There’s a reason underfunded candidates are fond of Colorado’s oft-criticized caucus-convention system: If they can stir the crowd, they can make a name for themselves against better known incumbents and rivals.
That’s exactly what Darryl Glenn and Calandra Vargas did during the GOP district and state assemblies over the weekend.
Who? Unless you live in Colorado Springs, you probably haven’t heard of either of them.
Vargas, 32, was an intern for U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn five years ago. On Friday, she almost kicked him off the primary ballot after giving a passionate speech at the 5th District GOP assembly in a Colorado Springs hotel.
She captured 58 percent of the delegate vote to Lamborn’s 35 percent in a three-way contest. If the five-term incumbent had received 18 fewer votes, he wouldn’t have even made the 30 percent minimum.
The colorless but well-funded Lamborn has had primary challenges before, so it will still be difficult for Vargas, now an aide to state Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, to win. But she’s off to a strong start thanks to the caucus system.
Glenn brought the 6,000 delegates at the state convention Saturday roaring to their feet with a rousing speech that pre-echoed themes stressed by presidential candidate Ted Cruz later in the day.
He then went on to capture an astounding 70 percent of the delegate vote, keeping six rivals off the ballot altogether. The pre-convention favorite, state Sen. Tim Neville, captured only 18 percent. That wouldn’t have even put him on the ballot 30 years ago when the minimum was 20 percent.
Glenn will still have to face up to four other Senate candidates who are trying to petition their way onto the June 28 ballot: Colorado Springs businessman Robert Blaha, former CSU athletic director Jack Graham, former state Rep. Jon Keyser and former Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier.
The secretary of state’s office is now checking to make sure each has submitted more than 10,500 signatures, with at least 1,500 from each congressional district.
Neville, with the financial and organizational backing of Dudley Brown’s Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, was expected to win at the convention. He made the news recently when he shot holes — literally, with a rifle — in a Colorado Springs Gazette editorial critical of him.
While the ballots were being still being counted, I asked Glenn why he didn’t go the petition route since it’s so hard for an underdog with six rivals to get 30 percent at a convention.
“I never thought about petitioning,” he said. “If you can’t get 30 percent you shouldn’t be running. If you can’t make it at the convention, you can’t make it through the grassroots.”
Glenn has a strong resume: A graduate of the Air Force Academy, retiring as a lieutenant colonel after 21 years in the service; a 13-year Colorado Springs city councilman and two-term El Paso County commissioner. A powerlifter in college, he also has an MBA and a law degree from small New England colleges.
He will be an underdog again in the June 28 primary. Keyser must be the front-runner since he was the main target of the other candidates during a Channel 9 debate last Friday. Already he has the endorsement of former Gov. Bill Owens and former Sen. Hank Brown — the ultimate Establishment Republicans in a year when Establishment endorsements can do a candidate more harm than good. Perhaps to cover his bases, he has also been endorsed by former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, the ultimate non-Establishment — and sometimes non-Republican — Colorado politico.
That presumably means Keyser stands strongly against illegal immigration, the main issue Tancredo cares about.
But so does Glenn, who attacked the idea of Syrian refugees coming here.
Glenn said everything his audience wanted to hear, promising to de-fund Planned Parenthood, de-fund “sanctuary cities,” repeal the Iran-nuclear deal, balance the budget and get government’s “foot off the back of the American worker.”
But throwing red meat to an audience of Republicans in Colorado Springs is not the same thing as defeating incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet — or even winning the GOP primary.
Glenn not only has to fend off a fellow AFA graduate like Keyser, he will have to defeat Frazier, another black candidate.
Frazier is trying for office again, having gotten into, then abandoned, the race against Bennet back in 2010. He shifted quickly to run against 7th District Congressman Ed Perlmutter that year, but lost. In 2011 he lost a race for mayor Aurora. Politics isn’t kind to candidates who keep losing.
Frazier set up a table in the concourse outside the Broadmoor World Arena, but neither he nor the other candidates who are petitioning onto the ballot were allowed to address the delegates.
Party regulars who subject themselves to the often tedious activities of a caucus night and an assembly day do not indulge those who bypass the process by collecting signatures.
“We didn’t fight it,” Frazier said. “We’re just here to meet folks.”
The convention ran long, until about 7 p.m., and required patience through many long breaks where nothing seemed to be happening. But the system does give candidates like Glenn who don’t have the money to buy pre-primary advertising a good shot at winning free media and building momentum.
Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes once a week for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at email@example.com You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.