WASHINGTON — Declaring that Colorado's 2016 contest for U.S. Senate is a "national security race," Air Force veteran and state Rep. Jon Keyser on Monday said he is joining a
crowded Republican field that is competing for the chance to unseat Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet.
In a short phone interview, Keyser — a Bronze Star recipient and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan — said he was largely motivated to run because of Bennet's decision last year to support the administration's nuclear deal with Iran.
"I think 2016 will be an absolutely pivotal year for our nation and I'm running against Michael Bennet because I think he's dangerous," Keyser said. "He doesn't understand the enemies that we face."
As part of his announcement, Keyser said he planned to resign his job as a corporate lawyer for the firm Hogan Lovells, as well as his seat in the state legislature.
In doing so, Keyser took a veiled shot at one of his primary competitors — state Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton — who told The Denver Post last week that he would not step down during his U.S. Senate run.
"I don't think that anybody who is serious about beating Michael Bennet can do anything but dedicate 100 percent of their time" to that goal, said Keyser, adding that his statehouse resignation would be effective Jan. 25.
The entry of Keyser adds another twist to a GOP primary fight that already has seen its share of ups and downs.
Much of last year was consumed by speculation that the field might include boldfaced names such as U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora; U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez; state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman or noted prosecutor George Brauchler — all of whom have declined to run.
Into the vacuum have stepped at least a half-dozen alternatives, which range from Keyser and Neville to businessman Robert Blaha, a self-funded candidate who tried and failed to beat U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs.
What Keyser adds to the mix is a dash of youth — he's 34 — and resume that is strong on one issue, national security, but is less developed elsewhere.
A biography released by his campaign noted his graduation from the Air Force Academy, his work as an intelligence officer and his continued service with the Air Force Reserve.
"I've seen the enemy we face up close. Radical Islamist jihadists are a direct threat to our nation and to Colorado," the Morrison Republican said. "I know what it takes to defeat this enemy."
Specifically, he talked about rolling back the nuclear deal with Iran and taking the fight to ISIS and terrorist groups overseas.
"We also have to fight them there," he said. "We have a choice. They declared war on us. So either we get to fight them here or we get to fight them there."
Asked whether this meant Keyser supports a new deployment of U.S. ground troops, a campaign aide wrote in a follow-up e-mail that Keyser believed it could be done "without a massive deployment of conventional U.S. ground forces."
Prior to Monday's announcement, Keyser met with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and he could have a path forward as the establishment pick in the GOP primary.
Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado Republican chairman, said Keyser's was "tailor-made" for a political environment that he described as the most focused on national security since the election following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"His military background is going to be a huge asset for him. There is no doubt about that," Wadhams said.
But he added that Keyser — as well as other candidates — would be well served to guard against the perception that he is too closely tied to GOP insiders.
"There is a strong anti-establishment fervor running through this party right now," he said.
Whoever wins the Republican primary likely will have a tough fight in Bennet.
Not only does the Democratic incumbent benefit from running from re-election in a presidential year — which historically has been more favorable for Democrats — but Bennet is in a good place financially.
He ended his third-quarter fundraising with $5.4 million cash-on-hand and Bennet, who recently served as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has access to a national network of well-heeled donors.
Plus, he has spent the last year partnering with freshman U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., to bolster his bipartisan bonafides.
"No matter who emerges on their side, Michael Bennet will win in November because he's worked across party lines to get things done for Colorado," said Andrew Zucker, a Colorado Democratic Party spokesman, in a statement.