By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
DENVER — The two Democrats who battled it out for the Senate nomination for nearly a year joined hands two days after the primary on the steps of the State Capitol and vowed to work to keep appointed Sen. Michael Bennet in office.
Called by Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine, the rally not only sought to bring together Democrats but to highlight disarray on the Republican side after a bruising primary felled establishment candidates and left a GOP nominee unsure of the party’s support.
Bennet, who defeated primary challenger Andrew Romanoff by more than 8 percentage points in Tuesday’s primary, appealed to the Democrats who voted against him to unite to defeat Republican nominee Ken Buck, and Romanoff urged his supporters to do the same.
“Thank you,” Romanoff said after the two emerged together from inside the Capitol. “I accept your nomination,” he deadpanned as he shuffled sheets of notebook paper back into his jacket and then quipped, “Wrong speech.”
After that flash of his trademark wit, Romanoff turned serious.
“For not just my sake, and not just Michael’s sake, and not even for the sake of the Democratic Party, I’m asking you to throw your support fully and unequivocally behind Michael Bennet for the United States Senate,” he said.
“Those goals which we share will better be advanced by Michael Bennet than any other candidate in this race,” Romanoff said. “It is an easy call for me, it should be an easy call for all of you as well,” he told the crowd of about 500, which included only a few grumblers among the scores of activists sporting Romanoff signs and stickers.
The last time the two campaigns met in front of the Capitol, less than two weeks earlier, Bennet and Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien called on Romanoff to take down a withering attack ad that claimed Bennet “looted” $1 billion when he steered a chain of movie theaters out of bankruptcy. A boisterous crowd of Romanoff supporters surrounded the Bennet press conference, heckling and jeering their foe.
But on the other side of the primary election, the acrimony between the camps appeared to have largely evaporated.
Flanked on Thursday by most of the state’s top elected Democrats, a handful of hopefuls, and a phalanx of Romanoff campaign staffers, the former rivals heaped praise on each other, the bitter attacks of recent weeks a faint memory.
“Andrew’s legacy with the Democratic Party runs deep,” Bennet said. “He’s a man who has spent his entire career working for the people of this state and for our party, and Colorado is a much better state for having Andrew as our leader.”
Turning humble before turning his fire on the Republican, Bennet beseeched an audience beyond those arrayed in front of him.
“To those who supported and volunteered for Andrew,” he said, “I hope to earn your support in this race.” He added, “Thank you, Andrew, from the bottom of my heart, for being here today.”
Bennet even brought up one of his primary rival’s signature campaign issues — Romanoff swore off donations from political action committees, blistering the incumbent for his contributions from financial and energy interests in a television ad — and, while he didn’t disavow his fundraising prowess, Bennet joined Romanoff in decrying the existing system.
“A major fight that Andrew has championed, and that we both share, is a deep distrust of the current way our campaigns are financed,” Bennet said. “I applaud Andrew for his conviction on this issue and truly hope that someday we find a better solution.”
The real opposition, Bennet said, was Buck and a set of positions the Democrat portrayed as anathema to Colorado voters in a general election.
He ripped Buck for wanting “to cut off student loans to the nearly 200,000 students in Colorado who currently rely on them,” for supporting “tax cuts for the wealthiest among us,” and for remarks the Republican made labeling Social Security a “horrible policy” that shouldn’t be administered by the federal government.
“These positions are not Colorado positions,” Bennet said, “these positions are about extreme politics.”
Not so fast, Buck’s campaign fired back after the Democrats staged their rally.
“Instead of hosting unity parties with the chairman of the Democratic National Party, Sen. Bennet should be in Washington trying to unify the Democratic caucus to rein in the federal spending that is prolonging our recession,” said Buck strategist Walt Klein in a statement.
Colorado Republican chairman Dick Wadhams greeted the Democratic gathering with a similarly jaundiced eye, demanding that Democrats apologize for “imposing… failed policies” on Coloradans.
In a statement issued while the Democrats were still speechifying, Wadhams welcomed Kaine to the state to what he termed a “rally for the failed Democratic agenda of lost jobs, deepening debt and increased taxes.”
Kaine batted back Republican taunts and threw down a few of his own.
“The Republicans can’t have a unity rally,” he said after the rally had concluded. “It’s not that they don’t need one, they can’t have one because in the governor’s race — they have a Republican gubernatorial nominee that the party does not embrace, and they have a Republican running as an independent for governor because he doesn’t think the right-wing nominee is right-wing enough.”
Kaine was referring to GOP gubernatorial nominee Dan Maes, a political neophyte who narrowly upset former six-term Congressman Scott McInnis in Tuesday’s primary, and to former five-term Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo, who bolted the party late last month to run for governor on a third-party ticket.
“The Republicans would not be able to have a unity rally because they’re turning on one another right now,” Kaine continued, turning his focus to the Senate race. “This marriage, essentially, between the Republican Party and the Tea Party is leading to the choice of Republican nominees who are ideologically extreme and deeply flawed as candidates.”
Colorado Democratic chairwoman Pat Waak had a similar take.
“I find that very humorous given that the Republican Party is shattered into a thousand little pieces,” she told The Colorado Statesman. “Maybe they couldn’t get enough people to come to a unity rally, which is why they’re not having one.”
Waak acknowledged not all Democrats would immediately rally behind Bennet, especially after so divisive a primary, but predicted that within “maybe another week” most would.
“On the Democratic side,” she said, “I think that there was not a huge ideological gap between the two candidates, and that, although people had personal loyalties, the people I’m seeing here today, people I’m hearing from, are by and large willing to heal those and move forward. There may be a few people out there that we still need to work with, but I’m not really very concerned about this.”