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Candidates speak at Republican Patriot’s Day picnic

Several local, state and national candidates stopped in Pagosa Springs last Saturday in an attempt to convince voters that their platforms were the best options for Colorado voters.

Billed as a “Patriot’s Day” barbecue and sponsored by Archuleta County Republican Women and the Archuleta County Republican Central Committee, about 75 area residents gathered in Town Park for the event to hear Dan Maes (Republican candidate for Colorado governor), Ken Buck (Republican candidate for U.S. Senate) and Bob McConnell (Republican candidate for U.S. House) each speak for about 10 minutes.

Maes set the tone for the rest of the speakers, criticizing the political atmosphere in Washington — with Democratic control in the House, Senate and executive branches — claiming that environment is alive and well at the state level.

“What’s happening in Denver is exactly the same thing that’s happening in Washington, D.C.,” Maes said, repeating the common GOP trope that Democratic legislators and President Obama are “cramming legislation down our throats and the same thing is happening in Denver.”

Naming health care reform, financial reform and climate change legislation as examples, Maes apparently captured the mood, and approval, of the mostly Republican crowd in attendance.

Maes continued his speech with talking points that set him apart from his potential Democratic opponent, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (Maes faces fellow-Republican Scott McInnis in an Aug. 10 state primary). Maes said, “Number one, we downsize state government, it’s just that simple,” referring to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s success in slashing that state’s budget.

“Number two,” Maes said, “we beg forgiveness from the energy industry that Gov. Ritter almost single-handedly chased out of the state.”

Maes was apparently referring to regulations passed by the Colorado Legislature in 2008 and signed into law by Gov. Ritter. However, while Colorado has seen a slight downturn in oil and gas jobs and revenues, industry representatives said last week that those regulations were only a minor factor in that downturn, with the low price of gas and discoveries of oil and gas in other parts of the country playing a much more significant role in that downturn.

Speaking on immigration, Maes said, “Jan Brewer in Arizona set the bar where all governors should be,” pointing to Brewer’s aggressive pursuit of state’s rights.

Finally, regarding education, Maes said, “I want great public schools, but we need choice in schools. The unions should keep their noses out of how we run our charter schools.”

However, Maes rejected the notion that further funding was the answer to better public schools, saying, “For 12 years we’ve been throwing money at K-12 education and nothing has changed.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Ritter cut $75 million from state education programs and is expected to propose further cuts for the 2011-2012 school year. Locally, the Archuleta School District 50 Joint took $1.35 million in cuts and is expected to cut an additional $1 million for the following year.

Maes faces an uphill battle in his challenge against McInnis, with a Denver Post/9News poll from last week giving McInnis a commanding 23 percentage point advantage over Maes (among voters likely to vote in the August primary). However, the same poll shows both Maes and McInnis leading Hickenlooper, in a face-to-face showdown, with Maes showing a single percentage point advantage, while McInnis leads Hickenlooper in polling by four percentage points.

Up next at the microphone, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate and former Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck appears to have a better chance in August, with Buck leading former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton 53 percent to 37 percent among likely Republican primary voters in the same Denver Post/9News poll.

In the general election, that poll indicates that voters would favor Buck over likely opponent incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet, 46 percent to 43 percent (Bennet faces a primary challenge from former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff Aug. 10, but leads his opponent 53 percent to 36 percent in the Denver Post/9News poll).

Speaking briefly to the Pagosa Springs audience, Buck repeated the Tea Party mantra that has moved the GOP further to the right during the past year and a half, saying, “I have heard the same thing from people all over. They are sick and tired of the same thing coming out of Washington, D.C. — more government.”

Like Maes, speaking to the crowd on issues like fiscal conservatism and immigration, Buck differentiated himself from other candidates by declaring independence from his party, saying, “The Republicans are just as much to blame for the mess in Washington as the Democrats,” adding that, if elected, “I’m not going to swear to uphold the NRCC or even the Republican party, but to uphold the constitution.”

Finishing up Saturday’s roster of speakers, Republican candidate for U.S. House District 3 (currently held by Rep. John Salazar) Bob McConnell of Steamboat Springs spoke about the recent firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. A Vietnam War veteran, former Airborne Ranger and lawyer in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s office, McConnell said, “We owe the greatness of our country to the subordination of the military to civilian command,” adding, “but if we’re going to ask for resignations, how about Janet Napolitano, the biggest single threat to homeland security there is? How about Eric Holder who wants our soldiers out in the field to pull out a Miranda warning?”

McConnell faces an August primary against current District 58 Colorado State Rep. Scott Tipton. The winner of that primary will face Salazar in the general elections.

Currently, no polls exist for the Republican District 3 primary race nor for potential results of either candidate’s chances against Salazar.

One common thread tied the three candidates in Pagosa Springs was their Tea Party affiliations: While McInnis, Norton and Tipton have been selected from the rank-and-file Colorado Republican party, the Tea Party endorsements for Maes, Buck and McConnell have not provided certain results. Although Tea Party support pushed Maes, Buck and McConnell into the limelight during this spring’s Republican assemblies, only Buck appears to have carried that endorsement to an electoral advantage, with Maes at a decided disadvantage and McConnell an unknown quantity, as far as polling goes.

Finally, it remains to be seen how Tea Party candidates will fare in November. With some momentum indicated earlier in the spring, the Tea Party has taken a hit recently with a Washington Post/ABC News poll from three weeks ago showing respondents having a 50 percent unfavorability rating for the Tea Party — up from a 39 percent unfavorability rating in late March.

However, the Tea Party is not the Republican party and, with President Obama’s own favorability slipping to a career low of 45 percent (from last week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll) and a recent Gallup poll showing Republican voter enthusiasm for the November midterm election at 53 percent to Democrat’s 39 percent, the candidates in Town Park hope they can endure a political landscape that appears to shift with each passing day.

jim@pagosasun.com