Establishment-Backed GOP Senate Candidate Under Pressure on Guns, Immigration

Bennet's challenger will be decided tonight. (Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

Jon Keyser, the top choice of National Republicans to take on Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) in November, may have a scant legislative record, but his rivals are dinging him for votes on two issues dear to the hearts of conservative primary voters: immigration and gun control.

During a debate last week ahead of the June 28 primary, Keyser said he would support efforts to cut off federal funds to cities that harbor immigrants who are in the country unlawfully.

But in Keyser’s only year as a state representative, he was one of a handful of Republicans to vote for a measure in the state legislature – supported by the American Civil Liberties Union – that would have directed local sheriffs not to comply with federal immigration officials on their requests to detain illegal immigrants. One group that opposed the measure said at the time the vote was tantamount to making Colorado “into a de facto sanctuary state.”

Matt Connelly, a spokesman for Keyser’s campaign, said, “like most people, Jon believes our immigration system in this country is broken,” noting his belief that America “must secure our borders, modernize our legal entry and exit system, and ensure employers are not employing illegal labor.”

Connelly defended Keyser’s vote as protecting small businesses from liability.

“Jon also believes legislators must read the entire bill they are voting on, and ensure fair treatment for small businesses,” he said, when asked about the bill. “A small business, like a bail bond company, shouldn’t be strictly liable if a person misrepresents themselves as a legal citizen and then breaks the terms of their bail agreement by not appearing in court because they have been detained by authorities.”

The issue of illegal immigration is one that riles Republicans: 58 percent of them told Morning Consult in January that the issue is a “critical threat” to the vital interests of the United States, compared with 33 percent of Democrats.

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Even more than illegal immigration, the issue of gun rights is one that Republicans view as superior to efforts to control ownership. According to a Survey USA poll from December, 69 percent of Republicans believe the right to own a gun is more important than efforts to limit sales.

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On the issue of guns, Keyser only cast one vote even tangentially related during his brief tenure in the legislature. Nonetheless, he has been hit by his rivals over the issue.

Along with four other Colorado House Republicans, Keyser voted against a procedural motion that would have circumvented a failed committee vote and allowed the chamber to take up a bill repealing a ban on the sale of certain ammunition magazines.

Keyser has shrugged off the criticism, saying he is the “strongest supporter of the Second Amendment” in the race.

And just as he has taken it, Keyser has dished the consistency charge in his own right.

Last week, he called out Darryl Glenn, the candidate endorsed by the Senate Conservatives Fund and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, on his tax record. Glenn’s support last year of a local tax hike, which was broadly supported by voters, was the subject of Keyser’s call for the conservative group to drop its endorsement.

Keyser has been the target of attacks from both Democrats and Republicans, some days on the same issue, and always with the goal of not giving him the chance to challenge Bennet in November. Democrats even backed an effort to boot him from the ballot, after it was alleged that some of the signatures on his candidacy petitions were fraudulent.

The primary has become such a focus because of the race that follows. Bennet is one of the only Democrats playing defense this cycle, as Republicans defend a number of other competitive seats following their wins in the 2010 election. On Thursday, Bennet’s campaign announced it had raised $1.65 million since April, ending the second quarter of the year with $5.7 million in the bank.

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