Democrats went west in 2008, holding their national convention in Denver as they sought an advantage in a swing state. Though Barack Obama carried Colorado in winning the presidency, two years later the state remains untamed by either party.
The Aug. 10 Republican and Democratic U.S. Senate primaries offer evidence of the state’s unsettled politics. And the national tumult marking this campaign season is encapsulated in the races where establishment candidates could be upended. The Republican race pits a Tea Party favorite against a former lieutenant governor. The Democratic incumbent, Michael Bennet, faces a challenger, Andrew Romanoff, whom the White House tried to sideline by dangling a job possibility.
The Clinton and Obama brands also are squaring off in the Democratic contest, with the former president backing Romanoff and the current president supporting Bennet.
“The Republican side is very reflective of the national trend,” said Mike Stratton, a Denver-based Democratic political consultant. “The Democratic side is just an unfortunate cannibalism that only plays to the Republican advantage.”
The prospect that Democrats could lose the Colorado seat is one reason analysts give Republicans a shot at winning a Senate majority in November’s election. The seat is among 11 rated as tossups by the non-partisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
The seat also illustrates the unintended dilemma created for Democrats by Obama’s election and the assembling of his governing team.
After Obama named then-Colorado Senator Ken Salazar as Interior Secretary, the pick by the state’s governor for the vacancy was Bennet, the Denver schools superintendent who had never held an elected office and lacked a high public profile.
Also vulnerable to a Republican takeover in November is the Illinois seat Obama gave up and the Delaware one Joe Biden vacated upon becoming vice president. The Cook Report rates the Illinois race a tossup, the Delaware contest a likely Republican gain.
The Colorado campaigns are playing out amid a state unemployment rate of 8 percent, below the national rate of 9.5 percent for June. The state, which had the nation’s eighth- fastest population growth between 2008-09, needs to create a stream of jobs to stay even with the worker influx. The state’s largest employers include Denver-based Qwest Communications International Inc. and Molson Coors Brewing Co., jointly headquartered in Denver and Montreal.
Buck has been criticized by Democrats for comments made last week at one of his rallies by former U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who said Obama and his policies represent a greater threat to the nation than Al Qaeda, the Civil War or the former Soviet Union.
“The greatest threat to the country that was put together by the Founding Fathers is the guy that is in the White House today,” said Tancredo, a former presidential candidate.
Buck didn’t applaud the remarks, though members of the audience did.
Norton later defended Tancredo’s comments. “There was a real measure of truth in what Tancredo said,” she said in a statement. “It’s time to end the culture of political correctness. Obama’s brand of big government is a threat to America.”
Buck and Norton sparred last week at an amphitheater in Estes Park, Colorado, where about 150 people, including Tea Party activists, gathered on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park.
“I have one reason that I am running for the United States Senate: our federal government is out of control,” said Norton, 55, the lieutenant governor from 2003-07.
Buck, 51, told the crowd about his wife’s gun. “She got her concealed-carry permit the other day, so I am a changed husband,” he said. “That should tell you something about the Second Amendment in our household.”
In an interview, Norton said Buck can’t win the general election because his views are too extreme. “We have to have a message that reaches into our unaffiliated voters and some disenfranchised Democrats,” she said.
Buck, a county prosecutor, dismissed Norton’s contention. “The folks in D.C. are the extremists,” he said. “They’re out of their minds, and we’re going to teach them in November just how much they are out of their minds.”
Buck won attention from some voters when, in his job, he targeted illegal immigrants for prosecution. Though the issue could help him in the primary, Democrats believe it could hurt him as a Senate nominee in a state where Hispanics in 2008 accounted for 20.2 percent of the population, according to the Census Bureau.
Voters Buck hopes to attract include Barbara Green, 55, a restaurant owner in Loveland, Colorado, who said she got interested in the Tea Party because of frustration with government taxes and a struggling business.
“If I don’t do something to get the right people elected, I’m going to be out of business and in the unemployment lines myself,” she said.
Among the Democrats, Romanoff received a boost June 29 when former President Bill Clinton endorsed him. Romanoff, 43, a former state House speaker, supported Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign; Bennet, 45, backed Obama’s bid.
Speaking last week to supporters in a backyard in Estes Park, Romanoff said “too many Democrats are scared by their own shadows.”
In an interview, he said he expects to benefit from not currently holding office. “I don’t believe incumbency is an advantage this year,” he said.
Obama aides tried to keep Romanoff from challenging Bennet by raising the prospect of an administration job with him.
Bennet received a fundraising visit from Obama in February, when the president praised him as “an agent of change.”
Bennet said in an interview he considers himself only technically an incumbent. Romanoff has spent his “entire career, almost” running for office, Bennet said.
“I spend a lot of time reminding people that my lifetime has been spent outside of politics, and that that is a perspective that is unusual in Washington,” he said.