Romanoff refocuses on Senate bid

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

After two weeks of upheaval in Democratic Party politics, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff announced Tuesday he’s staying put in the U.S. Senate race, laying to rest rampant speculation he might jump into the governor’s race, make a bid for lieutenant governor, or end his four-month-old primary run against Sen. Michael Bennet.

Former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff greets supporters outside his headquarters after reaffirming plans to challenge Sen. Michael Bennet.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“This is a time of challenge and controversy. We need bold leadership not only in the White House but also at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Romanoff said at a press conference in front of his storefront headquarters in a southeast Denver strip mall. “That’s why I’m running for the U.S. Senate.”

Addressing steady chatter among pundits, pols and prognosticators, Romanoff acknowledged he had been urged to run for governor after Democrat Bill Ritter took the state by surprise two weeks ago saying he wouldn’t seek a second term. But Romanoff quashed those rumors with a hearty endorsement of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who threw his hat in the ring Jan. 12.

“I’ve had the privilege to work closely with Mayor Hickenlooper for the last seven years,” Romanoff said. “I admire his creativity and his leadership. I support his candidacy, and I look forward to campaigning with him this fall.”

News outlets reported last week that Romanoff considered running for governor and met with Hickenlooper to discuss the race before the popular mayor declared his candidacy, but Romanoff’s campaign stayed quiet about his possible moves until Tuesday’s press conference.

Still, when he broke the silence, a cheerful and determined Romanoff left no doubt he intends to wage a vigorous campaign against Bennet, fueled by grassroots support and populist anger.

Portraying himself as a rabble-rousing outsider to the corrupt ways of Washington, the four-term state representative underscored his refusal to accept contributions from PACs, vowing to raise money for the statewide race solely from individuals.

“We reject politics as usual,” he said. “We want a senator whose loyalties won’t be divided. A senator whose judgment won’t be clouded. A senator who won’t have to pick between doing what’s right for his constituents and what’s profitable for his contributors. That’s why our campaign does not accept contributions from political action committees. I am the only candidate in this race to make that commitment.”

Romanoff went even further after his speech, telling The Colorado Statesman he plans to give the cold shoulder to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, if he wins the primary in August.

“I don’t welcome the outside interference,” Romanoff said. “My campaign is going to continue to rely on contributions from individuals,” he said, eschewing PACs and special-interest donors he labeled part of an “incumbent-protection racket” in his speech.

“When we win the primary,” Romanoff predicted, “we’ll find a lot of friends around the state and country we might not have now. But I’m not going to change my message to suit the interests of new-found friends.”

In 2008, the DSCC spent $4.5 million on advertising aimed at taking Colorado’s open Senate seat. In the last weeks of the campaign, the DSCC pulled its spending to focus on more competitive races, confident then-U.S. Rep. Mark Udall would defeat his Republican challenger, former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer, which he did.

Andrew Romanoff poses for a snapshot with a supporter outside his campaign headquarters.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

So far this cycle, the DSCC has sat mostly on the sidelines, as is its policy in states with contested Senate primaries.

Romanoff’s announcement came on the last day Colorado voters had to declare party affiliation for the March 16 caucuses, when Democrats will use the Senate primary to pick delegates for county and state assemblies. A candidate must get the support of at least 30 percent support at the state assembly to make the August 10 primary ballot.

Lessons of Massachusetts

The speech also came just hours before news broke that Massachusetts voters had elected Republican Scott Brown to fill the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat. Both Romanoff and the Bennet campaign drew lessons from that race — though the outcome wasn’t yet known, all signs pointed to trouble for Democrats in the traditionally Democratic state.

“What Massachusetts teaches us,” said Bennet campaign manager Craig Hughes, “is candidates have to run extremely aggressive campaigns from the get-go.”

Acknowledging Bennet started out a stranger to Colorado voters when he was appointed to the seat last year, Hughes said the campaign has made up ground.

“People are getting to know him,” Hughes said. “We’ve built up an extraordinary network of grassroots supporters in every county in Colorado.” Over the last three weeks, he said, Bennet traveled throughout the state and “did events in 20 different counties, where we had tremendous turnout and enthusiastic crowds, which really helped build on the momentum of this campaign.”

Romanoff, who boasted his campaign counts more than 5,000 supporters “covering every county in the state,” said backing continues to pour in. “We’re adding people every day,” noting he’s personally written 800 thank-you notes for contributions received since beginning of the year.

Though he declined to speculate on the Massachusetts Senate race before polls closed, Romanoff pointed to a similar mood he said he’s found across the state.

“I’ve been speaking to a lot of different groups, from Republican-leaning Rotary Clubs to Democratic gatherings in Boulder, in every corner of Colorado,” he said, “and the striking thing to me the last few weeks has been how much frustration people feel in both political parties. It’s an odd point of consensus.”

Bennet’s spokesman agreed about the mood, if not the best political
solution.

“The bottom line is, people are more concerned about what’s going on in their lives, having a senator fight for them to get jobs, change the status quo in health care, make sure the abuses of Wall Street don’t happen again. People are very concerned Washington is going to make things worse, not better.” In Bennet, Hughes said, “they see somebody who’s an outsider, not a traditional politician — in there shaking up the system, trying to get things done for Colorado.”

Romanoff blasts foes’ fundraising

“Over the last two weeks, I received hundreds of phone calls and e-mails, encouraging me to run for governor of Colorado,” Romanoff said. “And to be clear, not all of those messages came from Sen. Bennet himself.”

The crack drew laughter from the crowd of roughly 100 supporters gathered to hear Romanoff’s speech, but other than an ad libbed joke suggesting a ringing cell phone must be Bennet calling, it was the only explicit reference to the Democratic incumbent Romanoff would make.

His speech, however, was filled with fighting words that cast his “opponents” — undoubtedly Bennet and Republican front-runner, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, though Romanoff sidestepped direct questions and didn’t name his targets — as tools of special interests, bought-and-paid-for.

“The nation’s biggest insurance firms, drug-makers, oil companies, and Wall Street banks are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into my opponents’ campaign coffers,” Romanoff said. “Why? What do these donors expect to get in return for their money? And what have they already gotten?”

Romanoff continued: “Those are questions each candidate will have to answer. But here’s what we do know: The same special-interest groups that are bankrolling my opponents are blocking the reform we need in D.C.”

Hughes rejected Romanoff’s charges.

“The reality is, Michael Bennet was the first senator to take to the floor and criticize the backroom deals in the health care debate,” Hughes said. “The reality is, we need an outsider with public and private experience to come in and clean up Washington, not more politicians.”

The last point knocks Romanoff, who served in the statehouse for eight years until he was term-limited, compared with Bennet, who spent some years amassing a fortune restructuring national theater chains for billionaire Phil Anschutz before he entered politics. (Anschutz, a prominent conservative benefactor, is backing Norton in this election.)

Hughes dismissed the notion Bennet is in the pockets of special interests, particularly the financial concerns Romanoff called “bankers without scruples.”

“[Bennet is] also fighting for a consumer financial protection agency, he fought for lower credit card rates — he cast the deciding vote on the banking committee on credit card reform — and has consistently fought for Colorado in the Senate. Michael Bennet has a real record of accomplishment he’s already delivered for Colorado.”

For his part, Romanoff ticks off his own list of accomplishments racked up in the Legislature.

“As the speaker of the House,” he said, “I stood up to special-interest groups. We fought the insurance industry — and we won. We fought drug companies — and we won. We fought polluters — and we won. We fought predatory lenders and brokers — and we won.”

New media ratchets up tension

While Romanoff’s commitment to the Senate race came as no surprise once he announced it — his press secretary leaked the gist to The Denver Post’s political blog hours before the candidate spoke — it runs counter to a drumbeat of media and online reports diminishing his chances. Last week, the political news site Politico.com termed Romanoff “until recently a rising star in the state Democratic Party,” and a prominent attorney in Denver Democratic circles termed his candidacy “an unfair distraction” in comments to The Colorado Statesman.

Romanoff dismissed the notion he’s waging a spoiler campaign.

“Fortunately, Coloradans have a choice this year,” he said. “I say ‘fortunately,’ because some folks have forgotten what democracy is all about. Too many elections are foregone conclusions, contests in name only, or auctions in which public offices are sold to the highest bidder.”

The Colorado Pols political blog, where many rumors and arguments over Romanoff’s plans have played out, greeted Tuesday’s announcement with a lengthy post urging the “talented policy wonk who is widely liked and respected” to bring an end to his campaign, which the blog termed “downright awful” with the potential to “[destroy] his political future.”

Though Romanoff has said he’s skipped some critical articles and doesn’t read some of the more boisterous political blogs that breathlessly debate his future, including Colorado Pols, he said the breakneck pace of online politicking is a mixed bag. Surveying changes to the media landscape since he campaigned for the first time in 1994 – Romanoff says this will be the 10th election he’s worked, and he created a Twitter account for the occasion — he finds both pluses and minuses.

“The new media is a difference, it’s a growing source of information for voters, and I think that’s healthy,” Romanoff said. “It helps level the playing field. New technology is both a friend of grassroots campaigns like ours, and a source of misinformation, too, which gets spread more quickly.”

Senate race twists and turns

Romanoff’s announcement that he’s still running is only the latest wrinkle in a Senate campaign that has had its share, beginning a month after the 2008 election when President-elect Barack Obama tapped U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat first elected in 2004, to serve as secretary of the Interior.

Ritter, who had already bypassed Romanoff when he picked former state Rep. Bernie Buescher to fill the vacant secretary of state chair, scrambled expectations by plucking Denver Public Schools Superintendent Bennet for the job. Romanoff, Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, had all lobbied for the appointment and topped lists of potential Salazar replacements.

Branding the appointed incumbent vulnerable — Bennet, though he served as Hickenlooper’s chief of staff before taking the DPS job, has never run for office before this year — a cavalcade of Republicans tested the waters, and some dove in. But it wasn’t until fall that the current line-up shook out.

In quick succession, Jane Norton — prodded by national GOP powers, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose presidential campaign she co-chaired in Colorado — announced she was running, Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier stepped down to challenge Perlmutter in the 7th Congressional District, and former state Sen. Tom Wiens made lots of noise about running. While Wiens has mostly disappeared from the campaign trail since, Norton and Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck remain in the race along with businessman Cleve Tidwell, who hasn’t reported raising or spending any money so far.

Romanoff claims most donors

Romanoff declined on Tuesday to release fundraising totals for the most recent quarter, ending Dec. 31, saying his campaign would file its report with the Federal Election Commission at the end of January. But he boasted his campaign received donations from more in-state residents than any other for this filing period, a swipe at Bennet and Norton, who count numerous donations from out-of-state residents and interest groups.

“In the last quarter, more Coloradans contributed to our campaign than to any other candidate for any office in our state,” Romanoff said. “More than 2,200 Coloradans stood up to the powerbrokers and the party bosses and the political pundits.”

Bennet raised $1.16 million last quarter from 2,384 donors, including 1,689 Colorado residents, according to his campaign. That’s on top of a $3.66 million haul for the first nine months of last year, which included $686,963 from PACs.

Romanoff reported raising $292,689 in roughly two weeks after announcing his campaign in September. The total includes a $37,500 contribution Romanoff made to his own campaign.

As of Tuesday, Romanoff counted $263,899 raised from 1,965 supporters on ActBlue.com, the self-described “online clearinghouse” for Democratic candidates and causes, an amount dwarfed by the $1,337,434 Bennet has raised through the site from 2,434 donors.

Norton raised $1.59 million in 2009, according to her campaign, with about half that arriving in the month of September soon after she announced her run. Buck reported raising just shy of $500,000 in the first nine months of 2009 but hasn’t filed his 4th Quarter totals yet.

By comparison, Udall, the Democrat who won the 2008 Senate race, raised nearly $12 million, and Schaffer, his Republican opponent, raised over $7 million. The contest saw outside groups, including the DSCC and its Republican counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, pour tens of millions of additional dollars into the mix.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com