Dems Romanoff, Bennet star in party's top race

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

No one expects this year’s Democratic precinct caucuses to draw crowds like the ones that swamped school cafeterias and living rooms across Colorado two years ago, when throngs of invigorated Obama and Clinton supporters turned out 120,000 Democrats. But a month from now, a smaller number of Democrats — some estimate as few as 10,000, others predict as many as 50,000, but everyone’s just guessing — will convene precinct by precinct to begin picking between U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff for the party’s nomination to run in November for the seat Bennet now holds.

Former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and Sen. Michael Bennet were all smiles last summer — before Romanoff got into the race.

As the March 16 caucus night approaches, both the incumbent senator — a rookie campaigner appointed to the seat a year ago by Gov. Bill Ritter when Ken Salazar became secretary of the Interior — and the insurgent challenger — casting himself as a populist outsider after nearly a decade as the ultimate centrist Democratic insider — have been criss-crossing the state making their case before groups of Democrats. In family rooms and gymnasiums, coffee shops and union halls, and sometimes on gigantic conference calls, Bennet and Romanoff are campaigning the old fashioned way, meeting voters face-to-face (or voice-to-voice on the conference calls), discussing the issues of the day and asking for support.

“What we need in Washington today, and the reason I’m running for this job, is real leadership,” Romanoff told a standing-room-only crowd attending a House District 22 meeting at an Old Chicago restaurant in Lakewood last week. “Not just speechmaking on the floor of the Senate, but real leadership to actually move the agenda forward.”

Bennet sounds a similar note of urgency and frustration with the Senate.

“What I’ve been doing ever since I ended up in this job is traveling our state, every second I can, having conversations like this,” he told a gathering of Democrats at a gallery in Denver’s 910Arts complex last weekend. “Because I think the trivial political conversation we’re having on the floor of the Senate right now is completely detached from the facts… We need to do a lot better than that if we’re going to be able to solve the challenges we face right now, which are extraordinary.”

It’s the first statewide Democratic primary since 2004, when activist Mike Miles won top line on the primary ballot but fell to then-Attorney General Salazar, who went on to win the primary and then the election. That primary cleaved the party, leaving wounds that festered for years, and this primary is already turning contentious.

Republicans meet the same night to start selecting their nominee for the Senate. Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, former state Sen. Tom Wiens, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, businessman Cleve Tidwell and patent attorney Steve Barton crowd the field vying for the chance to take on the eventual Democratic nominee. The field of Republican hopefuls has expanded since Salazar, considered a strong favorite for re-election to a second term, stepped aside and put the seat in play.

National Republicans, for their part, are salivating at the chance to reverse a string of Democratic victories in Colorado in an election year when a sour economy and frustration with ruling Democrats could tilt the state. Democrats, in turn, are anxious to hold the seat and, with it, a chance at keeping a majority in a Senate wracked by partisan divide. By most accounts, the Senate campaign will be the most expensive ever waged in Colorado, surpassing even the 2008 contest between former U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, who won, and his Republican rival, former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer. The two campaigns spent nearly $20 million between them and numerous outside groups poured in even more cash, as much as $15 million.

In many ways, the two candidates couldn’t be more alike. Both men, in their mid 40s, grew up in Washington, D.C., and went to college in New England, eventually earning degrees from Yale before moving to Colorado in the 1990s, where their paths diverged until meeting again this year on the campaign trail.

(Bennet took a job turning around businesses owned by conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz, amassing a personal fortune, before becoming Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s first chief of staff, later running Denver Public Schools as superintendent until Ritter tapped him for the Senate vacancy. Romanoff worked for former Democratic Gov. Roy Romer and subsequently won election four times to a southeast Denver state House seat, which he relinquished due to term limits last year after serving two terms as speaker.)

Arapahoe County Commissioner and former state Rep. Frank Weddig, right, introduces U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, left, at a gathering Jan. 30 at Weddig’s Aurora home. Bennet’s daughter, Caroline, is behind the candles.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

But in other ways, even as their stump speeches cover much of the same ground and many of the solutions they propose are virtually interchangeable, Romanoff and Bennet couldn’t be more different. Make no mistake: Both candidates are eloquent and display a breathtakingly detailed knowledge of policy questions, by turns grimly serious and warmly humorous before crowds; but to twist an old adage, Romanoff campaigns in poetry, while Bennet campaigns in prose.

Where Romanoff grabs his audiences by the emotional lapels, firing them up to bring change to a corrupt system, Bennet looks them in the eye and enlists them to join him taking on — well, the same corrupt system. It should be no surprise this year, when the Senate appears to be stuck in an endless stalemate of cloture vote after cloture vote — despite Democrats holding the largest majority any party has had for decades — that both Bennet and Romanoff are running not so much for the Senate as against it.

Even though both candidates agree the Senate is broken — “at this point (it) is completely dysfunctional,” Bennet says, and Romanoff finds plenty of opportunity to call what goes on there “outrageous” — they place their primary blame for the jam on different factors.

“Too many Democrats,” Romanoff told the House District 22 crowd, “are too scared of their own shadows, or lack the courage of our convictions. Too many folks on the other side of the aisle seem to lack any convictions at all other than the desire to take the Democrats out of power. And too many folks on both sides of the aisle get too easily seduced by the special interests that subsidize their campaigns.”

It’s his clearest line of attack against Bennet, who has proven to be a fundraising powerhouse. The Bennet campaign reported $4,748,673 in contributions by the end of 2008, including $885,195 from political action committees.

Romanoff vowed early on he wouldn’t take money from PACs or “special interests” and — either consequently or despite this policy — raised just $629,909 last year, albeit in only four months, since he didn’t enter the campaign until September. The vast majority of those donations were from Colorado residents, Romanoff points out, claiming the highest number of individual, in-state donors of any Colorado campaign last quarter.

“The problem is,” Romanoff said, “we have sold our soul to the industries that bankroll our campaigns.”

Bennet fingers another set of culprits for the Senate’s woes, blaming a bitterly partisan political culture stoked by 24-hour cable news networks, and procedural advantages taken by Republican Party leaders hell-bent on blocking any Democratic initiatives.

“What would help,” Bennet, said, “is if everyone would turn off the cable TV, because it is unshackled from reality.”

Romanoff addresses a gathering of his campaign’s Jefferson County volunteers at the Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 9 hall in Lakewood.
Photo by Ernest Luning
The Colorado Statesman

It’s a point he drove home earlier last week in a colloquy that Democratic senators held with President Barack Obama. At the meeting, which was televised on C-SPAN, Bennet was one of several senators in less-than-comfortably-safe seats who stood to address Obama. The president offered some advice, which Bennet echoed to the Denver crowd.

“The fact (cable news is) on all the time means it’s all about process,” Bennet said. “Because the substance doesn’t change all the time, every five minutes — it just doesn’t — the substance doesn’t change every five months. But someone’s willing to say something stupid every 15 minutes, or it seems like they are, and that becomes the story.”

Both Romanoff and Bennet shake their fists and rail against “backroom deals,” assigning them particular fault for Democrats’ problems passing comprehensive health care reform.

“One of the reasons (health care reform) came to grief,” Bennet said at the 910Arts campaign stop, “is the American people — and it wasn’t just Republicans, it was everybody — the American people saw these backroom deals being cut and they threw up all over — excuse the expression — the process.”

“I was the first Democrat on the floor to say that these backroom deals shouldn’t be going on,” Bennet continued, “and we should stop it, and cut it out. I got attacked, actually, by the (National Republican Senatorial Committee) for not getting a backroom deal for Colorado. Only in Washington, D.C., would you be accused of not doing a backroom deal.”

Romanoff, for his part, cuts the incumbent senator no slack for his presence within shouting distance of those deals.

First, Romanoff blasts U.S. Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, and Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, for deals the two conservative Democrats cut to win their support for the health care package ultimately passed by the Senate in December.

“Those backroom deals are not in the best spirit of our party or our country,” Romanoff said at the House District 22 meeting. “And it would have taken just one senator from the majority party to stand up and say, ‘No. If you want my vote,’ one senator could have said, ‘it’s not enough just to cut a deal for Nebraska or Louisiana or my state, you need to cut a deal for the United States.’ But not a single senator did. Plenty of folks took to the floor of the Senate after the deal was cut, the bill was passed, and after the die was cast, and denounced the bill they had just voted for,” Romanoff said, pointing to his primary opponent without naming him.

“But that’s not leadership, that’s not what it takes to stand up, even to your own party, and make things happen,” Romanoff said. “We need that kind of leadership in the Senate, and in this health care debate, and we didn’t get it.”

The two candidates agree that minority Republicans’ recent practice of threatening a filibuster in the Senate at every turn deserves the scorn of Democrats, and even propose similar solutions.

“The filibuster was never supposed to be about killing legislation,” Bennet told a group of Denver voters. “It was about debate — making sure there was debate.”

Citing a recent vote to create a bipartisan commission to recommend ways to tackle the national deficit — which failed to overcome Republican filibuster threats with an insufficient 53 votes, even though seven GOP sponsors of the bill voted against it — Bennet threw up his hands at the absurdity of the Senate’s “arcane rules” that instead require a 60-vote supermajority to move anything forward.

“We can stomp our feet and say it’s crazy,” Bennet said, “but we’ve got to do a lot more than that and make sure people understand what the stakes are.”

In addition to touting a proposal by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that would reduce the number of votes required to overcome a filibuster as time passed, Bennet suggested taking a page from Jimmy Stewart — insisting Republicans actually perform an old-fashioned filibuster, not simply threaten one.

“They ought to be out on the floor (of the Senate) reading the telephone book, just so people can see what’s going on,” Bennet said at a packed gathering at the Aurora home of Arapahoe County Commissioner Frank Weddig late last month.

Romanoff made the same point at the House District 22 meeting, saying he would be happy to see senators forced to take to the floor reading from cookbooks. “Let’s see how long their lungs, and their bladders, and the American people will hold out,” he said. “The filibuster was not designed to be the mechanism we use for every piece of legislation. The Republican minority has just twisted it to that purpose, and we should call their bluff.”

In addition, Romanoff and Bennet sound like they’re in general agreement on the need to pass legislation to correct the recent Supreme Court decision granting corporations the rights given to individuals when it comes to political speech. Both list a similar set of possible fixes, including requiring corporations to ask shareholders for approval before spending money for ads, or insisting corporate CEOs appear in any political ads, the same way candidates must.

Both candidates shine on the stump

Both candidates are also proving to be persuasive on the stump. It’s a common occurrence after a campaign stop for previously undecided voters to leave the event nodding, smiling, won over. “He’s got my support,” more than a few have told The Colorado Statesman on the way out the door, “though I should probably check out the other guy too.”

A good half of those reactions mark a distinct turn-around for Bennet, who left some audiences lukewarm and scratching their heads for much of last year when the freshly minted senator seemed ill at ease, visibly working to connect with voters, a newcomer to retail politics.

Coloradans whose first impressions of Bennet weren’t favorable might be surprised at how easily the senator commands a room these days, moving assuredly from topic to topic and fielding an enormous range of questions without pausing or sounding the least bit strained. And while Bennet will probably never match Romanoff’s reputation as one of the funniest politicians around – a deserved distinction the jocular Romanoff has held for years – his meetings with voters have their share of laugh-out-loud moments and quiet chuckles that keep the policy-heavy discussions from sagging.

Still, there’s no denying Bennet is playing catch-up when it comes to connecting with particular Democrats, especially many party stalwarts who reliably attend even uncontested caucuses. Romanoff, for years a fixture at county dinners and fundraisers in the farthest corners of the state, routinely greets precinct workers and district captains by name. When he takes to the podium at virtually any gathering of party operatives, Romanoff receives a nearly unanimous standing ovation, and the warmth from the crowd is palpable.

Appearing in his trademark dark suit, perfectly knotted tie, under a luxurious long coat and draped with a colorful scarf when it’s cold out, Romanoff cuts a dashing figure. By contrast, Bennet, who often meets voters with one of his three daughters in tow, is as likely to show up in blue jeans and a denim shirt and appears to have his sleeves rolled up even when they’re hidden under a sport coat.

There’s no mistaking the influence of a newly hired group of prominent national political consultants — including Joe Trippi, who managed presidential candidate Howard Dean’s campaign, and Fox News Channel analyst Patrick Caddell. They joined the Romanoff campaign late last month, and the campaign has recently taken on a sharper tone in its attacks on Bennet and his fundraising.

“I don’t want to have to pick between doing what’s right for my constituents and what’s profitable for my biggest contributors,” Romanoff told the House District 22 crowd.

It’s an attack the Romanoff campaign has taken to the Internet with the release last week of a stinging Web video titled “The Best Senator Money Can’t Buy.” The two-minute ad portrays a white-haired senator straight from central casting, who ignores a group of constituents and instead greedily accepts piles of cash from sharp-dressed suitors. “I want you to know that this won’t affect my vote,” the fictional senator says, clutching wads of bills. “This is just the way we do things in Washington.” Then Romanoff appears, replacing the corrupt senator, and pushes away the money as the fat cats visibly sag at this turn of events.

“Andrew is the only candidate in the Colorado U.S. Senate race who refuses to accept special interest money,” the message continues over a dark screen. “Andrew's opponent in the Democratic primary has already accepted contributions from these special interest groups,” the screen reads and then goes on to scroll a lengthy list of Bennet donors under the headings “Banking and Finance,” “Insurance,” “Pharmaceuticals,” and “Oil & Gas.”

If Romanoff’s attacks are gaining traction among Democrats, it isn’t yet apparent at his opponent’s events, where a multitude of questions raised haven’t included any suggestion Bennet might be beholden to his big-money contributors.

Bennet dismisses the criticism with the wave of a hand, never mentioning Romanoff by name. But he’s clearly anxious to get down to business campaigning against a Republican opponent instead of a fellow Democrat who shares the vast majority of Bennet’s views.

“If we are willing to contribute to a meaningful conversation about where this country is headed, and the direction this state will go,” Bennet told the 910Arts crowd, “we can hold this seat in 2010. …What we’re going to have to do is run an enormously effective campaign,” he said, his frustration evident at postponing the main event. “We’ve got to get after it.”

Political observers contend Romanoff’s indifference, if not outright hostility, toward the usual sources of campaign funds — including the Bennet-backing Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which Romanoff has termed an element of an “incumbent protection racket” — could stymie his ability to run against the Republican nominee should he win the primary.

Not so, Romanoff insists.

“When we win the primary, 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,” Romanoff told The Colorado Statesman last month after a press conference where he announced he would be staying in the Senate race despite supporters urging him to consider running for governor after Ritter said he wouldn’t seek re-election.

Beginning the year with only a fraction of the campaign funds Bennet has on hand doesn’t matter, Romanoff says. He vows he’ll raise what it takes to wage a successful race by appealing to individual donors fed up with the usual politics, but he warns against measuring a campaign’s viability by its bank balance.

“If money were all that mattered,” Romanoff told Democratic officials at a 7th Congressional District meeting last month, “John Corzine would still be governor of New Jersey, Gov. Bob Beauprez would be running for
re-election in Colorado this year, and Pete Coors would be the incumbent senator.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com