"If we don't win [any key races] in 2014, we're going the way of California," Nicolais said. "We could well become a permanent minority."
By all accounts, this should be one of the best years for Republicans in Colorado in a decade. President Obama's approval rating in the state has struggled to reach 40 percent, a dangerous level for his party. Last Tuesday, the GOP nominated its strongest statewide candidates across the ballot, including former Rep. Bob Beauprez for governor and Rep. Cory Gardner for the Senate race. Republicans view the Senate race between incumbent Mark Udall and Gardner as a toss-up and think if they catch a few breaks, Gov. John Hickenlooper could struggle to win a second term. Last year, taking advantage of Democratic overreach on gun regulations and energy policy, Republicans recalled two state senators, pressured another to resign, and persuaded voters to overwhelmingly reject a measure that would have raised taxes to fund public schools.
Yet below the surface is a nagging pessimism that underscores the stakes for Colorado Republicans in 2014. If the GOP's past problems stem from party divisions, a few lousy candidates, and persistently bad luck, then it's easy to see how the party can turn things around with stronger nominees. But if the party is losing touch with the state's changing electorate, all bets are off. The fact that Republicans feared that Tom Tancredo, who came within 3 points of winning the nomination, could have ruined everything for the statewide ticket, is testament to just how tenuous an advantage Republicans hold.
"If you would have asked me a year ago, I would have been very concerned that the state had changed significantly. But the three recall elections and the blowback to the governor's agenda convinced me we're still a center-right state. I won't pretend that it's easy, but I think it's still very doable," said Beauprez, the party's newly minted gubernatorial nominee.
Indeed, the political nightmares of the last decade still are a fresh memory for the party. Despite a Republican landslide in 2010 throughout the country, Colorado was immune from the wave. Sen. Michael Bennet, now tasked with maintaining the Democrats' Senate majority as DSCC chairman, narrowly defeated Republican Ken Buck, whose comparison of homosexuality to alcoholism on Meet the Press cost him his shot at the Senate. In that year's governor's race, the conservative grassroots helped nominate a scandal-plagued businessman who won just 11 percent of the vote in a three-way race that included Tancredo as a third-party candidate.
There are signs the party understands its challenges and is moving to alleviate them.
Colorado's Senate race is becoming something of a test case for whether a charismatic candidate offering a more moderate brand of Republicanism can prevail. Unlike most other Republican Senate candidates, Gardner is racing to the middle on a whole host of issues — abortion, immigration, even energy policy — where he believes Republicans need to be to win statewide. In one of the first decisions he made after announcing his campaign, he reversed his previous support for a "personhood" amendment that would effectively ban abortions in the state. This month, he wrote an op-ed in The Denver Post advocating easier access to birth control — in an attempt to neutralize Udall's advantage on the issue. He now favors citizenship for illegal immigrants who serve in the military, while sounding more open about other pathways. And unlike most of his GOP Senate counterparts, Gardner remained quiet about the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to raise renewable-energy standards, in part because he supported similar standards when he served in the state Senate.