DENVER (AP) — Not so long ago, Colorado's Republican Party relished the chance to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in this presidential swing state. Now it's presiding over a primary featuring five second-tier candidates who are fighting just to make themselves known to deliver Bennet an opponent.
In a year in which the Senate map favors Democrats and the GOP is defending Senate seats in Democratic states such as Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the West seemed to offer Republicans a lifeline. Nevada Democrat Harry Reid decided not to seek re-election, and Colorado in 2014 ousted Democratic Sen. Mark Udall after then-Rep. Cory Gardner abandoned strongly conservative views on abortion.
In Colorado, the GOP holds a 4-3 edge in congressional seats and unaffiliated voters are the largest voting bloc. Many voters are upset about Bennet's endorsements of President Barack Obama's Iran nuclear deal and plans to close Guantanamo Bay. Colorado has been mentioned as a possible destination for the American detention center's terrorists.
But top GOP prospects like Reps. Mike Coffman and Scott Tipton declined to enter the Senate race, and a field of 13 whittled down to five, most of whom adopted sharply conservative stands in a state that rewards moderates.
Bennet, unopposed, raised more than $11 million, had $5.7 million cash on hand earlier this month, and already is airing ads featuring his work for Coloradans.
"It seems our party doesn't want to learn the lessons after repeatedly being shown that this is not the path that leads to victory," said Ryan Call, a former state GOP chairman.
None of the candidates has held statewide office. They include:
— Darryl Glenn, a commissioner from deeply conservative El Paso County who was the only candidate voted to the primary at the state GOP assembly. Glenn, a self-described "Christian constitutionalist conservative," picked up late endorsements from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin and the tea party-aligned Senate Conservatives Fund.
— Former state Rep. Jon Keyser, an early national GOP favorite who stumbled by refusing to answer questions about forged voter signatures his campaign submitted to qualify for the primary. Keyser pinned his campaign on his combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.
— Robert Blaha, a blunt-spoken Colorado Springs businessman whose ventures include streamlining major company cultures, corporate leadership and banking and investment firms. He vows to do the same in Washington with a "Blaha Product Guarantee": He'll return home after one term if he doesn't cut illegal immigration and the federal deficit in half and simplify the tax code.
— Jack Graham, a Democrat until 2014 and a former insurance executive and Colorado State University athletic director who supports gay marriage and abortion rights. Graham says he changed the sports culture at CSU to emphasize education, has adopted a work-across-the aisle stand, and, like Blaha, has invested heavily in campaign ads.
— Ryan Frazier, a business consultant and former Aurora city councilman who unsuccessfully challenged Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter in a suburban Denver swing district in 2010.
All agree the federal health care overhaul must be replaced; the Iran deal undone; the war on ISIS, especially after the Orlando shootings, be fought as such — a war; vetting of immigrants increased; corporate tax rates cut; and an end to Democrats' "war on coal."
In more than 20 forums and debates, they've been grilled on Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee. Frazier and Graham withdrew their support after Trump's remarks on Mexicans and Muslims. Glenn tells supporters Trump must win, if only for future Supreme Court nominations. Blaha and Keyser support Trump while disavowing his remarks, which all termed racist.
No matter their priorities, many voters cannot separate the primary from the presidential election — and gridlocked establishment politics in Washington.
Sue Kenfield, a suburban Denver behavioral management consultant, has yet to decide. She's troubled about the cost of health care, excessive business regulations, national security. She's also troubled by how the Senate race mirrors the presidential.
"As I look at the choices I have as an American voter — regardless of my gender or political ideology — I'm really concerned about how Congress and the executive branch don't seem to be looking out for us," Kenfield said.
Gridlock — and education — are top issues for Dagny Van Der Jagt, a Centennial family law attorney who voted for Glenn largely because he opposes Common Core education standards. Her four children attend a charter school.
"The other thing I don't like is career politicians. That's what happened to Bennet," Van Der Jagt said. "It's time to circle people out."
Call, the former state party chair, worries that while a tea party conservative like Glenn may win the primary, "it's a dead-end path to win the general election."
Nothing guarantees a Bennet blowout come November. The onetime Denver Public Schools superintendent was appointed to the Senate in 2009 to finish the term of Ken Salazar, who was appointed interior secretary. He only narrowly defeated tea party candidate Ken Buck in 2010.
"I get the David and Goliath aspect of this campaign against Michael Bennet," said Frazier. "Michael Bennet is an entrenched incumbent with a war chest the size of Fort Knox. But I believe there's something money can't buy, and that's the confidence of the people."
James Anderson can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jandersonap