Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Holtzman announced his running mate today, picking former Speaker of the House Lola Spradley to serve as his Lt. Governor should he win the general election in November. Democrat Bill Ritter was the first of the gubernatorial candidates to announce his running mate, when he tapped Barbara O’Brien, former President of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, to be his Lt. Governor in mid-January.

This early naming of a running mate is a new phenomenon in Colorado politics. The last time there was an open seat for governor, in 1998, Lt. Governor candidates ran for office separately and appeared on the ballot as distinct candidates. That rule was changed prior to the 2002 election for governor, but naming a running mate early didn’t come into play then. Republican Bill Owens was the incumbent at the time, and Democrat Rollie Heath was the only challenger, which lessened the need to make a decision on a running mate early on in a campaign. Because 2006 will be the first open election for governor in which a Lt. Governor candidate does not run separately, we are seeing for the first time where candidates for governor are deciding on a running mate 10-11 months ahead of time.

The reason for the early decisions depends on the candidate, but for both Ritter and Holtzman they are hoping to use their Lt. Governor choices to strengthen their campaigns in the face of opposition from within their own political parties. Ritter has taken a lot of heat from Democrats for his pro-life stance on abortion, so picking the pro-choice O’Brien as his running mate was done in part to help lessen that criticism. Ritter will likely have a Democratic primary foe (state Rep. Gary Lindstrom is the other Democrat in the race, but he isn’t considered a serious candidate by most politicos), so he needs to work on the strong pro-choice side of the Democratic Party in the meantime.

Holtzman is already in the midst of a tough primary against Rep. Bob Beauprez, and because Beauprez is more well-known among Republicans, Holtzman is running a “take back the Party” campaign in opposition of entrenched Republican leadership that has lost ground to Democrats in recent years. In choosing Spradley as his running mate, however, Holtzman is appealing on some level to those same traditional Republicans; he can still run his “anti-establishment” campaign while not completely ignoring the entrenched conservatives.

The early choice of a running mate for gubernatorial candidates is an insider game at this point, but it’s still a game that hasn’t been played in Colorado before.