By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Andrew Romanoff is in. So is Michael Bennet. The battle lines are being drawn in the sand.
Despite repeated assertions from political parties that primaries are encouraged, behind-the-scenes intra-party squabbles give political insiders reason to be nervous.
It’s harder for the party to get behind a message and a candidate when more than one person is striving for the nomination. Donors tend stay on the sidelines until a candidate is chosen to avoid offending either side. Attacks from within largely carry over into the general election, and politicians are put in the difficult position of having to choose which of their colleagues they will support.
No, many politicos do not welcome primaries. But they happen nonetheless.
The Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by appointed incumbent Michael Bennet will be no different.
Bennet is new to primaries, new to campaigns and new to his Senate seat. As soon as Gov. Bill Ritter selected him to fill U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar’s seat so Salazar could become President Barack Obama’s secretary of the Interior Department, Republicans smelled blood in the water. The GOP quickly labeled him “the chosen one” and started calling him “hand-picked Senator Michael Bennet.”
Although Romanoff largely avoided using Republican epithets during his campaign announcement tour Wednesday, he did home in on the same line of attack.
“I don’t need to take a poll to take a position,” Romanoff said at announcement rally in Denver’s Washington Park, a direct jab at Bennet, who has been seen as largely unwilling to take a position on many issues since taking office. “I’ve heard people who sit on the fence get splinters.”
Romanoff’s attack was direct, although its result has yet to be seen. The events of the next months certainly will play a larger role in who wins the Democratic primary than any opening-round speech. But the battle lines are becoming clear.
Politicians are taking sides behind those lines in what will be one of the state’s biggest Democratic primaries in years.
Standing with Bennet are some of the state’s most prominent Democrats, including Ritter, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, 4th Congressional District Rep. Betsy Markey and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. Bennet also secured the endorsement of President Barack Obama on Thursday. Bennet’s assets also include a wide assortment of wealthy campaign donors who have already helped his campaign war chest surpass the $3 million mark in the first eight months of the year, setting a state record.
Democratic U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette, in the 1st Congressional District, and Ed Perlmutter, in the 7th, have said they will stay neutral in the race.
Romanoff has a slew of Democratic legislators and statewide officeholders in his camp, too, however.
State Treasurer Cary Kennedy has endorsed Romanoff.
“Andrew is a tireless advocate for the people of Colorado and an extraordinarily effective legislator,” Kennedy said in a statement this week. “I have watched him move mountains to promote fairness, justice, equality and opportunities for all, and I know he will do the same in Washington.”
Rep. Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, agreed, telling The Colorado Statesman on Wednesday that if he had had Ritter’s opportunity to choose Salazar’s replacement, he would have selected Romanoff.
“It was the governor’s choice, though, and I think he made the wrong one,” Weissmann said. “Andrew is an effective legislator and is someone I have supported from the beginning.”
Rep. Su Ryden, D-Aurora, who attended Romanoff’s Wednesday speech in Denver, said she is supporting Romanoff because she values his leadership skills and judgment and because she promised him more than a year ago that she was with him — no matter where he was going.
“I told him then, ‘Whatever you decide to do, I will be there to support you,’” Ryden told The Statesman. “I have been committed to Andrew from the beginning.”
Rep. Ed Casso, D-Commerce City, said he is supporting Romanoff because he believes the longtime legislator and former speaker of the House is the best man for the job.
“He has what it takes to be the best senator Colorado can offer,” Casso said after Romanoff’s speech in Denver. “This is the easiest decision (to support Romanoff) that I have ever made since coming to elected office. There was nothing hard about this choice.”
No matter who falls into which politician’s corner, the ring appears to be filling with mud early.
As Romanoff took any opportunity on Wednesday to challenge Bennet’s perceived fence-riding skills and called him out for being “tapped on the shoulder” for the Senate seat, Bennet wasn’t exactly offering Romanoff a warm welcome to the race.
In a statement released by Bennet’s staff on Wednesday titled “Statement of Michael Bennet regarding the announcement by Andrew Romanoff,” the first-term senator didn’t use Romanoff’s name or mention his entrance into the race.
“My focus is on tackling the tough problems we face and providing real solutions for Colorado families,” Bennet wrote. “That means working with President Obama to create jobs in Colorado, improve our schools and do everything in our power to pass meaningful health care reform — reform that brings out-of-control costs into line, ends ridiculous insurance industry practices like denying care to people with pre-existing conditions, and helps bring our spiraling deficit under control.
“I’ve traveled the state holding town hall meetings, listening to Coloradans and hearing their stories about the urgent need for health care reform,” Bennet continued. “Now it’s time to get something done in D.C.”
Let the race begin.