In Tuesday’s Republican primary, Montezuma County voters delivered some surprises.
Conventional wisdom says an incumbent is very difficult to defeat, but Sheriff Dennis Spruell came up 700 votes and almost 18 percentage points short, suggesting that he’d been focusing a base that was narrower than he had thought.
Successful challenger Steve Nowlin faces only a write-in opponent in the general election, while Spruell now will spend an awkward six months as a lame-duck sheriff. It’s never a good idea to assume a primary win has sealed the deal, but in this case, we hope Nowlin and Spruell can begin working together to smooth the transition and build on Spruell’s positive accomplishments while allaying the concerns that led the Republican electorate to choose Nowlin.
After picking a mainline Republican in the sheriff’s race, local voters did the opposite in the gubernatorial contest. Bob Beauprez, generally judged as the candidate most able to beat current Gov. John Hickenlooper, triumphed statewide but came in dead last here with only 19.4 percent of Montezuma County’s votes. Locals instead opted for Mike Kopp, who was the least favored by the state’s voters overall, at just 19.8 percent.
County residents did agree with their counterparts across the state on their second choice, Tom Tancredo, who was unlikely to pull in many Democratic votes. In neither arena did he come within reach of a win, although the results might have changed without Kopp and Scott Gessler in the picture.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Montezuma County resident, won easily but fared slightly worse here than in the district as a whole, a sign that Republican voters would like Tipton to move even further to the right. The difference was too small to be significant, but it may hint that Tipton should spend more time at home. He’ll have no trouble in November, but like many congressional Republicans, he’ll be watching other primary results closely to puzzle out what voters really want this year.
On the rest of the ballot, the results were as expected. James Lambert topped Jim Candelaria by slightly fewer than 300 votes, perhaps because he does lean farther right than his opponent. Substantial differences between those two candidates were hard to find. Lambert will have an opponent, Bill Utrup, in November, but expect this result to hold.
Nominal incumbents did win in the assessor’s race, where acting assessor Scott Davis won over Cynthia Claytor, also an employee of the assessor’s office, and in the contest for coroner, where chief deputy coroner George Deavers came out on top.
Overall, voters have moved in from the fringes and chosen qualified, calm candidates who – if they can get past the general election – will serve them well. That’s a positive result, but it’s never a given, especially in Montezuma County, where the broad ability to lead and govern can be overshadowed by a stance on individual highly charged issues – sometimes ones over which the eventual winner will have little influence.
While local politics could look different in November – for example, Larry Don Suckla ran as an unaffiliated candidate in 2012 and won a seat on the county commission – in Montezuma County, it’s difficult to overstate the weight of a Republican primary win. The primary election is the time when the majority of the county’s voters express the finer nuances of their politics. Most of the year, the GOP looks pretty monolithic; in June, it’s possible to analyze what some of these numbers mean.
The lesson this year may be that incumbents really can lose. As painful a lesson as that is for the incumbent in question, it’s a powerful statement by the county’s voters, who this week stated their standards a little more clearly.