Dem Senate candidates trade barbs over Bennet petition drive

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

One thing is clear: Sen. Michael Bennet — who by most accounts should have little trouble gaining enough support from Democratic state assembly delegates to be nominated for the August primary election — plans to carry out a parallel petition drive to get on the ballot. What’s in dispute is whether this is a sign of ambition and strength, as Bennet’s camp maintains, or a sign of desperation and weakness, as supporters of his challenger, former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, contend.

Does the petition drive — announced last Friday afternoon, when campaigns customarily bury bad news — mean the incumbent senator is running scared? Or is it a bold stroke designed to jumpstart for Bennet the kind of grassroots following Romanoff has spent more than a decade cultivating?

As Democrats head into the home stretch of county assemblies — including “Super Saturday” on April 10 when 21 counties will pick roughly two-thirds of the delegates for the state assembly — both candidates say they’re doing better than expected. Both campaigns also express confidence they’ll get a spot on the primary ballot by winning the necessary 30 percent support at the May 22 state assembly in Broomfield. But the Romanoff campaign, pointing to what it says are significant shifts in delegate support at county assemblies, is skeptical about the Bennet campaign’s claims.

“We’re confident. Clearly Sen. Bennet is not,” said Romanoff campaign spokesman Dean Toda. “Otherwise he wouldn’t be launching a petition campaign.”

“It’s natural Andrew and his campaign would push back against it,” said Bennet campaign spokesman Trevor Kincaid, “but I don’t think it’s a strong argument.”

He said the Bennet campaign is focused on winning the general election against a well-funded Republican, and that takes the kind of statewide voter outreach a petition drive can accomplish, in addition to winning support from the several thousand Democratic activists who attend caucuses and assemblies.

“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Kincaid said. He added that the decision to pursue a statewide petition drive as an organizing tool was made before county assemblies shifted a handful of delegates Romanoff’s way over the past two weeks.

A preference poll taken March 16 at precinct caucuses showed Romanoff with 49.91 percent support, Bennet with 41.85 percent, and 8.16 percent uncommitted. Through Wednesday, the 33 county assemblies that had selected delegates allocated roughly 53 percent to Romanoff and 43 percent to Bennet, with the remaining 4 percent still uncommitted. Delegates at each stage of the Democratic caucus-assembly process aren’t pledged to a candidate but are selected based on candidate preference.

“In this Washington, we support the grassroots candidate,” Romanoff taunted on his Twitter account Tuesday night. “Washington County voted for us at tonight’s assembly by a margin of 3 to 1!”

He was referring to a Bennet campaign TV commercial airing since last week that contrasts the way things work in Washington, D.C., with rural Washington County on Colorado’s eastern plains.

Washington County gave Romanoff almost no support on caucus night, with just a single Democrat opting for the challenger out of 17 Democrats who made it to the county’s neighborhood meetings. Of the remaining votes cast at Washington County’s precincts, five went to Bennet and 11 were uncommitted. By the time the county assembly convened Tuesday night, Romanoff emerged with three delegates headed to state and Bennet had one.

Kincaid said the Bennet campaign planned to contact 30,000 Democrats in its petition drive. “The goal of this grassroots operation is to talk to voters around the state who don’t necessarily go to caucuses,” he said. The campaign will be using staff and volunteers, rather than an outside firm hired to gather signatures, as some Colorado campaigns have done.

“I don’t know whether that constitutes quality outreach,” Toda said. “The Bennet campaign may think so. But I think by far the more practical and logical explanation for this move is that the Bennet campaign is scared, is afraid they won’t make the 30 percent threshold at state.”

Kincaid said the petition drive — while it will be an actual nominating petition approved by the Colorado secretary of state — is geared to signing up individual votes for the primary and general elections. Toward that end, he said, the campaign will ask voters who sign the petition to also sign a “commitment card,” a postcard the campaign plans to mail back to the voter who signed it about a week before the election.

“According to some research we’ve seen, people are exponentially more likely to go out to the polls and then vote for you when they commit to vote for you,” Kincaid said.

Toda dismissed the cards as another expensive stunt from the Bennet campaign.

“They have spent going on a million dollars now on television ads,” Toda said, “and I would imagine they spent an equal amount before the caucuses on mailers and robocalls trying to energize voters to support him. But he’s not getting the response from the backbone of the Colorado Democratic Party.”

Kincaid discounted Romanoff campaign charges that a petition drive disrespects party activists who take the time to attend caucuses and assemblies and scoffed at claims county delegates are gravitating toward Romanoff.

“Andrew’s gaining and we’re gaining delegates — we’re both picking people up,” he said. “The undecideds are breaking both ways. …We’re very happy with our delegates and thrilled that they’re supporting us, and we’re excited that we’re above 40 percent.”

Bennet, appointed to the job last January to replace Ken Salazar when he took over at the Department of Interior, drew a challenge from Romanoff last September.

Romanoff has highlighted his refusal to accept donations from political action committees and blasted Bennet for raising campaign contributions from PACs and out-of-state donors. Bennet reported raising $4,748,673 in 2009, swamping the $629,908 Romanoff reported last year. Reports on the 1st Quarter of 2010, which closed at the end of March, aren’t due until April 15.

Observers have estimated Colorado’s Senate campaign will cost each party’s nominee as much as $15 million. Republicans probably have a primary of their own, with Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton emerging from caucuses in a dead heat based on a GOP straw poll. Former state Sen. Tom Wiens, R-Castle Rock, lagged Buck and Norton caucus night but has since said he plans to petition onto the ballot, likely making for a three-way race. To gain a spot on Colorado’s statewide primary ballot, petitioners must gather 10,500 valid signatures, 1,500 from each of the state’s seven congressional districts.

Democrats can be fickle as the nomination process moves from caucuses to county assemblies to the state assembly and finally the August 10 primary election, as Salazar and his 2004 opponent, educator Mike Miles, learned first-hand. Then-Attorney General Salazar, at the time the only Democrat elected statewide, won the lion’s share of support at precinct and county levels. But then things flipped at the state assembly when delegates awarded Miles top-line on the ballot. Months later, Salazar returned the favor by trouncing Miles 2-to-1 in the primary. He went on to defeat Republican nominee Pete Coors.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com