”

Former Sen. Bill Armstrong, a Colorado GOP giant who signaled in recent days that he would support Schaffer, said McInnis’s exit would open the door to Schaffer’s best chance at the Senate.

Armstrong’s support is paramount in the state.

“My expectation is that Bob Schaffer will be the nominee and should be the nominee and would have the greatest chance as a Republican to win,” Armstrong said. “This is Bob’s turn; it’s his time.”

After honoring a term-limit pledge in 2002, Schaffer ran in the 2004 Senate primary, losing to beer baron Pete Coors. Coors went on to lose 51–47 to now-Sen. Ken Salazar (D).

McInnis’s broken term-limit pledge and job as a lobbyist have raised questions about his candidacy in GOP circles. Armstrong, for one, is a stickler for term-limit pledges.

Newly instated Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams, whose wife was Schaffer’s chief of staff in the House, echoed Armstrong’s sentiments to a lesser extent.

“Bob Schaffer’s kept his options open; I think he would take a careful look at it,” Wadhams said. “I don’t know how soon we would hear from Bob. … He would certainly be the next person that a lot of people would look to.”

Wadhams has indicated he would stay neutral in his new role despite his personal connections to Schaffer. Schaffer early this month declined to say whether Wadhams’s new role in the state party increased his likelihood of joining the Senate race.

Democrats appear set in the race with Rep. Mark Udall, who said in 2005 that he would run for the seat regardless of Allard’s plans.

Other Republicans mentioned include Secretary of State Mike Coffman, talk show host Dan Caplis, Air Force Maj. Gen. Bentley Rayburn and Suthers.

Suthers said this week that he has been wooed by state and national Republicans. Wadhams said he thinks “John is just keeping his options open at this point.” Conway said Suthers hasn’t been making the rounds on the Lincoln Day Dinner circuit.

A McInnis exit would not change things for former Gov. Bill Owens, who is seen by many as the strongest candidate Republicans could field. Spokeswoman Shelley Schafer said Owens, who is overseas, “will not be a candidate in 2008.”
Said Conway: “We’re going to be looking at candidates popping up through this fall.”