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Colorado U.S. Senate Race: 'Awfully Expensive, Awfully Nasty'

4 years ago
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BOULDER, Colo. -- A year ago, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet got a lovely post-holiday gift from Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter: A U.S. Senate seat. This week, Ritter may have given Bennet another gift: his withdrawal from the governor's race.

One pollster is already saying Ritter's exit helps Democrats in the governor's race. But how does it help Bennet? Well, depending on what happens next, Bennet's primary opponent, former Democratic state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, could be looking for other opportunities (lieutenant governor? or governor, if enough others reject a run?). And Bennet could be atop the ticket with his former boss, popular Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who is considering a run for governor. As Hickenlooper's former chief of staff, Bennet has a good working relationship with the potential gubernatorial candidate – probably better than his relationship with Ritter.

As of today, Colorado's U.S. Senate 2010 primaries could be vicious battles. Or they could end up as affirmations of the front-runners and conventional wisdom.

On the Republican side, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck got in the race at the beginning of 2009, along with a couple of lesser-known candidates. Then, in August, the National Republican Senatorial Committee registered Web site domains for former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, angering the Tea Party crowd.

The grass roots may be taking aim at the big names, but they'll need plenty of artillery (read: money) for a win over one of the Goliaths in this race.

A Rasmussen Reports poll in December showed Norton leading both Democratic candidates, and close races in other potential match-ups.

Here's a look at how the Colorado Senate primary is shaping up:

The names: Norton is the only candidate on either side who's run for statewide office. That was in 2002, when incumbent Gov. Bill Owens picked her to run on his re-election ticket. She may have the best name recognition of the bunch, but that hasn't stopped folks, from Charlie Cook to commenters on local news sites, to confuse her with Gale Norton, former Colorado attorney general and Interior Secretary under President George W. Bush.

Buck is the elected prosecutor in Weld County, which has a population of about 250,000. But he's created waves by supporting the county sheriff's confiscation of tax returns from a Hispanic translation and tax service. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled against Buck in the case last month.

Then there's former state Sen. Tom Wiens, a more recent entrant in the race aiming to appeal to the GOP's conservative base.

On the Democratic side, Romanoff spent four of his eight years in the state House as speaker, traveling the state to campaign for candidates and ballot issues. He's relatively well known, but thus far not so well funded.

Since becoming a senator, Bennet has traveled the outer reaches of Colorado. He took a strong stand in favor of the health care reform package, telling CNN he'd vote for it even if it put his job in jeopardy. When Ted Kennedy died, Bennet took his place on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

And when it comes to endorsements, well . . .

The names behind the names: President Barack Obama endorsed Bennet in September, a day after Romanoff announced for the race. The names don't get much bigger than that. But for good measure, former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, former Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler and Sen. Mark Udall, among others, have weighed in for Bennet.

On the GOP side, there's former Sen.William Armstrong – the first name listed on Norton's initial contribution filing. Now president of Colorado Christian University, Armstrong remains a heavy hitter – and fundraiser – in the Colorado GOP.

But how much weight do the big names carry when compared to...

Wooing the base: Buck and Wiens are definitely going after the Tea Party crowd. But Norton is trying to appeal to the base as well, ramping up the rhetoric as she tours the state.

On the Dem side, Romanoff may offer greater appeal to the grass roots.

The base will be key in May, when both parties hold state assemblies that give an early indicator of candidate support. Assembly votes on the candidates will determine who takes the first spot on the Aug. 10 primary ballot. But after that, this race is likely all about . . .

The cash: It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that ka-ching. Once the assemblies are over, Colorado airwaves will overflow with commercials for this competitive race. While other candidates may garner the affection of their respective bases, Bennet and Norton already possess sizeable leads when it comes to the big bucks.

Gov. Ritter probably found Bennet a more attractive Senate appointee than Romanoff because: a) Bennet has his own cash stash. His financial disclosure listed assets between $5 million and $25 million in treasury cash reserves alone. b) An East Coast native with a Yale law degree and plenty of family political connections from presidents Carter to Clinton, Bennet's ability to raise funds goes beyond that of many Colorado Democrats – Ritter and Romanoff included.

Bennet raised nearly $3.7 million through the third quarter of the year, while Romanoff brought in $292,689 during the first month of his campaign. In fact, Bennet brought in $1.3 million via Act Blue, the grassroots fundraising Web site, compared to Romanoff's $262,000 via the site.

"Andrew Romanoff – his strength is the grass roots," says Katy Atkinson, a GOP political consultant in Denver. "But his strength is not going to get him very far in a primary with as much money as Michael Bennet has . . . Bennet's been raising money like an incumbent in a targeted seat."

One donor not on Bennet's list: his former employer, billionaire businessman Philip Anschutz. He's one of the big money men behind Norton, who pulled down almost $510,000 in just a month. That compares with Buck's $491,729 raised over nine months. Wiens entered the hunt in the fourth quarter of the year.
"I just don't know if there's enough there to derail Jane Norton or not," says John Straayer, a Colorado State University political science professor.

Atkinson and Straayer agree that once Colorado's primaries are settled, politics in this battleground state, which relies heavily on independent voters, will get even hotter.

"It'll be awfully expensive and it'll be awfully nasty," Straayer says. "In terms of the tone, the tenor, if it was just (Bennet and Norton), it would be fairly civil. But you've got to overlay that with modern money politics. It will not be lightweight comedy."

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