How Abortion Could Take Center Stage Again in Colorado

Colorado state Sen. Tim Neville has gained a reputation in the state legislature for championing far-right causes on social issues (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Colorado Republicans say a national-security-focused election offers the GOP a prime opportunity to build on the success of 2014 and unseat Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. But so far, the loudest voice in the primary is instead trumpeting an issue that party insiders consider a poison pill for any attempt to score an upset victory this year: abortion.

At a Tuesday night campaign launch event, state Sen. Tim Neville listed the issue first among the problems he sees in Washington. He said Planned Parenthood “ignores the law, kills the unborn,” and “sells their body parts for profit,” according to The Denver Post.

This isn't unusual for Neville, who’s gained a reputation in the state legislature for championing far-right causes on social issues. And in an interview Wednesday with National Journal, Neville made it clear he will be running the race his way—not focused on what party leaders want.

“My focus is on the people of Colorado, and the people of Colorado have made it very clear that they feel what’s being focused on in Washington is not always the correct agenda,” he said.

He proudly touts his sponsorship of the so-called “personhood” bill that dogged now-Sen. Cory Gardner in his successful challenge to Democrat Mark Udall last cycle. And in one instance, Neville united Republicans and Democrats against him on a bill forcing medically unnecessary ultrasounds.

Neville is just one of more than a half-dozen Republicans to at least express interest in challenging Bennet. It’s a far different dynamic than in 2014, when Gardner—the party's preferred candidate—sailed into the general election after swapping races with now-Rep. Ken Buck.

“No one is going to clear the field like Cory did. There is going to be a primary, and Neville could conceivably be the nominee,” former state party Chairman Dick Wadhams said. “A pro-life candidate can win in Colorado, but you have to run your campaign based on other issues; you cannot be defined by the abortion issue, and you can’t come across as an extremist on abortion.”

Wadhams’s sentiment was echoed by other candidates in the race. Colorado Springs businessman Robert Blaha and former Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier said in interviews with National Journal that they are personally antiabortion but would not focus on the issue.

On a debate stage with Neville, who has campaigned on becoming “the abortion lobby’s No. 1 enemy” in the Senate, other candidates could be drawn away from the fiscal and national security issues that party leaders believe the general election will hinge on.

“If the Republican primary is about national security, debt, federal spending, and all of the other issues that go along with it, the Republican nominee will have a very good chance of winning in November,” Republican former state Rep. Rob Witwer said. “If [it’s] about two or three social issues, it’s hard to see how the nominee is going to competitive in the general election.”

He added, “The question is, are these other candidates going to have to talk about the issues Neville wants to talk about?”

Despite a handful of high-profile recruitment failures, national Republicans say they’re still talking to prospective candidates who they believe could be successful. One is veteran Jon Keyser, whose profile could offer the party a strong messenger on national security issues in a race against Bennet. (Keyser, currently a state lawmaker, has said he is considering the race, and will make a decision soon.)

Republicans say Neville has the best shot to qualify for the primary ballot through the state’s caucus system, which is likely to feature a concentration of conservative activist delegates. That means other candidates will likely have to go through the more costly process of collecting petition signatures, particularly if they want to avoid a battle with Neville over conservative bona fides at the state party's convention.

While Udall’s incessant focus on women’s health may have contributed to his downfall, Democratic party strategists maintain it was their most salient attack against Gardner. In its initial response to Neville, the Colorado Democratic Party left no question about its willingness to go that route again, labeling him a "far-right anti-choice warrior."