As expected, Romanoff bests Bennet at state assembly

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

When all the speeches had been spoken, all the banners had been waved, and all the votes had been counted, Colorado’s Democratic Senate primary looked about the same as it had before the party convened last weekend in Broomfield.

Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff answers questions from the media after winning top line on the August primary ballot.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, the challenger, needed a solid win at the state assembly. Delegates did not disappoint, handing him 60 percent of the vote and top line on the ballot. And incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet needed to qualify for the August primary election. Again, delegates delivered, his 40 percent showing a good 10 points above what was required.

The final vote was 2,156 delegates for Romanoff and 1,413 for Bennet. It was the only contested race at the Democratic state assembly May 22 at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield.

In addition to setting up a Senate primary, delegates nominated Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper to run for governor and Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett to run for attorney general. State Treasurer Cary Kennedy and Secretary of State Bernie Buescher won unanimous nods to appear on the November ballot, along with University of Colorado Regent at-large candidate Melissa Hart.

“We just had a very successful state assembly,” state party chairwoman Pat Waak said after adjourning the meeting. She added that proceedings finished nearly a half hour ahead of schedule. “Now we’re off and running for the primary.”

Both Senate candidates agreed the contest — engaged last September, when Romanoff declared he wanted the job Bennet won by appointment at the beginning of last year — will be a race to the finish. On August 10 as many as 300,000 Democrats statewide will cast ballots.

“Game on,” the Romanoff campaign said succinctly in a release trumpeting the win.

But the two campaigns differed sharply on whether the state assembly results have any meaning beyond whose name appears first on ballots.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, waves to supporters from the floor of the Democratic state assembly held in Broomfield.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

“We had a great time today,” Bennet said in a conference call with reporters after the assembly. “We’ve gone through a process, from the very beginning where we’re the complete outsider. We held onto our supporters throughout the process, and I couldn’t be happier with what the team did.”

For months, the Bennet campaign has downplayed expectations the senator would do more than make the ballot, arguing that Romanoff’s lengthy history as a Democratic official and legislative leader gave him an insurmountable advantage among party faithful.

The Bennet campaign was “thrilled” with the results, a spokesman said immediately after the assembly vote was announced. “We did what we had to do.”

Not so fast, Romanoff said after the assembly in an interview. He maintained that the size of his victory against a sitting senator was unprecedented, despite being vastly outspent by the better-funded incumbent.

“Top line is important,” Romanoff said. “It is a sign our momentum is growing, our support is building.” What’s more, he added, “It’s striking that we won by such a big margin.”

From Left: Reps. John Salazar, Ed Perlmutter, Diana DeGette, Betsy Markey and CD 5’s Kevin Bradley embrace the warm reception from Democratic delegates at the state assembly on Saturday.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Even if the Bennet campaign had fallen short of the 30 percent needed to make the primary — a scenario thought unlikely by all concerned — the campaign could have avoided being sidelined by petitioning onto the ballot. Last month, the Bennet campaign announced it would gather signatures in tandem with the assembly process. Not because they feared losing among delegates, Bennet campaign officials said, but as an organizing tool to contact voters who don’t participate in precinct caucuses and assemblies.

To qualify for a statewide primary, a candidate must obtain 10,500 valid signatures — 1,500 from each of the state’s seven congressional districts — and the Bennet campaign said this week it had twice that number on hand. The deadline for submitting petitions was Thursday.

However, the Bennet campaign planned to announce after The Statesman went to press midweek that it wouldn’t be turning in petitions to the Secretary of State’s office after all. The change in plans, a Bennet spokesman said, came at the urging of state officials. Since Bennet was already on the ballot, counting Bennet’s petition signatures would serve no practical purpose and would cost the state thousands of dollars, officials told the campaign, and the Bennet campaign agreed, a spokesman for the campaign said.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, shakes the hand of a supporter at the Democratic state assembly.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Still, the Bennet campaign said gathering signatures from Democrats across the state — more than 20,000 verified by the campaign — was a good excuse to have roughly 100,000 face-to-face conversations with Colorado residents, including unaffiliated and Republican voters. In addition, campaign volunteers had everyone who signed the petition fill out a self-addressed postcard, which the campaign plans to mail before the primary.

“It exceeded our goals,” Bennet spokesman Trevor Kincaid said, “and our field operation is much stronger because of it.”

Calling Bennet’s petition drive a “game” and “a ruse, not very well disguised,” designed to lower expectations, Romanoff told The Statesman the whole operation was just spin.

Lobbing a pre-emptive jab of his own, Romanoff brushed aside the Bennet campaign’s portrayal of the state assembly results as anything but a solid win for the challenger.

“(The Bennet campaign will) send out press releases this afternoon saying, gosh, we never expected to get even 30 percent, what an astounding result and what a devastating blow to the Romanoff campaign,” Romanoff said in an interview with The Statesman before votes were tallied.

Former Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff delivers a speech at the Democratic State Assembly.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

“Only 23,000 folks have voted so far — the folks that showed up at the caucuses,” Romanoff said, “and the majority of them voted for me. And as I said when we won the caucuses, and the opposition tried to spin their loss into a victory — they said you should have won by more — so we did that too. We doubled our lead from the caucuses to the county assemblies, and we’ve been growing support all the time.”

Indeed, while Bennet’s share of the vote was virtually unchanged since a preference poll taken when delegate selection began at precinct caucuses in March — down slightly from 42 percent compared with Romanoff’s 50 percent that night — Romanoff appears to have won over the bulk of uncommitted delegates picked at caucuses and county assemblies.

While delegates were selected at each stage based on preference in the Senate race, they weren’t bound and could vote however they wanted at assemblies. Several delegates verified with party officials that they could switch their vote at the state assembly, Waak said.

Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak smiles at fellow Democrats from the stage of the State Assembly on Saturday.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

That’s what happened on a larger scale six years ago when the same Senate seat was last up for election. Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar entered the assembly leading in the delegate count but wound up losing top line to party activist Mike Miles, who gave a barnburner of a speech that brought down the house.

Nevertheless, as the Bennet campaign has pointed out numerous times this season, winning the assembly often doesn’t translate into a primary win. Salazar crushed Miles at the polls and went on to defeat Republican nominee Pete Coors. (Salazar stepped aside, creating the vacancy filled by Bennet’s appointment, in late 2008 when he accepted a nomination as secretary of the Interior.)

Romanoff dismissed comparisons between his assembly win and the one secured by Miles.

“The analogy falls apart,” he said, noting that Miles edged Salazar by a mere four points, a fraction of Romanoff’s margin. He continued: “I’m the only candidate in this race that has run for office before — I’ve run four times and won four times,” he said, pointing to elections he won in a house district in southeast Denver. “The dynamics are dramatically different than the race … from 2004.”

Waak agreed in an interview after the assembly.

“I don’t think anything is predictable in this case,” she said when asked about the Romanoff-Miles comparison. “What 2004 shows us is this is a very unpredictable situation, that the primary could be very different than the state assembly,” but she hastened to add that Romanoff was a very different candidate than Miles, whose first bid for office was the Senate run.

Democratic candidate for Attorney General, Stan Garnett, talks to supporters on Saturday.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Waak, however, appeared to agree with the Bennet campaign’s contention that a win at the assembly might not mean more than bragging rights.

“Let’s face it,” she said, “the assembly is an insider’s game a little bit, it’s those who are activists, who are involved all the time. The average Democratic voter still doesn’t know how the caucus works and doesn’t get very much involved, so it’s up to (the candidates) to get to that array of voters.”

“Coming out of the Democratic Assembly,” the Bennet campaign said in a release issued soon after the assembly adjourned, “Michael is carrying more support than his opponent and every Republican running, making him poised to win the Colorado Senate race in November.”

Bennet leads both Romanoff and Republican candidates Jane Norton and Ken Buck in fundraising totals. He was also ahead of his primary and general election rivals in an opinion survey released last week by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm.

But Bennet’s clearest advantage is in fundraising. He reported raising more than $6 million through March, compared with just over $1 million reported by Romanoff.

Bennet ended the year’s first quarter with $3,570,299 cash on hand. That total includes roughly $1 million designated for the general election, Bennet campaign manager Craig Hughes told The Statesman, which can’t be spent before the primary. Still, that leaves Bennet with roughly five times the cash Romanoff had in the bank at the end of March, when he reported $501,959 on hand.

“We’ll raise the money we need to advertise on television,” Romanoff said after the assembly, adding that some donors told him they would contribute if he did well at the assembly.

Last week, a Romanoff campaign official told The Statesman the candidate would be on the air for “four to six weeks” of TV advertising, along with a “solid radio buy.”

Romanoff’s ads will be guided by political consultant Joe Trippi, who has been consulting with the campaign from a distance but spent last weekend in town working with Romanoff and his team.

Bennet spent roughly two months — and roughly $1 million — running TV ads from mid March to mid May, including a commercial pegged by Republican political consultant Frank Luntz as the most effective election ad in the country, based on focus group testing. That ad delivered the message that Washington was broken and Bennet, as an outsider, had what it takes to fix things.

Both Bennet and Romanoff are jostling over which Democrat is more of an outsider — the newcomer to politics who walks the halls of power and can list his votes on health care reform and overhauling the financial system, or the legislative veteran bucking party bosses by challenging the incumbent and refusing to take donations from political action committees — in part because insiders keep losing elections lately.

Both candidates pointed to Democratic primaries in Pennsylvania and Arkansas earlier last week as proof their campaigns were best attuned to voter moods.

The results, where a challenger toppled five-term incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter — albeit a senator who was a Republican as recently as last year — and Sen. Blanche Lincoln faces a run-off election next month, mean voters are tired of the ways of Washington and even more tired of special interests having their way, Romanoff said.

“The voters in Arkansas and Pennsylvania sent a loud and clear message to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday night, and we should, too,” Romanoff exhorted delegates in his speech. “The message to our own party is this: ‘Stiffen your spine — or step out of the way.’”

All the more reason to stick with Bennet, said the senator, who’s never before run for election. He contrasts his take on Washington with Romanoff’s “nearly two decades of political experience.” Bennet also noted in his speech to delegates that he has proposed the “toughest reforms of anyone in the Senate,” including a pay freeze and a lifetime ban on lobbying by senators.

Not enough, Romanoff countered in his speech, not when massive campaign contributions “turn Congress into a wholly owned subsidiary of the industries it’s supposed to be regulating.”

It’s a theme the challenger has made central to his campaign.

“It sickens me, and Americans of all political parties, to watch democracy sold to the highest bidder,” Romanoff told reporters after the assembly concluded.

Few topics were off limits as the candidates took shots at each other last weekend.

Bennet has touted his visits to every corner of the state since becoming senator, including stops in all 64 counties, but Romanoff brushed this aside as “a tourist’s knowledge of Colorado.”

That drew a sharp rebuke. “I don’t know how he’s in any position to judge my knowledge of the state,” Bennet said. “This is not checking off a list.” Sounding exasperated, he added, “The time I’ve been in this job, I’ve used the time well, traveling to all parts of the state to get a sense of what’s on people’s minds.”

Waak sought to downplay any potential rift in the party caused by the heated primary contest.

“A lot of the voters really want to see us keep that Senate seat, so we’ll all come together,” she said. “And we have a history of doing that, we have a history of uniting around a candidate. We don’t want Jane Norton or Ken Buck.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com