Repub rift deepens

 

Back when he was a Colorado congressman, we thought Republican Scott McInnis was pretty darned conservative. And he was. But it turns out he's still more moderate than the folks that are taking over his party. He recently said that, had he stayed in the race for Colorado's open U.S. Senate seat, he could have beat front-runner and Democrat Mark Udall. Despite his popularity on the state's Western Slope, however, he may not have been able to win the primary. He told the Colorado Independent:

 

"I would have beat Udall, that wasn’t the issue,” McInnis said. “Frankly I have more difficulties with the right wing of my party then I do with taking on a Democrat. Udall was not the biggest threat I faced in the election. My biggest threat was getting through the primary. Both parties have a pretty radical element to them.”

 

Whether he really could have beat Udall, who now has a double digit lead over his opponent Republican Bob Schaffer, is questionable. But McInnis's feelings about his party being invaded by right wing hardliners is widely shared; and its detrimental effects on the party are being felt most strongly in the West.

The question now: Will the disenfranchised moderate Republicans pull their party back to the center? Or will they start their own party?

Colorado's warring elephants
Ed Quillen
Ed Quillen
Oct 31, 2008 11:42 AM
The recent "Republican rift" in Colorado is quite a show. But it's been developing for quite a while. Go back to 2003, when Republican Gov. Bill Owens, along with most of the state's GOP establishment, supported Referendum A, a proposal to issue up to $2 billion in bonds to fund unspecified water projects.

It turned out to be unpopular all over the state, but it was especially unpopular on the Western Slope, the biggest part of the Third Congressional District that Scott McInnis represented in Congress. McInnis was the first prominent Republican to come out against it that fall. Not only was this a big break from the party line, it provided political cover for other Republicans -- county commissioners, state legislators, etc. -- to oppose it.

Referendum A went down by a 2-1 statewide vote, and did not get a majority in a single one of Colorado's 64 counties.

Now look at 2004. U.S. Sen. Ben Campbell of Colorado announces he will not seek re-election. Campbell had represented the Third Congressional District as a Democrat. He was elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1992, changed parties in 1995. and re-elected as a Republican in 1998. McInnis seemed like the logical Republican candidate in 2004, especially since he had decided not to run for the House again in 2004.

But Colorado's GOP establishment, led by Gov. Owens, initially rallied around Bob Schaffer, who had served three terms in Congress. Then they recruited beer baron Pete Coors and switched their support to him. The speculation at the time was they thought Shaffer was too right-wing to win a statewide race, and Coors had a more moderate image.

Coors won the primary, but lost the general election to Democrat Ken Salazar, who had been Colorado's attorney general. His brother John, another Democrat, replaced McInnis in Congress -- in part by tying his Republican opponent, Greg Walcher, to the unpopular Referendum A.

Now, if Schaffer was deemed too right-wing to win statewide office in 2004 -- a decent Republican year in Colorado with George Bush carrying the state easily -- then why did the Colorado GOP see him as a viable candidate in 2008, a hard year for Republicans?

According to McInnis in his recent statements, it's because the national GOP wanted Schaffer, and so McInnis declined to run for U.S. Senate. He'd have had to fight a nasty primary against Schaffer (a Referendum A supporter). But if he'd won that, he says he could have beaten Democrat Mark Udall (opposed Referendum A).

Could McInnis have beaten Udall in the general election? Udall has run a rather lackluster campaign, perhaps because he remembers an adage attributed to Napoleon: Don't interfere when your enemy is in the process of destroying himself.

I used to live in McInnis's congressional district (I haven't moved, but the boundaries have), and I voted for him a time or two. He's conservative, to be sure, but he tends to his constituents -- and he bucked his party's establishment to stand up for rural Colorado on Referendum A.

McInnis generally struck me as a pragmatist in action, no matter how hard-core his rhetoric at times, and he had a fine sense of humor. Once I wrote in a Denver Post column that in the Third District, you were more likely to see a UFO than your Congressman, and a couple of days later, he was on my doorstep announcing "Guess who just came all the way from Mars to see you."

So I'm pretty sure that McInnis would have done better than Schaffer running against Udall, maybe even enough better to win.

As to whether the pragmatic Republicans will regain some influence in a party now run by zealot Republicans, or find themselves so unwelcome that they'll start a new party -- well, I used to be a Republican, and even though I support things like gun rights and school vouchers, I've always felt welcome at Democratic gatherings. I think they will, too.