Romanoff, Bennet put on their best spin

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Both Democrats running for Colorado’s U.S. Senate seat did what they needed to Tuesday night when former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff won a preference poll conducted at precinct caucuses with just a hair under 50 percent support, compared with just under 42 percent support for the incumbent, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. And both candidates declared victory, making the case they’d beaten the odds in the first step toward an August primary election that will almost certainly see both men on the ballot.

Andrew Romanoff makes a last-minute appeal to Democrats at one of seven precinct caucuses held Tuesday night at Steele Elementary School in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Romanoff, who announced in September he would challenge Bennet, appointed last January to fill Ken Salazar’s term, trumpeted his 8-point margin as proof his insurgent campaign successfully took on a sitting senator.

“Despite an avalanche of corporate cash, despite hundreds of thousands of glossy brochures and out-of-state robocalls, despite the most elaborate efforts of a national political machine, we won,” Romanoff said the next morning at a press conference at his southeast Denver headquarters. “Main Street won. Wall Street lost.”

Bennet, whose campaign tamped down expectations leading up to the caucuses — and as recently as a month ago suggested he would petition onto the ballot if necessary — touted Romanoff’s single-digit lead as proof the former Denver Public Schools superintendent had overcome built-in advantages the challenger has with party regulars.

“This is a huge victory for us,” Bennet campaign manager Craig Hughes said in a statement as results were still trickling in late Tuesday. “Competing against a political network built over nearly two decades is never easy, but not only did our opponent not do as well as expected, tonight gave us the opportunity to build a valuable grassroots base that will help us win in the fall.”

Bennet spent caucus night in Washington, unable to return to Colorado because of pending Senate action, Hughes said.

By press time, with just 17 of the state’s 3,246 precincts yet to report, Romanoff led with 11,412 votes, or 49.95 percent, and Bennet tallied 9,566 votes, or 41.87 percent — a difference of one half a vote per precinct. A total of 1,852 precinct goers were uncommitted, accounting for 8.11 percent of votes cast.

U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff scored a 150-27 victory over Sen. Michael Bennet in the preference polls taken at the caucuses at Steele Elementary School, including the one in his home precinct.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Each precinct selected delegates to send to county assemblies, which, in turn, will each pick delegates to the state assembly May 22 in Broomfield, where those delegates decide who gets on the Aug. 10 primary ballot. At the state assembly, either candidate must get the support of at least 30 percent of the delegates to make the ballot, with the top vote-getter winning top-line designation.

As things stand, both Romanoff and Bennet are likely to cross that threshold easily, but the Bennet campaign downplayed the importance of coming in first at the state assembly rather than simply doing well enough to make the ballot.

“Nearly 30 years worth of historic evidence also suggests that the caucus and assembly process is no indication of success in the primary campaign,” the Bennet camp said in a release, invoking several primary elections in recent years when second-place finishers went on to win the primary. Salazar, for instance, overwhelmed caucus and assembly favorite Mike Miles in the Democratic primary six years ago and then went on to defeat Republican Pete Coors in the general election.

Votes in the preference poll don’t translate directly into delegate numbers because of complicated threshold rules. Every candidate clearing 15 percent support at each caucus is supposed to be represented with at least one delegate, so even a lopsided win by one candidate could mean similar numbers of delegates chosen at the precinct level. To complicate matters further, even though delegates are chosen based on support for candidates, once chosen they aren’t pledged and can vote however they like at assemblies.

At Romanoff’s home precinct caucus at Steele Elementary School in Denver’s Washington Park neighborhood, for example, after a preliminary show of hands indicated 21 votes for Romanoff and eight votes for Bennet, Democrats spoke on behalf of the two candidates before the final, binding vote.

A coin toss decided which candidate’s supporters went first. Bennet won, so a man who said he was new to the neighborhood rose to speak. “I’ve heard nothing but kudos and compliments in your direction,” the man began, nodding to Romanoff, who acknowledged the words with a shy smile. But, the man continued, Bennet’s background in finance — restructuring companies for conservative billionaire Phil Anschutz a decade ago — is a rare attribute in the Senate. “He might be able to see a black cloud in the sky before it rains on you,” the Bennet supporter said. “He’s a problem solver. I think he’s someone we need to keep (in the Senate).”

A Romanoff supporter countered that Bennet’s background — and demonstrated fundraising prowess, raising more than $1 million in each of last year’s quarters, dwarfing Romanoff’s haul — is the problem. She blasted the “cynicism chasing dollars for campaign purposes,” a theme Romanoff himself has made a centerpiece of his campaign by refusing to accept contributions from political action committees. Sure, Bennet has a huge war chest, the Romanoff supporter said, but that isn’t all that counts. “There’s electability in being an extraordinarily good politician,” she said, “there’s electability in being an extraordinarily good man.”

Following a couple more rounds — including praise from a Bennet backer who called her vote “a tragic choice” because “we have two phenomenal people running,” and a Romanoff backer who remembered voting for Romanoff a decade ago when he first ran for the Legislature — the precinct boss called for a vote. At the suggestion of a Bennet supporter, caucus goers voted by secret ballot, but the result was unchanged from the initial poll: 21-8 in Romanoff’s favor with no one uncommitted.

Some quick calculations later, the precinct officers announced there would be three Romanoff delegates and one Bennet delegate from Precinct 653, with an equal number of alternates. Choosing delegates was easy. “Who wants to be a delegate for Romanoff?” someone asked, and six people stood. “How many are willing to be alternates?” Three raised their hands, and it was decided. The same efficient procedure yielded the Bennet delegate and a willing alternate for the Denver County assembly on April 10.

All the while, Romanoff campaign aides darted in and out of the classroom where the caucus was held, reporting results from the other six precincts meeting at the school. Most of the other precincts tilted more lopsidedly toward Romanoff — 17-1 in Precinct 620; 20-2 with two uncommitted in Precinct 637. By the time all seven caucuses had wrapped up, Romanoff had won the building 150-27.

As the night progressed and precincts reported results to state Democratic Party headquarters, it became clear Romanoff scored one of his biggest victories that night in Denver, winning 60 percent of the vote to Bennet’s 35 percent.

While Romanoff carried most of the metro area counties — notching wins in Jefferson, Arapahoe, Adams, Douglas and Broomfield counties, in addition to carrying Denver — Bennet held his own in other population centers around the state, prevailing in Boulder, El Paso, Larimer and Mesa counties. The two candidates came to a virtual tie — with Bennet ahead by a single vote out of more than 500 cast — in Weld County. Both candidates showed varying degrees of strength throughout the rest of the state.

“It’s refreshing to see folks discuss candidates — it’s a little embarrassing if you’re the candidate sitting in the room — but it’s a pretty wholesome way to run a democracy,” Romanoff told The Colorado Statesman after the caucus concluded. “Tomorrow the television ads will begin and people will be subjected to the 30-second spots that they hate. But regardless of the outcome tonight, we’re going to continue to make our case one precinct at a time, one door at a time, one house party at a time. This is very much a grassroots effort.”

The television ads Romanoff mentioned belong to Bennet, whose campaign announced hours before caucuses started that he would begin a massive advertising campaign the next day. It’s the first time Bennet has ever advertised on TV, his campaign pointed out, underlining the point Bennet is a newcomer to politics.

“I’ve been in Washington for only a year,” Bennet says in the ad. “But it didn’t take that long to see the whole place is broken. It’s time to give them a wake up call,” he says, and then goes on to list a series of reforms he’s proposed, including freezing congressional pay until the economy turns around and banning members of Congress “from ever becoming lobbyists.”

Bennet’s campaign plans to spend $300,000 running the ad for two weeks on Denver and Colorado Springs stations, Hughes said. That’s roughly half the amount Romanoff raised all last year, and barely a fraction of the $4,748,673 in contributions Bennet reported in 2009. (This year’s first quarter closes at the end of March and candidates have to report fundraising totals April 15.)

“I’m sure Wall Street will find other places to spend our money, but at least some television stations will get rich off their money,” Romanoff said about his rival’s imminent ad campaign. He said it’s “probably safe to say” his campaign wouldn’t be announcing a similar ad campaign anytime soon. But he was unwilling to concede any advantage to Bennet’s campaign.

“The really inspiring, genuinely moving thing to me has been how many people who are down on their luck, struggling to pay their bills, who’ve lost their jobs — people who’ve lost their jobs — are writing checks to our campaign,” Romanoff said in an interview Tuesday night with The Colorado Statesman.

“People come up to our events and say here’s $5, here’s $10. That means a lot more to me than the folks who write off $4,800 checks without blinking or losing sleep or doing more than shaking out their couch cushions for it,” Romanoff said. “This system, this pay-to-play political culture, which says only the most powerful interest groups get heard — only the wealthiest corporate contributors get the ear of a congressman or senator — I think that system is grotesque, I think it’s obscene, it has distorted the pool of candidates who chose to run, it has warped the ones who win, and it has certainly disfigured the democracy that emerges as a result. I don’t know how to put it more strongly.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com