Campbell drops bid for third term this fall |

Campbell drops bid for third term this fall

DENVER ” Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Harley-riding Republican who has been beset by health problems and an office scandal involving a former aide, abruptly announced Wednesday he will not seek a third term this fall.

The decision gave Democrats another open seat to target in November and threw the Colorado Senate race wide open.

Pollsters suggested heavyweights like GOP Gov. Bill Owens and former Democratic Sen. Gary Hart might get into the race, but there was no immediate word from either. Hart earlier declined to seek the seat.

Third District Congressman Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, did not immediately rule out a run for Senate.

“His announcement is like a political earthquake in Colorado, and the congressman wants to see how things play out,” McInnis spokesman Blair Jones said of Campbell’s surprise announcement.

“There is no doubt that Sen. Campbell’s announcement represents a significant setback for the state of Colorado,” McInnis said. “It’s equivalent to John Elway breaking his arm on the day of the Superbowl.

“But the story today isn’t just about his decision not to run; it’s about what he has done for our state in the U.S. Congress,” McInnis said.

“After a great deal of soul searching and reflection, I have decided not to seek re-election,” said Campbell, the only American Indian in the Senate. “I feel the time has come to pass that duty on to another and return to my ranch with my family that I love.”

Campbell, 70, has faced questions about his health since last year, when he acknowledged undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. Last week, he was examined in a Washington hospital after experiencing mild chest pains that turned out to be heartburn. He returned to the hospital Tuesday.

“After spending another night in the hospital, I realize the deteriorating health may hamper my ability to serve,” Campbell said. “Doctors have assured me that after treatment for prostate cancer, the recovery rate is 98 percent. But I believe Coloradans deserve a 100 percent guarantee of service.”

Campbell’s office was rocked last month when it was alleged that a longtime aide, Ginnie Kontnik, had been taking kickbacks. The senator said he knew nothing about any wrongdoing and reported the matter to the Senate ethics committee.

Republicans hold a Senate majority of 51-48 with one Democrat-leaning independent. The GOP hopes to pad its majority by winning some or all of a string of Southern seats where Democrats are retiring.

Campbell is the third Republican senator to announce retirement plans this year, along with five Democrats.

“It’s now an open seat and probably competitive,” said Floyd Ciruli, an independent political consultant and Denver pollster. “You’ll see very rapidly the national party getting involved in looking over the field.”

Campbell was first elected to the Senate in 1992 as a Democrat, then switched parties three years later. A Northern Cheyenne tribal chief, he cuts a distinctive figure in the Capitol, sporting a ponytail and ornate jewelry and riding a Harley-Davidson to work.

He has been an advocate for a number of Indian issues, including winning federal recognition of the Sand Creek Indian massacre site in southeastern Colorado. He has been a champion for reviving the long-stalled Animas-La Plata water project in southwestern Colorado.

Campbell, a former Olympian in judo, also led the charge for reform of the U.S. Olympic Committee after allegations of financial mismanagement and infighting.

Although speculation swirled that Campbell might not seek a third term, he spent weeks promising to mount a vigorous campaign and was considered a difficult incumbent to oust.

Hart and 2nd District Congressman Mark Udall both declined to run, leaving the party with wealthy think-tank founder Rutt Bridges, educator Mike Miles and little-known attorneys Brad Freedberg and Larry Johnson as its candidates.

Ciruli said he expected people who have been considered potential gubernatorial candidates ” including state Treasurer Mike Coffman and McInnis ” to consider running.

McInnis staffer Jones gave no timeline on when McInnis, who announced last fall he would not seek re-election for his seat, might make a decision on whether to vie for the Senate seat.

Chris Gates, the state Democratic Party chairman, called it a “beautiful day,” but had no immediate comment on whether the party planned to again try to lure a high-profile candidate like Udall or Hart. An official at Hart’s law office in Denver said he had no comment.

Owens, considered a rising star in the Republican Party, simply issued a statement thanking Campbell for his years of service.

State GOP chairman Ted Halaby declined to speculate about a Republican candidate.

“I’m sure it will take a few days for things to filter out,” he said. “But we expect to field a very strong and credible candidate and it certainly will be our purpose to keep that seat in the Republican column.”

” Post Independent Staff Writer Greg Masse contributed to this story.

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