DENVER (AP) — In an election year already notable for anti-establishment fervor and spoiler candidates, nothing beats Colorado’s political circus.
Party elites have lost control of the nominating process in the state’s three biggest races: the Democratic Senate primary and the GOP contests for governor and Senate. With Tuesday’s primary looming, incumbents and veteran politicians are wondering what hit them.
After spending $5.8 million, some of it raised by President Barack Obama, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet had to give his campaign a last-minute $300,000 loan to try to counter a blistering attack ad from intraparty rival Andrew Romanoff.
In the Republican Senate showdown, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton has the blessing of 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain and other party notables, but she is struggling to shake off tea party favorite Ken Buck.
And the GOP gubernatorial race borders on farce. Once favored to win the seat that Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter is surrendering, former Rep. Scott McInnis has been severely damaged by a plagiarism-and-pay scandal.
Swooping in for the kill, former GOP congressman and anti-immigration crusader Tom Tancredo is running as a third-party candidate, certain to siphon conservative votes from the Republican nominee in November.
When state Republican chairman Dick Wadhams declared the governor’s race almost hopeless, some party activists launched a “Dump Dick Wadhams” campaign — as if the party needed another sideshow.
Washington officials of both parties have never been able to eliminate gaffes and ethical lapses by all-too-human candidates, even though they send veteran staffers their way to keep them in line. But they often hand-pick nominees throughout the nation, mainly by steering lots of money in their direction while starving would-be rivals.
That power is under severe strain this year. Agitated voters, not all tea party loyalists, are bristling at what they consider Washington arrogance, backroom dealing and incumbents’ sense of entitlement.
Obama and other top Democrats couldn’t save Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter from Joe Sestak’s challenge in Pennsylvania. Tea party activists denied renomination to longtime GOP Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah. And in Florida they drove Gov. Charlie Crist from the Republican Party and its Senate primary (although he may win this fall as an independent).
Colorado tops them all, with anti-establishment defiance bubbling up from every corner.
Bennet, a former business executive and Denver schools superintendent, was a political novice when Ritter appointed him to the Senate seat vacated by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. But Bennet quickly won the backing of Obama and other party leaders for his bid to win the seat outright this fall.
One man refused to play along: Andrew Romanoff, a former Colorado House speaker who had craved the Senate appointment.
Unable to raise as much money as Bennet, he made a campaign virtue of his refusal to accept donations from political action committees, or PACs. Romanoff labeled himself the “best senator money can’t buy,” suggesting Bennet is beholden to insurance companies and others that helped fund his campaign.
Bennet fired back with a TV ad calling Romanoff a “career politician” who has accepted PAC money for years.