Buck bests Norton in Republican race

Wiens still in contention - may try to petition onto GOP primary ballot

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The Republican caucus preference poll on Tuesday locked Republican U.S. Senate candidates Ken Buck, Weld County District Attorney, and former Colorado Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in a shoulder-to-shoulder battle for the GOP nomination.

Colorado Republican Party Victory Director Chuck Poplstein, left, and Cameron Lynch, political consultant, right, keep track of caucus results as they’re phoned in from county parties.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman

As late straw poll results continued to trickle in before press time, Buck held a slim lead over Norton, 38.2 percent to 37.5 percent of votes cast by 25,444 Republicans. The figures represented 98 percent of the caucus straw polls. The tally excludes Moffat County Republicans who opted out of the caucus survey.

Trailing Buck and Norton are former state Sen. Tom Wiens, who captured 16.5 percent of votes cast and businessman Cleve Tidwell who received 5.9 percent. The remaining 2 percent of votes were divvied among patent attorney Steve Barton, Vincent Martinez, Dr. Robert Greenheck and “other” or undecided.

The straw poll results surprised many, but not veteran political consultant Walt Klein, Buck’s campaign consultant this election cycle. Klein sees the emergence of a new trend in statewide campaigns, which he described as a “grass roots versus grass tops” contest.

The trend, he said, evolved from the 2008 presidential campaigns and has been fueled over the past year by discontent with the policies of President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress. Klein said that policies, from bailing out Wall Street to taking over health care, have “jolted” voters — not just those registered as Republican –— out of their comfort zone.

Old technology meets new: Trendsetter Alan Philp, left, references his Blackberry while GOP state Chairman Dick Wadhams, right, consults staff notes.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman

“Ken is truly the grassroots candidate,” said Klein, who characterized Norton as the “officially anointed and officially endorsed candidate” by Washington, D.C. insiders and endorsements by political leaders in Colorado.

Norton has been endorsed by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and U.S. Senators Bill Armstrong and Hank Brown. That support might boost a candidate’s credibility in a conventional election cycle, Klein said, but it doesn’t influence voters in this unconventional election year.

Norton’s campaign Press Secretary, Nate Strauch, took issue with Klein’s appraisal.

“Ken Buck likes to paint himself as the ‘grassroots candidate.’ But in a grassroots setting like the caucuses — on what Buck claims is his home turf — Jane garnered the same amount of support,” declared Strauch.

“Jane Norton has fundraising ability that Buck doesn’t. She has the backing of Colorado’s top Republican leaders like Sen. Hank Brown, which Buck doesn’t. And now, she has proven to have just as much grassroots support as Ken Buck. Exactly what does he have left?” asked Strauch.

In the 4th quarter last year, Norton added roughly $551,000 to her campaign coffer, and Buck raised nearly $40,000. Republican competitor Wiens reported raising more than $700,000, but over half came from his personal money. Across the aisle, Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet added $1.15 million to his war chest and challenger former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff raised $337,000.

Republican state party Chairman Dick Wadhams holds up handwritten notes with preliminary caucus results after a live television interview.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman

In a conventional political game, money speaks volumes — and perhaps still does. Yet, Klein’s political perceptions appear to be validated by the caucus straw polls that give advantages to Romanoff and Buck. The question remains on whether the poll results will snare more campaign funds for the perceived “underdog” candidates.

State GOP Chair Dick Wadhams cautioned that straw polls give “a snapshot” of voter sentiment, but are not scientific.

“The poll is important because it gives Republicans a voice at their caucuses, but it’s not definitive,” said Wadhams, who instituted the straw polls in 2008. “Caucuses begin the marathon — it’s not a sprint — to ultimately winning the general election.”

In the U.S. Senate race, the path now leads to courting state delegates — some of whom have not yet been selected — and winning the party’s nomination. After the state assembly, the party could face a primary. Candidates traveling the caucus-to-assembly route must gain 30 percent of the vote to be placed on the primary ballot or capture 10 percent to petition onto the ballot. Candidates may also bypass this traditional party route and directly petition onto the ballot.

The television and radio advertising prior to caucuses was unprecedented according to Klein. Yet, the ad blitzes might also have had some influence.

Klein said he thought it was a waste of money, particularly for the Norton campaign to air ads that attacked Obama during his visit last month to boost Bennet’s campaign with public appearances and a fundraiser and her follow-up ad to establish her candidacy.

“TV ads have less impact than anything that you could communicate to caucus goers,” said Klein of ads run by the Norton campaign as well as the Wiens campaign. “They advertised to establish their conservative credentials. I find it baffling.”

Norton’s campaign, however, had been attacked by conservative groups as well as Democratic groups. Do they take the hits and keep silent? Norton’s campaign noted that they didn’t launch an ad attack on the Republican opponents — instead they publicized her campaign platform.

Klein conceded that the first ad in the race sounded like an endorsement of Buck and helped build his name ID.

“It was helpful at the time to get Ken’s name out,” said Klein of the Campaign for Liberty’s TV ad that aired in late January and early February.

Campaign for Liberty, a nonprofit founded and chaired by Texas Congressman Ron Paul, paid for the ad that lauded Buck. But, Paul demanded that the ad be yanked because it did not conform to the organization’s nonprofit status — and it claimed that Norton hadn’t returned the organization’s survey which she had not received.

There were also recent ads aired by the Declaration Alliance and Taxpayers for Liberty that slammed Norton. In addition, the Wiens campaign ran radio ads promoting him and pummeling Norton. The basis of the ads was criticizing her support for Referendum C that was passed by voters in 2005 because of a recession that hit in the years following the “9-11” terrorist attack in 2001.

Norton had supported the referendum that was passed by Colorado voters. Unmentioned were votes cast in the legislature by Wiens that would have suspended portions of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights.

During Wiens’ tenure in the state Senate, he’d voted for four measures that did the same thing. Perhaps the most game changing was House Concurrent Resolution 001 in 2004 that called for an 8-year suspension of the TABOR amendment and dramatically changed the formula to allow the state to keep more money from taxpayer revenue.

“It’s unfortunate that a wealthy Ken Buck supporter chose to use shady 527 (committees) to run $600,000 in attack ads against Jane,” said Strauch. “Our campaign is focused on the real enemy — Michael Bennet and the big spenders in Washington. Other Republican campaigns would do well to do the same.”

Add to the conservative-based barrage of attacks, ads, e-mails and YouTube video assaults against Norton that were launched by the Democratic Party’s Colorado Progress Now. On Tuesday, the group aired an ad and new Web site that depicts Norton as a puppet.

“Jane Norton has been attacked from the left and the right,” declared Cinamon Watson, Norton’s deputy campaign manager. “The polling result from the grassroots caucuses is a victory.”

Klein said that Buck’s opponent has “badly underestimated the grassroots voters in this election.” They have a “threshold test” for candidates, he said, that rates conservative values, personality and style. A candidate, who passes that test, Klein concluded, is then considered trustworthy.

Strauch said, “We took nothing for granted heading into caucuses, and we’ll take nothing for granted in a possible primary and on into November. “Klein predicted, “There will be a primary between two Republican candidates.”

Perhaps, Republicans will face a three-way primary, particularly if the Wiens campaign has a say.

“We’re going to be on the primary ballot,” said John Ransom, Wiens campaign communications director.

Ransom said that Wiens did well considering that the campaign wasn’t launched until the first week in November.

“We didn’t start campaigning until the first of the year,” he said.

“Nobody respects the caucus system more than Tom,” said Ransom, who declined to say whether Wiens would opt to petition onto the ballot and skirt around the caucus-to-assembly process.

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com