By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
DENVER — After a hard-fought Democratic primary campaign that began late last summer and had all the appearances of a potential upset, former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff’s challenge to Sen. Michael Bennet was over just an hour after the polls closed.
Before the sun set Tuesday night, Romanoff — who sold his house in the campaign’s waning days to finance a last round of brutal attack ads against Bennet — conceded the race and exhorted his supporters to put their “time and talent and treasure” into electing Bennet, who was appointed to the seat last year.
Minutes later, a buoyant Bennet took the stage at his campaign’s celebration, framed by his family and the state’s two top elected Democrats, to claim victory in the first election his name had ever appeared on a ballot. He praised Romanoff’s vigor and rebuked the pundits who had urged him to take his campaign into the gutter, vowing instead to “embrace optimism about how much we can overcome — and accomplish — together.”
Results from the Republican Senate primary between former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton and Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck wouldn’t be clear for another hour or so. Soon Buck emerged as the winner, though by about half the margin Bennet pegged over Romanoff.
When all the votes were counted, Bennet had 183,521, more than 8 percentage points ahead of Romanoff’s 155,016, according to figures compiled by The Denver Post. (9News, also claiming 100 percent of precincts reporting, posted totals a couple hundred votes shy of what The Post reported the day after the primary.) Official results won’t be released by the secretary of state for another couple weeks, when any valid provisional ballots and late-arriving military absentee ballots will also be counted.
Statewide turnout set a record for a primary election, though with just the Senate race topping their ballot, Democrats voted at a lower rate than Republicans, who had three contested statewide races — in addition to the Senate slot, there were GOP primaries for governor and state treasurer -— and as many congressional primaries.
Even though the vast majority of votes had already been cast by election day — as Colorado conducted its first mostly all-mail ballot primary — both Democratic Senate campaigns hustled last-minute ballot returns. But before the polls closed, supporters were already gathering at the two election night parties: the Romanoff camp at City Hall Amphitheatre, an event center on the edge of Denver’s Golden Triangle, and the Bennet crew two miles to the west at Mile High Station, under the Colfax viaduct.
While hundreds of Romanoff supporters enjoyed jazz music and swapped war stories, just minutes after the polls closed campaign staffers and assorted politicians at the victory party turned grim as initial results crackled over the air onto BlackBerries and iPhones.
Because most of the state had been returning mail ballots for weeks, county clerks were able to tabulate a hefty slice of the vote right at 7 p.m., and the first wave of returns was not what the Romanoff campaign had hoped to see: bellwether Jefferson County tallied Bennet ahead by nearly 10 percentage points, and Arapahoe County reported a spread almost as wide.
But the death knell came a couple minutes later when results from Denver flashed onto screens. Romanoff was winning there, but not by nearly enough.
“We can do this with big numbers in Denver and Pueblo,” two counties Romanoff counted as key bases of support, said a savvy Romanoff ally as the numbers began rolling in. He shook his head when shown Denver’s first totals, which reported Romanoff leading by just 5 percentage points, or by 3,000 votes out of more than 300,000 votes cast statewide in the Democratic primary. (Bennet ultimately won Pueblo by a strong 11 percentage points.)
It would be another half hour before newspapers and television stations declared Bennet the winner — with a lead that soon settled near its final 8.5-percentage point margin — but by 7:15 p.m. at the Romanoff party, it was clear that the campaign had come to an end.
As word spread, some Romanoff backers voiced their disappointment.
“I’m sad,” said former Colorado Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon, a key Romanoff campaign advisor. “We ran a good campaign. We were right on the issues, but it’s hard to run against the entire Democratic establishment, millions of dollars and The Denver Post.”
Numerous Romanoff supporters slammed The Post, which endorsed Bennet and ran several editorials and columns that took issue with Romanoff’s television ads.
Hours later, Gordon trekked over to the Bennet celebration and offered his support to the winning campaign team.
“I just congratulated them,” he said upon emerging from the Bennet party, “and said that I’d help Michael Bennet win the election.” He stressed that he was representing himself and wasn’t an emissary of the Romanoff campaign.
Romanoff delivered the same message himself in a phone call to Bennet shortly before 8 p.m., right after media outlets declared Bennet the winner. Minutes later, after passing through the exuberant crowd shaking hand after hand, Romanoff stood on the stage backed by dozens of campaign staff, volunteers and his family.
“This is, of course, not the result we were hoping for,” he told the crowd, “but you should be very proud of what you did — of what we did together — to build a cause, to build a movement, to make a case for a different kind of democracy.”
Warning that “this is no time at all for us to be quiet, or go home and lick our wounds,” Romanoff made clear he meant what he said throughout his campaign, that he would endorse Bennet if he won the primary.
“I realize this is not what you wanted to hear and certainly not what I hoped to see, but it is important to me, important to our party and important to our cause that we offer our full and unequivocal support to the Democratic nominee, Sen. Michael Bennet,” Romanoff said. “We should offer our support to him tonight with all of our hearts.”
He silenced a scattering of moans, and a boo or two, and encouraged his followers to turn their energy toward the man who, until an hour ago, had been his bitter rival.
“I’m asking you to take all the time and talent and treasure you put into this effort — and believe me, I know what a sacrifice you made — I’m asking you to do this on behalf of the Democratic ticket this fall,” Romanoff said.
Romanoff concluded with an appeal to the ideals that had driven his campaign.
“I am deeply and eternally indebted to you for what you have done for me and this broader cause. But we ought never to lose sight of the folks we’ve been fighting for all along.”
Some Romanoff supporters weren’t ready to put the race against Bennet behind them.
“I think it’s unfortunate, and they did put in tremendous effort,” said Denver Democrat Joan McKinney, referring to the Romanoff team. “But the deck’s been stacked — there was money, and the president coming here twice — that’s unheard of. And The Denver Post made its preferences very clear, it’s something that’s unbeatable.”
She didn’t say whether she was ready to embrace Bennet.
Other Romanoff backers scorned the suggestion they might transfer their allegiance.
“No,” said Denver resident Roya Brown, who said she wouldn’t be following Romanoff’s suggestion. “I’m independent. I came to this campaign to vote for Andrew.” She ticked off the reasons she would decline to support Bennet: “He didn’t do anything for the school district, and he won’t do anything for the State of Colorado. It’s my first campaign, and it’s going to be my last campaign.”
Soon after her candidate conceded, Denver Democrat Trish Bangert left the Romanoff party and said she was headed to the Norton campaign’s gathering in Littleton.
“I’m so disappointed with the results of this election,” she said. “I’m so disappointed the person who’s basically been appointed for us won the primary. I feel like the people didn’t get any sort of real vote. Bennet had the money and the money bought the vote.”
Bennet outraised his challenger by roughly 4-to-1, banking more than $8 million and spending close to $6 million in the primary, compared to Romanoff’s roughly $2 million. The general election could cost both sides as much as $20 million — about the same that was spent in 2008 by Mark Udall and Bob Schaffer — the candidates have estimated. On top of that, there could be an equal amount of independent spending by outside groups intent on winning the seat, which could be key to controlling the Senate after this fall’s election.
Saying she’d known Norton for years, Bangert was doubly disappointed to hear her backup choice was losing to Buck, but she held out hope.
“If she wins the primary,” she said, “I’m definitely thinking of supporting her.”
Hours later, after the candidate had departed and the Romanoff party had thinned, Jefferson County organizer Bobby O’Mara sounded a conciliatory note.
“I follow my leader, Andrew, and he says to support Michael Bennet, so I support Michael Bennet, and I think in the interest of party unity, we should,” O’Mara said. “With all the grassroots activism, with the record turnout we had, it was a victory for democracy, regardless that my candidate didn’t win.”
While he said he probably wouldn’t be going to work for Bennet — instead taking advantage of the unanticipated free time to work on his Master’s thesis in political studies — O’Mara said he hoped the organization he helped build would heed Romanoff’s suggestion.
“I would call on everyone in Jefferson County to follow the lead of Andrew Romanoff,” he said.
It could take some encouragement.
The race tightened considerably and took a nasty turn in the last month, as both candidates hurled sharp attacks at one another in television ads and from the stump.
In a series of blistering ads, Romanoff criticized Bennet for taking contributions from special interests, claimed he “looted a billion dollars” when he worked for right-wing billionaire Phil Anschutz, and charged the former Denver Public Schools superintendent with costing the school district millions of dollars in an ill-conceived financial deal. The Bennet campaign shot back at each salvo, calling Romanoff’s ads “despicable” and borrowing a phrase from a Denver Post editorial that branded one ad “a shameful example of cynical politics at its worst.”
In Bennet’s victory speech, he took aim at the recent tenor of the campaign and vowed to take the high road through the fall.
“It was just a week ago that the political pundits and Washington odds-makers started to count us out,” Bennet said. “They didn’t think we were negative enough, that the way to win was to shout the loudest and angriest, to spend more time talking about our opponent than talking about what we stand for. To the pundits and talking heads, I have a simple message: welcome to Colorado.”
Bennet delivered his speech next to his wife, Susan Daggett, and their three daughters, Caroline, Halina and Anne, as fellow Democratic Sen. Mark Udall stood nearby along with Gov. Bill Ritter, who appointed Bennet to the seat in January 2009 after Ken Salazar left for the Obama Cabinet.
Continuing his campaign theme of running against an intransigent Senate opposed to good, old-fashioned Colorado pluck, Bennet drew a sharp comparison.
“The fact is, Washington is full of politicians who are more interested in scoring points and calling names than doing the hard work to turn our country and this economy around,” he said. “And the gap between what we hear from the talking heads on television and what I hear in town halls across Colorado has never been wider than it is today.”
Bennet said it was time for politicians to begin “making decisions based on what’s right and what works and not what makes the best sound bite.”
He also offered an olive branch to Romanoff and his supporters.
“To those of you who cast your vote for Andrew Romanoff, I will work hard to prove myself worthy of your support,” Bennet said. “The issues that have divided us in this campaign are so much smaller than the hopes and values we share. Andrew has spent his career committed to this state and our party. I know this campaign doesn’t mark the end of that work, and I look forward to working with him to build on the progress we have made.”
Earlier that day, state Democratic Party officials confirmed the campaigns had agreed to attend an upcoming “unity rally” featuring Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine, regardless of the primary’s outcome.
The convincing Bennet win also reversed a string of losses or hair-raising escapes by candidates backed by the Obama White House. After endorsing Bennet last summer, the president visited Denver in February for fundraisers that netted more than $600,000, recorded a robocall that went out to hundreds of thousands of Democrats, dropped in on a Bennet tele-town hall with 21,000 voters a week before the primary, and appeared in a television commercial praising the senator.
Five weeks before the primary, former President Bill Clinton endorsed Romanoff — who backed his wife, Hillary Clinton, in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries — and sent a fundraising e-mail and recorded a robocall on Romanoff’s behalf, but didn’t visit the state.
As the Bennet party wound down, Jefferson County Commissioner Kathy Hartman, who endorsed Bennet early on, said she believed the factions would resolve their differences and join forces.
“I have liked and respected Andrew Romanoff for years and years and years,” she said. “And I trust that Andrew will bring his people and make sure that Michael Bennet is a senator in January.”
She said Democrats face a tough run up to the November election and have to get past the divisive primary.
“This is a tough year to be a Democrat,” Hartman acknowledged. “The Republicans have had a very single-minded message, which is ‘no’ to everything. We have to make sure the voters remember it was not Democrats who started this recession, it was Republicans, and the fact it is so bad is because Republicans drove the car over a cliff.”