DENVER – Jack Graham is the quieter, more centered candidate in a noisy right-leaning Republican U.S. Senate race.
Of his four opponents, he was the last to enter the race.
The former Colorado State University athletic director’s Jan. 30 announcement generated media attention, but by that time, there was a bit of fatigue.
Some candidates – such as Colorado Springs businessman Robert Blaha – entered the race with a splash. Blaha sent bobbleheads of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to newsrooms across the state.
Bennet is the incumbent Democrat that the five GOP candidates want to unseat.
But Graham largely avoided the flash.
He believes in abortion rights, supports gay marriage, he’s unsure of Donald Trump, he’s concerned with connecting “Muslims” to recent terror attacks and he thinks there is “value” in holding hearings to confirm Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
In fact, Graham was a Democrat until a year-and-a-half ago.
“All of a sudden it became relevant. ... I started to pay attention to what was going on in the world, so it was obvious to me that I needed to make a change,” Graham said of his affiliation switch.
“I can have a real impact on what’s going on in Washington, D.C., both from a leadership perspective, as well as from influencing some of the critical public policy issues that are shaping us.”
His more moderate stance has won him the support of Durango state Sen. Ellen Roberts, a Republican, who believes Graham is the best candidate to take on Bennet.
“He is thoughtful. His business experience will be very helpful. He’s also dealt with bureaucratic messes, ... and most important, I think he can win the race,” Roberts said.
Behind the scenes, Democratic leaders and Bennet’s campaign have been worried about a Graham victory, though he would need to survive a difficult primary that has pandered to voters who lean more to the right.
While the run represents Graham’s first foray into politics, it’s not his first brush with bureaucracy. As the CSU athletic director, Graham was charged with turning around programs that had been plagued by student behavioral issues.
Under Graham’s leadership, every student athlete became academically eligible, for what is believed to be the first time in NCAA history.
But he held the job for less than three years before being let go by the university after concerns were raised over his handling of a then-proposed on-campus football stadium.
Regardless, Graham believes his background is appropriate for Congress. He knows what it takes to train and face opponents, as he was drafted in 1975 by the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, though he never made the roster and bounced around the league.
From there, Graham started his lucrative business career in the re-insurance industry.
After injecting his campaign with $1 million of his own money – which has been supplemented recently with another $500,000 self-investment and at least $335,235 in contributions – Graham hired Dick Wadhams to manage his campaign.
Wadhams is the former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, with deep roots and lots of respect. He helped guide U.S. Sen. John Thune to an upset victory over then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota in 2004. Wadhams also helped Wayne Allard from Colorado into the U.S. Senate in 1996.
Wadhams was instrumental in Graham being the first to petition onto the June 28 ballot, despite his late arrival into the race. Candidates petitioning onto the ballot must collect valid signatures from each of the state’s seven congressional districts.
By being first, Graham gave himself a significant advantage. A voter can offer a signature for only one candidate, which means that signatures used by Graham couldn’t be used by three other candidates petitioning onto the ballot.
Those three candidates faced major hurdles when the secretary of state’s office deemed their signatures insufficient. All three candidates had to take their cases to court. They prevailed, but not before spending valuable resources.
Wadhams said the petition process is emblematic of why Graham is the right fit, stating, “It’s an indicator of why Jack would be the strongest candidate in the general election.”