Rep. Ken Buck said Wednesday that he wouldn't run for a sixth term, an unsurprising decision that followed Buck's surprising emergence as an outspoken critic of his own party.
The Colorado Republican told MSNBC that his decision stemmed from his disappointment "that the Republican Party continues to rely on this lie that the 2020 election was stolen and rely on the Jan. 6 narrative and political prisoners from Jan. 6 and other things." Buck nonetheless voted to make election denier Mike Johnson House speaker last week, explaining his choice by saying, "I think people make mistakes and still could be really good speakers."
Buck, who remains a member of the Freedom Caucus, was a hard-right ally during most of his time in national politics, and hardcore conservatives are in a strong position to retain his seat. The 4th District, which includes dark-red eastern Colorado and GOP-leaning suburbs of Denver in Douglas County, supported Donald Trump 58-39.
State Rep. Richard Holtorf, who embodies the type of combative far-right politics that Buck was once known for, already had the congressman in his sights: He formed an exploratory committee in September after Buck spoke out against his party's drive to impeach Joe Biden. Other names, however, will likely surface for the June GOP primary now that Buck, who previously showed interest in leaving office to take an on-air cable news job, has announced he won't be on the ballot.
Buck was elected Weld County district attorney in 2004 and emerged on the national scene when he challenged Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010, following Bennet's appointment by then-Gov. Bill Ritter. But Buck first had to get through a tough primary against former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, another extremely conservative politician. Both sides tried to argue that they were the true candidate of the burgeoning tea party movement, but it was the district attorney who proved more adept at consolidating support from anti-establishment figures.
Late in his battle with Norton, Buck made news when he remarked, "I don’t wear high heels … I have cowboy boots, they have real bullshit on them," a line Norton argued was sexist.
"My opponent has said a number of times on the campaign trail that people should vote for her because she wears high heels, because she wears a skirt, because she's a woman," Buck said in his defense. "She ran a commercial that said Ken Buck should be man enough to do X, Y, and Z. ... I made a statement, it was a lighthearted statement that I'm man enough, I don't wear high heels and I have cowboy boots on." Buck won 52-48 four days after the NRSC quietly donated $42,000 to Norton.
Bennet, who had just triumphed in his own competitive primary against former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, wasted no time portraying the Republican nominee as too far to the right for what was then still a swing state.
Buck made the senator's task easier on a "Meet the Press" appearance late in the campaign when he said he stood by his 2005 declaration that he had refused to prosecute an alleged rape because "a jury could very well conclude that this is a case of buyer’s remorse." He also argued that being gay was a choice. "I think birth has an influence over it," he said, "like alcoholism and some other things, but I think that basically you have a choice."
Bennet prevailed 48-46 during an otherwise horrible year for his party. His fellow Republicans quickly cited him, along with Delaware's Christine O'Donnell and Nevada's Sharron Angle, as a cautionary example of what happens when the party chooses extremist nominees in tossup Senate races. (It's unclear, though, whether Norton, who had for instance blasted Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme," would have actually been a better choice.)
But unlike those fellow travelers, Buck remained in office, even winning another term as district attorney in 2012 before planning a 2014 campaign for Colorado's other Senate seat. Yet even though polls showed Democratic Sen. Mark Udall was vulnerable, Buck and the entire field struggled to raise money and gain traction. But an otherwise stagnant race was completely transformed in February of 2014 when the Denver Post broke the news that Rep. Cory Gardner would make a late bid.
Buck quickly announced that he'd switch course and seek instead to replace Gardner, who ended up endorsing the district attorney as his successor. The two denied that there was any pre-planned switcheroo, but Buck handily dispatched state Sen. Scott Renfroe 44-24 in the primary, and he went on to prevail easily in November. Gardner, meanwhile, accomplished what Buck could not four years earlier and managed to narrowly unseat Udall amid the GOP's second midterm wave election in a row.
Yet while Buck had indeed made it to Congress, he soon signaled he was unhappy in the House long before he ended up retiring. In the summer of 2017, he expressed interest in campaigning to succeed Attorney General Cynthia Coffman in the event that she were to run for governor, though he stayed put even after she launched what turned out to be a disastrous campaign. Buck was elected state party chair two years later, and while he said he'd remain in the House, Inside Elections' Nathan Gonzales reported that he'd told people he was considering retiring that cycle.
The congressman again sought reelection even as some party members groused about him trying to do both his jobs at once. Buck's tenure as party chair was defined by infighting amid Colorado's transformation into a reliably blue state. That shift culminated with Biden's double-digit win in 2020 as well as Gardner's decisive loss to former Gov. John Hickenlooper that same year.
Buck, who was the rare Freedom Caucus member to recognize Biden's win, initially showed some interest in another campaign against Bennet in 2022, but he ended up running for what would be his final term in the House.