Less than two weeks from now, it's possible the winner of the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate could make history by having a shot at a seat not held by a Colorado Springs resident in living memory.
Businessman Robert Blaha and El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn are elbowing for prominence in a field of five hopefuls in the June 28 primary election. The others are former Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, former Colorado State University athletic director Jack Graham and former state Rep. Jon Keyser.
So it's possible one of the two will go head-to-head against Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, seeking his second term in a politically schizophrenic state that has a Democratic-controlled governor's mansion and state House but a Republican-led state Senate and a GOP U.S. senator, Cory Gardner, elected in 2014.
Since El Paso County is considered a hotbed of Republicanism — GOP voters here outnumber Democrats two to one and represent 15 percent of the party's active voters statewide — will Glenn and Blaha essentially cancel each other out by splitting the local vote? How do they position themselves to sweep the county in their quest for victory?
Blaha and Glenn share views on some topics: Both are pro-life and pro-gun rights, want to overhaul the tax code, undo the Iran nuclear deal, give vets access to private health care providers, rely on the free market to control college costs and student debt, and they want the government to stay out of providing affordable housing.
But they have different styles.
Blaha approaches government from a businessman's point of view. "For 30 years I've been teaching leaders how to lead, how to dismantle large and ineffective bureaucracy," he says in an interview. "I'm an entrepreneur, which puts me in a unique position to understand what Everyday Joe is up against to deal with [government] intervention and interference we're seeing now."
Glenn, who wasn't available for an interview by the Indy's press deadline, also lashes out at the federal government and paints the nation as needing to be rescued. "This is your opportunity to take this country back," he said at a recent Senate debate.
Blaha, 61, who's never held elective office, is running as an outsider. A former University of Iowa football player and author who's lived here more than two decades, Blaha helped found the Monument Academy charter school. He's held top jobs in several corporations and co-founded Integrity Bank and Trust, where he remains vice chairman of the board. His personal fortune is such that he loaned his campaign $1 million.
Blaha, who ran against U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn in 2012, says he'll apply his "skill mix" in Congress to improve education so graduates can find better jobs. He wants to institute a flat tax rate to simplify paying taxes and "bring money back on shore."
He's not competing as the most conservative candidate, he says. "If you run just as the most conservative choice, you will be absolutely assured of losing in the general [election]. If you just stay on who's the most conservative, there's no way that is representative of everyone."
Blaha, who collected signatures and then went to court to secure a ballot position, notes his endorsements cover the spectrum. Among them are far-right-wingers Sen. Tim Neville and retired Army Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, who's also an ordained minister and runs the Family Research Council, a Christian nonprofit that opposes gay marriage, abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.
Also endorsing Blaha are retired Air Force Gen. Ron Fogleman, former Air Force chief of staff who lives on the Western Slope, entrepreneur Vance Brown and former Air Force Academy boxing coach Eddie Weichers.
On June 10, the Gazette endorsed Blaha. He's raised $1.1 million, including his loan, and had $670,831 cash on hand as of April.
"This just isn't about running as a conservative but as somebody who will represent the Republican party," he says. "The idea is to get all those camps to come together and focused on running and winning."
Judging by campaign stops across the state, Blaha says voters are looking for "a different cut."
"My translation of that is if you keep sending the same people trained in the same system to be part of the permanent political class to do the same thing as the people before them, what outcome are you going to get?" he says.
Blaha has differentiated himself by promising to leave office after two terms — sooner if he doesn't achieve at least some of his goals in his first six-year term. "I want to fix the broken tax system, secure the borders, attack the deficit and have significant measurable quantifiable results, or I won't run for a second term," he says. "I won't do more than two terms. People are tired of people being long-term politicians."
Glenn is one of those, Blaha says. "I don't know that he has distinguished himself in any way on Council and at the commission level that anyone could say he has done anything significant," Blaha says. "The only thing El Paso County is known for around the state is potholes. What is the distinguishing factor that would make me as a voter say this is something I want more of?"
It's true that Glenn has spent a good deal of his 50 years affiliated with government. He says on his website he's "earned his way into positions of elected leadership" and has "worked his way through the types of obstacles with which nearly all middle-class and lower-income people struggle." It's worth noting that taxpayers paid for his Air Force Academy bachelor's degree, as well as his law degree. He retired as a lieutenant colonel and has served both as a Springs City Council member and is in his second four-year term as an El Paso County commissioner.
Glenn, who divorced in March, has criss-crossed the state in his campaign, and makes early morning and evening appearances to allow time to fulfill his daytime commissioner duties.
Like Blaha, Glenn talks in generalities but passionately appeals to voters using emotional provocations. At the GOP's state assembly in April, where he swept 70 percent of the delegates after being nominated by his daughter, Ashley, Glenn opened his speech by thanking his mother for giving him life. "I will be a strong defender of the rights of the unborn," he said, vowing to withhold funding from Planned Parenthood.
His speeches have the cadence of an old-time revival. He makes a spirited statement, pauses for applause and then says, "But there's more."
"I am an unapologetic Christian constitutional conservative pro-life Second Amendment-loving American that will beat Michael Bennet," he said at the assembly.
Snippets from the speech:
National defense: "There is evil in the world, but if you believe like I believe, we can handle that... We're going to rebuild our military ... and allow them to win."
Immigration: "We need to make sure that we terminate those strings that encourage people to violate the rule of law."
Health care and regulation: "Whether it's Obamacare, you name it, every type of care we have. I think we have a care czar out there... We want to repeal it all. We need to clean house. We need to get the foot off the backs of the American worker right now."
Social Security and other entitlements: "We must deal with entitlement reform. There are slaves to that system, and I suppose you can guess, I'm not a fan of slavery, ladies and gentlemen."
Bipartisan cooperation: "We need to step up and lead, ladies and gentlemen. I'm tired of reaching across the aisle."
Glenn's endorsements include former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Senate Conservatives Fund, Sheriff Bill Elder and fellow Commissioner Amy Lathen, but not the other three commissioners — Dennis Hisey, Sallie Clark and Peggy Littleton, who herself sought a spot on the Senate primary ballot. Those three haven't endorsed anyone in the race. Glenn had raised only $45,462 as of the last finance report filed in April and had $11,313 cash on hand. But Senate Conservatives Action, which is flooding voters with direct mail promoting Glenn, had raised $1.5 million as of April 30.
If he wins, Glenn would have the added distinction of being the first black GOP Senate nominee from Colorado, though he's not emphasizing his race. He hasn't embraced the Black Lives Matter movement or affirmative action. "You can achieve the American dream just by working hard," he says in a video on his website.
And during his nomination speech in April, he said, "It is not about black Americans or brown Americans. It's about the United States of America. ... All lives matter."