COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — In today’s unforgiving politics, both parties often think: “If at first you don’t succeed, don’t darken our door again.” Ken Buck, however, had another idea.
In 2010, he peeved national Republican leaders by seeking the Colorado party’s Senate nomination against a candidate preferred by those leaders. He won the primary but maladroit campaigning erased his mid-October lead against Democrat Michael Bennet, who won the election — and now is chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Last Wednesday, Buck complicated Bennet’s task of helping Democrats retain control of the Senate.
Until then, Buck had been seeking the Republican nomination to run against incumbent Sen. Mark Udall. Buck’s motto might have been, “If at first you don’t succeed, so what? Neither did Mickey Mantle.” (In 1951, the Yankees sent Mantle back to the minors.) Buck is a sizable fellow whose bulk and demeanor say “football,” but his persistence is not testimony to an inordinate love of, or skill at, the blocking and tackling of politics.
“Your parents,” he says, “warn you not to brag about yourself or beg, and what you do in politics is brag and beg.” You seek contributions to finance advertisements proclaiming your excellence. It speaks well of him that this does not come naturally. But speaking well, as that is understood in politics — circumlocutions serving tactical reticence — is not his forte.
Winston Churchill said Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was a bull who carried his own china shop around with him. Buck, a former Princeton football player, brings to politics an NFL linebacker’s negligible interest in subtlety, and a prosecutor’s — he is one — tenacity and pugnacity.
Before a 2010 campaign event, when questioned about Barack Obama’s citizenship, Buck, speaking near a tape recorder, laughingly said to someone, “Will you tell those dumbasses at the tea party to stop asking questions about birth certificates while I’m on the camera?” When he was asked at a campaign stop last week about impeaching Obama, he explained earnestly that senators are the jurors in an impeachment trial and Democrats are a Senate majority. It was an answer technically correct but politically inept because it could elicit from hostile media a headline such as “Buck ponders Obama impeachment.” In 2010, Buck’s inability to deflect baiting questions with dusty answers led him, on national television, to discuss homosexuality, comparing it to alcoholism.
On Wednesday, the hidden — but inferable — hand of the national GOP shuffled Colorado’s political deck. Second-term Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, 39, who represents the sprawling district that includes the eastern half of the state and where Mitt Romney won 59 percent of the vote, will seek and probably win the Republican Senate nomination. Buck, who lives in the district, will seek and probably win the nomination for Gardner’s House seat.
This minuet demonstrates that the national GOP is becoming more energetic about influencing state parties’ candidate selections. In 2010 and 2012, weak candidates here and in Delaware, Missouri, Indiana and Nevada helped prevent Republicans from winning Senate control.
A recent Quinnipiac poll, which showed Udall only narrowly leading Buck (45-42), recorded Obama’s approval in Colorado at 37 percent. Sixty percent of Coloradans oppose Obamacare. Gardner, who has a solid conservative voting record but does not have a serrated edge, is suited to purple Colorado.
In a forthcoming issue of The National Interest, Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington explains why Republicans rarely nominate the most conservative presidential candidate. Olsen says there are four kinds of Republican voters: moderates, somewhat conservatives, evangelicals and very conservative, secular voters. The somewhat conservatives are the largest cohort, about 35 percent to 40 percent of the national GOP. And, Olsen says, “they always back the winner”: Exit polls “from virtually any state caucus or primary since 1996” show “the winner received a plurality of or ran roughly even among the somewhat conservative voters.” They “are found in similar proportions in every state,” unlike evangelicals who are found disproportionately in Southern and border states. In presidential years, moderates are the second-largest group, approximately 25 percent to 30 percent of all GOP voters — even including 31 percent to 39 percent in South Carolina since 1996.
More than 80 percent of Colorado voters, many of them independents, live on the Front Range, from Fort Collins to Denver to Pueblo. Last week, the national GOP may have found a template for making 2014 more rewarding and 2016, when its presidential nominee must win some blue and purple states, less daunting.
George Will’s syndicated column appears Thursdays and Sundays in the Tribune-Herald. His email address is email@example.com.