After months of bruising attack ads, record-setting spending and dueling presidential endorsements, the Democratic primary contest between incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet and Andrew Romanoff will be decided Tuesday when the last Colorado voters go to the polls.
The intra-party race has made national headlines for months, not only for the intensity of the match between two candidates, but also for twists and turns that have shaped it into one of the most impossible to predict since its earliest days, starting with the moment President-elect Barack Obama plucked freshman Sen. Ken Salazar from a safe Senate seat to make him secretary of the interior.
To fill the Senate vacancy, Gov. Bill Ritter looked past a roster of established Colorado Democrats, including Romanoff, to tap Bennet as Salazar's replacement. The little-known Bennet had moved to the state 12 years earlier from Washington, D.C., where he worked in the Clinton administration. After a lucrative stint as a financier and two years as chief of staff to Mayor John Hickenlooper of Denver, the Yale-trained lawyer took over the Denver city schools at the mayor's request. Four years later, he was a U.S. senator.
Despite Bennet's relative glide to the top of the political power structure, the new senator has worked throughout the campaign to position himself as a D.C. newcomer, frequently reminding voters that he's only been in the Senate for a year. In campaign ads, he calls for an end to congressional pay raises and laments the business-as-usual politics in the nation's capital. One ad features Bennet's three young daughters reporting that their dad thinks "Washington is the biggest mess he's ever seen."
But Bennet's one-of-you message has been blunted by his upper-crust demeanor and East Coast pedigree. While his mother's Jewish family fled Poland during World War II, Bennet's father was the well-heeled president of National Public Radio in Washington and the director of U.S. AID under Jimmy Carter and assistant secretary of state to Bill Clinton. His grandfather served as an economic adviser to FDR and traced his lineage to the Mayflower.
President Obama threw his support behind Bennet early in the race, hoping to spare him a costly primary in a state where Democrats knew he would get a tough Republican challenge. But Andrew Romanoff had other plans.
As the state's House speaker from 2005 until 2008, Romanoff was the ultimate political insider who was often rumored to be considering a run for governor or Senate. But after being overlooked by Ritter for the Senate appointment and urged to stay out of the Bennet race by a top White House adviser, Romanoff ignored the wishes of the established Democrats and got into the race anyway.
In a year when President Obama has struggled to appease the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Romanoff, a Yale graduate, strategically painted himself as the insurgent candidate against the Obama machine, and positioned himself to the left of Bennet on issues from health care to Wall Street reform.
While Bennet aired positive television ads to introduce himself to Colorado voters, Romanoff pounded him with shadowy ads with such titles as "Greed" that accused Bennet of "looting" bankrupt companies at the expense of regular workers and retirees. "We need a senator for the rest of us," Romanoff said in the "Greed" ad.
Just as he has done throughout the campaign, Romanoff recently pounced on a New York Times
story about Bennet's role in a financial transaction for the Denver Public Schools, which the Times said cost Denver schools millions of dollars in extra interest payments, but which one of Bennet's aides dismissed with an expletive. "Bennet's risky deal cost our schools $25 million and counting," Romanoff said of the article.
For his part, Bennet said over the weekend, "The New York Times just got it wrong . . .The deal has been very good for Denver Public Schools."
If Bennet has struggled to fend off some of Romanoff's attacks, he has dominated the fundraising in the race, pulling in $7.7 million in donations by the end of June, while Romanoff netted just under $2 million. Romanoff spun the numbers by calling himself "the best senator money can't buy," but took the extreme step last month of selling his Denver home for $360,000 and lending his campaign the proceeds.
"I'd like to create a democracy where you don't have to sell your house to win the U.S. Senate, but we're not there yet,"
he told The Denver Post
. Plus, he said, "I'm never home anyway."
As the serially unpredictable contest sped toward its finish line, former President Bill Clinton added one last dose of eye-popping news in late June when he stunned fellow Democrats and endorsed Romanoff, who had supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2008. Clinton, who is well-known in Democratic circles for his political strategy chops, called Romanoff the candidate with "the best chance to win in November."
Although Bennet had been well ahead of Romanoff in statewide polling as recently as May, polls in July and August showed Romanoff gaining on Bennet quickly. A PPP poll released Monday showed Bennet leading Romanoff by 49 percent to 43 percent, with 9 percent undecided.
A Denver Post/SurveyUSA poll conducted in late July showed Romanoff ahead of Bennet by 48 percent to 45 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
The last days of the contest have included robocalls from Clinton for Romanoff and a tele-town hall for Bennet by the commander-in-chief himself. Romanoff has continued his withering attacks on Bennet, while the senator has shed his tailored business suits for a plaid shirt and jeans to barnstorm the state in a 24-hour blitz of meetings with firefighters, postal workers, line cooks and nurses.
While the last-minute ads and calls may move the needle for some voters, their full effect may come too late to change either candidate's fortunes. Because many Colorado counties now use a vote-by-mail system, voters have been sending in their ballots for the last three weeks.
The last of the ballots will be counted after polls close in Colorado on Tuesday.