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.
Romanoff sold his house to pour every available dollar into a hair-singeing ad that says Bennet “looted” $1 billion from a chain of cinemas that went bankrupt in 2004, and earned $11 million in the process.
Even some activists and commentators who admire Romanoff said the ad seriously distorted Bennet’s role in the complex bankruptcy proceedings several years ago. While acknowledging Bennet’s $11 million income, they note that the reorganized movie theater company now employs more people than before.
Obama placed a final-week conference call to Colorado voters Tuesday, taking issue with the TV ad and calling Bennet “the person that I want alongside me.”
No one mentioned the TV ads when Romanoff spoke recently to about 40 Hughes Aircraft retirees holding their monthly luncheon at the Mr. Panda restaurant in Denver’s southeastern suburbs. One man urged him to help end the direct election of senators (Romanoff politely declined), and another asked how the candidate could “overcome the political machine in D.C.”
Romanoff said he’s not perfect but doesn’t “take a dime” from special interests.
Romanoff, who is backed by former President Bill Clinton, said in a later interview that his ad attacking Bennet is fair. Bennet is desperate, he said, because his “campaign is in free fall.”
Bennet says he knows the race is close but he feels good about his chances. Romanoff’s TV ad, he said, “reminds me of the worst of Washington, D.C.: People playing politics and completely disregarding the facts” for political gain.
Late in the primary race, Bennet had a new problem: Explaining a pension financing deal that he recommended while he served as schools superintendent.
Buck and Norton, meanwhile, keep sparring over the coveted non-establishment label. Buck, a former federal prosecutor and the elected district attorney from a northern county, raised eyebrows by mocking Norton’s “high heels” while noting that his cowboy boots are stained with cow dung.
He crusades against illegal immigration, and once obtained search warrants to seize thousands of tax returns filed with a firm that caters to Hispanics. Buck said he was fighting identity theft, and the raid led to some illegal immigrants being deported. But critics called it a stunt, and the state Supreme Court ruled that it violated privacy rights.
Buck has closer ties to tea party activists than Norton does, even though he got caught on camera complaining about tea party “dumba—s” who insist Obama was born in Kenya.
In an interview, Buck said he clearly is the non-establishment candidate. “Jane was selected by John McCain and the officials in D.C.,” he said.
Norton calls the comments “a clever campaign to paint yourself as an outsider.” She said she has created more private-sector jobs than Buck has, and trimmed more government budgets.
As a former lieutenant governor and state health director, Norton began with greater name recognition and a broader government resume. But Buck seems to be setting the campaign’s tone. Norton, for instance, endorsed term limits for members of Congress after Buck did so.
Both candidates are conservative by any measure. They have pledged not to raise taxes, a vow that could limit their options in dealing with big issues such as reducing the deficit.
Perhaps the only Colorado politician having an easy summer is Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. He is coasting to the Democratic gubernatorial nomination while his GOP rivals implode.
McInnis’ once-promising campaign veered off track when he acknowledged receiving $300,000 as part of a foundation felowship for a water study report that was partly plagiarized. He blamed a researcher at first, but then apologized and said he should have been more diligent.
On Friday, four days before the primary, McInnis signed a settlement agreement with the Hasan Family Foundation. His spokesman said the terms would not be disclosed.
McInnis’ chief rival, Dan Maes, has his own woes, paying $17,500 for violating campaign finance laws. That hasn’t kept Maes from pounding McInnis. In a recent radio debate, Maes told McInnis, “You have no integrity, you have no character.”
When Tancredo jumped in as a third-party candidate, Wadhams said it would be “difficult if not impossible” to beat Hickenlooper.
Colorado has moved almost entirely to voting by mail, and many thousands of residents sent in their ballots well ahead of Tuesday’s deadline. That makes it hard to gauge the impact of final-week actions such as Obama’s conference call for Bennet and McCain’s scheduled campaign appearance Sunday for Norton.
One thing is clear, though. Coloradans are weary of the campaign phone calls, TV ads and attacks. A Senate debate scheduled Wednesday in Pueblo involving Norton, Buck and Romanoff was canceled for lack of interest.
And the November election is still three months away.