Bennet, Buck brand each other out of touch

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Following a bruising and expensive primary election, the two candidates for Colorado’s Senate seat each plan to paint their opponent as out of touch with the state’s voters, according to the campaign managers for Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and his challenger, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck.

Calling Buck “an extreme conservative” who is “far out of touch with mainstream Colorado voters,” Bennet campaign manager Craig Hughes said he plans to build on a statewide network of volunteers and donors to drive home the message his candidate is more concerned with solutions than political gamesmanship.

Hughes ticked off a number of Buck’s positions — on Social Security, abortion and student loans, among others — which he said would make the Republican tough to swallow statewide among the general electorate now that he’s emerged from a GOP primary that saw the candidates try to outflank each other to the right.

While Buck might attempt to walk back some of his more conservative positions, Hughes said the Bennet campaign plans to portray the Greeley prosecutor as part of a “Tea Party threesome,” along with Republican Senate nominees Sharon Angle of Nevada and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Hughes spoke in a conference call with reporters to outline the Bennet campaign’s plans for the fall election at the end of last week.

“It isn’t surprising from a guy who told the Tea Party what they wanted to hear when he was campaigning but then turned around and called them — and excuse my language here — ‘dumb asses,’” Hughes said, referencing a remark Buck made earlier this summer to a Democratic tracker about “Birthers,” conservative activists who raise questions about President Obama’s birth certificate.

His newly hired counterpart on the Buck campaign, Republican campaign veteran John Swartout, predicted the Bennet camp’s plans to label his candidate as too extreme will run aground. He said Buck plans to hammer Bennet for his allegiance to the Democratic agenda and tie him to the still-floundering economy.

“If they want to call that extreme, let them do it,” Swartout said in an interview this week. “I don’t think that sells in Colorado. People want to know what the future’s going to be for them, whether they can get a job, whether they can grow their business.”

He dismissed the Bennet campaign’s intentions to pick at a handful of Buck’s remarks that he said don’t represent a candidate he called “real clear, real direct and real honest.”

“The counter to that is the truth,” Swartout said. “Appointed Sen. Bennet was chosen by one person to protect the Washington special interests and be a rubber-stamp for their agenda. That’s what’s extreme — the spending in Washington, the debt — that’s extreme to burden future generations with that debt. In Ken’s mind, that’s what’s extreme.”

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Wednesday showed Buck leading Bennet 49 percent to 40 percent, a wider margin than another poll released by a Republican-leaning polling firm the week after the primary.

Hughes said he hadn’t set a firm budget for the general election campaign but was counting on reaping more from the 20,000 individual donors who have already contributed to Bennet’s campaign.

“To run a really competitive race you’re looking at spending a minimum of $4 million, probably more,” Hughes said.

The Bennet campaign started out after the primary with about $1.6 million in the bank for the general election after spending nearly $6 million to win a brutal primary against challenger Andrew Romanoff, a former speaker of the Colorado House.

“We will have the resources to compete and win this race,” Hughes said.

Swartout made the same declaration.

“We’ll have the money to compete,” he said, though he declined to say how much the campaign planned to raise. He pointed out that Buck won the primary against the better-funded Norton “with very little money — we were outspent — because he was able to connect with the people.”

In 2008, the campaigns of Democrat Mark Udall and Republican Bob Schaffer spent a combined $20 million, though neither faced a primary.

The campaigns are in the process of negotiating debates for the fall, but neither campaign would release details about where or how many times the candidates might meet.

“Ken likes to debate,” Swartout said, pointing out that Buck had met Norton at dozens of debates and joint forums over the last year. “There’ll be plenty of debates,” he predicted.

A spokesman for Bennet — who debated Romanoff three times — said a debate schedule is in the works but declined to say more.

At the same time, television ads run by third-party organizations hit the airwaves in an attempt to frame perceptions of the two candidates now that the primary election is behind them.

An ad sponsored by Crossroads GPS, a conservative group formed by Bush administration advisor Karl Rove, poured $425,000 worth of advertising into the Denver and Colorado Springs television markets last week with an ad depicting Bennet as a free spender.

“Since his appointment, Bennet has voted to spend $2.5 billion every single day,” the Crossroads ad charges, including “everything from the failed stimulus, billions in government pork and even Cash for Clunkers.”

The Bennet campaign attacked the ad’s sponsors and called on Buck to repudiate it.

Labeling Crossroads a “slush fund conceived by billionaire oil executives that enables them to smear candidates without fingerprints or accountability,” Bennet spokesman Trevor Kincaid compared the new ad to a series of ads run by another group backing Buck in his primary campaign against former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton.

“Ken Buck has received twice as much money from a secretive group of corporations and billionaires than he has raised from supporters,” Kincaid said in a statement. “Ken Buck has claimed to be a man of principle but stays silent while Karl Rove and his secret allies flood the airwaves with misleading attack ads. Ken Buck should either support transparency or explain why he doesn’t.”

This week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee hit Buck over a comment he made last year — and has since retracted — about wanting to repeal an amendment to the Constitution that allows for direct election of senators.

At a June 2009 forum in Colorado Springs, Buck said the 17th Amendment, which took the selection of senators out of the hands of state legislators, has had “a horrendous effect” and taken the nation “down the wrong path,” but says he almost immediately changed his mind about possible repeal.

“Ken Buck’s just too extreme for Colorado,” the DSCC ad charges, after detailing the implications of Buck’s one-time position on the amendment. The DSCC wouldn’t say how much it was spending on the ad, but a Buck aide said it was roughly the same as the spending reported for the Crossroads ad.

The Buck campaign responded by calling the ad an attempt to distract voters.

“The DSCC and Bennet want to talk about anything other than the Obama-Bennet record that helped push over 90,000 Coloradans to the unemployment lines, and brought the nation’s home sales to their lowest point in 15 years,” Swartout said in a statement. “Instead of focusing on saving one appointed multimillionaire’s job in the U.S. Senate, the DSCC should focus on getting the millions of unemployed Americans back to work.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com