Senate smackdown staggers Democrats

By Miller Hudson

When Ken Salazar accepted the President’s invitation to run the Department of Interior he could not have anticipated he was about to set loose the dogs in Colorado’s Democratic kennel. In past years the Governor would have huddled with Salazar, the party chair, the Democratic Congressional delegation, a handful of major donors and presto, a replacement would have been unveiled a few days later.

A consensus regarding electability and electoral experience would have driven this selection. A handful of aspirants who glimpsed the reflection of a United States Senator in their mirrors each morning would have been left with their noses slightly out of joint, but they would have to nurse their bruised egos in quiet, grumbling conversations with family and friends.

Andrew Romanoff walks down Broadway with his cousin Melissa Caplan and deputy campaign manager Berrick Abramson on his way to the City Hall Amphitheatre for his primary night party.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman
Michael Bennet shares the joy of the winning moment with fans and supporters.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman
Andrew Romanoff hugs a supporter after his concession speech Tuesday night.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Bill Ritter, true to form, found a way to replace this simple formula for party leadership with a half-baked selection process that sounded fair and impartial, but would leave most of those who participated angry, resentful and harboring a suspicion they had been played for fools in a rigged game. A review committee was announced which would winnow the field of potential candidates down to a few finalists who would then be personally interviewed by the Governor. The committee’s composition was murky and its provenance murkier still. The only public guidance seemed to be an off-hand remark that the successful applicant needed to demonstrate widespread, grassroots support among Colorado Democrats.

Andrew Romanoff, the departing Democratic House Speaker, jumped on this horse and rode it hard. Statewide he was probably the first choice to fill Salazar’s seat for 70 or 80 percent of Democratic activists. They knew him, they liked him and they believed he would be just as effective in Washington as he had been as a legislator. In response to his urging, they swamped the Governor’s office with calls and letters supporting the Speaker’s appointment. John Hickenlooper was a strong second choice, particularly with Democratic Leadership Council and business Democrats. John Salazar, Diana DeGette and Tom Strickland provided a second tier of amply qualified applicants, any one of whom would have been acceptable to most Democrats.

Thus, it came as a huge surprise when Michael Bennet received the Governor’s nod. Rumors continue to swirl eighteen months later about the reasoning behind his pick: (1) The White House requested the appointment, (2) Phil Anschutz promised to secretly fund the Bennet and/or Ritter campaigns, (3) Ritter will receive an appointment to an Ambassadorship when he departs the Governor’s mansion. It’s likely none of these are true. We should probably accept the Governor’s explanation that he was ‘blown away’ by Michael Bennet’s intellect and his command of the issues he would grapple with in Washington — that he would observably and single handedly raise the average IQ in the nation’s upper chamber. Unfortunately, in February of 2009, rank and file Democrats had no way of knowing whether this assessment was accurate.

Accumulating frustrations with Ritter quickly boiled over and immediately seared Colorado’s newly minted Senator with a cadre of political enemies he barely knew. For months Bennet had difficulty helping himself. His political skills as a speaker were so obviously wanting that you couldn’t help wondering what had transpired during his Governor’s Mansion interview that had so enamored Bill Ritter of his talents. This was the time when Andrew Romanoff could have announced his candidacy and effectively cut Bennet off from many traditional Democratic donors. With an open race they would have sat on their wallets and waited to see who seemed likely to prevail. Instead, Andrew adopted the role of the Wash Park Hamlet. “Should I, or shouldn’t I? Whether ‘tis better to accept an appointment to high office, or struggle against a sea of ingratitude?”

Then a surprising thing happened. As Democrats began to grow disillusioned with Romanoff’s indecision, Bennet began to find his footing. He will never be an orator of Obama’s caliber, capable of saving his political bacon with a single, stirring speech. In fact he avoids the lengthy peroration in favor of a few brief, opening remarks followed by the give and take of fielding questions and then providing detailed and thoughtful answers. In living rooms, and diners across Colorado Democrats began to appreciate that their new Senator was smarter than the average bear. He was also proving a loyal and reliable vote for the President’s agenda and he was dutifully raising the millions it was going to take to protect his seat. Michael Bennet began to attract a following, including the similarly cool and cerebral young President in the White House.

Following nearly a year in hibernation, Speaker Romanoff began to test the political waters again. No job offer of sufficient grandeur had been extended to him by either the Governor or the White House, and lingering resentments were beginning to chafe his soul. More than one friend implored him to run for Governor. Despite the fact that it was hard to find an active Democrat actually looking forward to pulling a lever for Bill Ritter again this year, Romanoff was wary of taking him on. Of course, if he had, there never would have been a Hickenlooper candidacy once Bill Ritter quit the race. Instead, Romanoff would have been the popular and consensus nominee for Governor. Uneasy about making a case of incompetence against Ritter, he decided to try and convince Democrats that the wrong guy had been appointed Senator.

While Romanoff quickly assembled an alliance of personal admirers, for Ritter haters and educators, who intensely dislike Bennet’s efforts to reform Denver’s public schools, it was difficult to discern any real policy differences between the two candidates. For several months Romanoff’s campaign consisted of little more than repeated Bennet bashings for taking PAC contributions. Certainly most Democrats are disgusted by the influence of special interest money in American politics, only aggravated by the Supreme Court’s recent decision that corporations are persons entitled to unlimited free speech guarantees, but few fault their candidates for playing by the rules of the game. Bennet supporters began to cultivate significant animosity towards this one note tune played by the Romanoff campaign.

By contrast, Bennet chose to run a ‘by-the-numbers’, incumbent’s campaign that largely ignored his opponent. State of the political art, as it is currently understood, the campaign focused on phone banks, e-mails, direct mail and paid young staffers who will eagerly pound on voter doors. Each day contact metrics were tallied and posted as evidence of progress. With millions to spend and a theory that repeated exposure today will translate into positive familiarity come November, Bennet bombarded the Colorado electorate with poll driven messages touting his commitment to clean up Washington and conscientiously represent the concerns of Coloradans. His adorably expressive daughters drove home the message that their Daddy was actually a quite lovable and loving guy!

When Andrew Romanoff sold his home to finance a last minute blitz of negative ads, he was both a day late and more than a dollar short. Many admirers were stunned by these ugly assaults. Colorado Democrats well remember the “lawyer/lobbyist” tag that Gene Nichols hung around Tom Strickland’s neck in a Senate primary, a label which then lived on to be wielded as an effective cudgel during the general election in the hands of Wayne Allard and Dick Wadhams. Both the Regal theaters financing and Denver school pension bond attacks required a sophisticated understanding of high finance. Few Democrats, myself included, have the slightest idea what an auction rate security or interest rate credit swap might involve. Unless you already believed Michael Bennet was some kind of thief, it was kind of reassuring to think we might have a U. S. Senator who does comprehend what these things are.

Andrew didn’t look entirely comfortable floating these charges and appeared to be more the puppet of Machiavellian campaign consultants who were insisting that, “…you have to drive up Bennet’s negatives.” The Denver Post poll the week before the primary, which showed Romanoff leading by three points, was probably in error. The majority of voters had already cast their ballots by then, and prying open the manhole on the sewer may have blown more stink back on Andrew’s campaign than it did on its intended target. Bennet won going away which surprised nearly everyone. In any case, Romanoff went a long way towards redeeming himself with Democrats on election night with his warm and sincere expression of support for Bennet. His improbable quest had reached its end. At the state assembly earlier this summer, one Romanoff supporter probably expressed it best when he asked no one in particular, “How the hell did we wind up with two of our best young guys running against each other?”

The mood at the Bennet party was decidedly upbeat. When the first numbers came in from Denver showing Romanoff capturing a slim 53 percent majority, most activists knew the game was over. As the rest of the state rolled in, Bennet was sure to pile up a comfortable lead. And he did. By 8 p.m. Romanoff had conceded, and at 9 p.m., when Bennet climbed onto the riser to thank his volunteers, supporters were still pouring into Mile High Station. Acceptance speeches are usually delayed until just after 10 p.m. in order to capture live coverage on the nightly news. Tuesday night it seemed silly to wait. With the media’s focus on the photo finish races in the Republican primaries, Bennet’s convincing win would be covered as a footnote reported earlier in the evening.

As the evening ran down and the crowd thinned out, the victory celebration became more reflective. No one was kidding themselves that this election was over. Ken Buck may have been an unlikely nominee six months ago, but few Democrats believe he will prove a pushover in November. We will be hearing more about bonds and buyouts from him. Romanoff supporters need to be herded back into the Democratic tent and both candidates will have to start talking about an economy that looks to be headed back into crisis. If anyone has an idea how Colorado can start creating jobs, whatever may be happening in the rest of the country, now is the time to speak up. Voters are justifiably scared and angry.

Neither conservative nor liberal boilerplate is likely to move Colorado voters this November. Under normal circumstances one or the other might prove sufficient to propel a candidate into the winning column. But, these are not normal times.Voters seem to be looking for practical solutions and realistic programs that will produce measurable, real world results. An immigration policy that works, a jobs initiative aimed at rebuilding our decaying infrastructure and a loan program for small businesses that provides them with access to credit are all proposals likely to resonate with voters. A focus group tailored message that merely reflects our fears and aspirations back at us is probably a dead end strategy. Real leadership always entails real risk. We’ve rarely needed that kind of political courage more than we do now!

Miller Hudson, a former Denver state representative and current consultant, is a masterful student and analyst of Colorado politics — and an incomparable writer.