The race for the U.S. Senate seat in Colorado is one of the most intense, interesting and important of this year’s midterm elections, with real countervailing pressures.
The Republican Party has imploded in Colorado in 2010, and the Democrats have a candidate more tailored to this very purple, as in moderate, swing state. Yet the year, and the anger and anxiety produced by economic conditions, favor Republicans, and a candidate positioned to take advantage of those factors.
The Democratic hopeful, Michael Bennet, was a successful businessman and school-reform leader before being appointed to the U.S. Senate 22 months ago to replace Ken Salazar, who became President Barack Obama’s interior secretary; he fended off a liberal challenge in the primary. The Republican is Ken Buck, a prosecutor at the federal and county levels who, with the support of the grassroots Tea Party movement, upended the establishment Republican candidate in the primary.
Either victor would be a force in the Senate. Bennet, 45, would be an important centrist figure for the Democrats. Buck, 51, less dogmatic than some other Tea Party candidates, would play a critical role with his supporter, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, in the surging right-wing element of the Republican Party.
Both are burdened in their races by their political affiliation, Bennet by the unpopularity of Washington Democrats and the president; Buck by a Republican established order that has crumbled with a gubernatorial candidate so weak that the only hope for many conservatives is the independent candidacy of the longtime immigration basher, former U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo. There are conundrums and contrasts aplenty.
Bennet deprecates Washington and his experiences as a fill-in senator of the last year-and-a-half. He’s a native Washingtonian and has supported all of the elements of Obama’s agenda that have been approved. Buck offers himself as a tough, anti-government Westerner, proud of the bovine manure on his boots. He grew up in a well-to-do New York family, attended Princeton University and has been on the government payroll for more than 22 of the last 25 years.
There may be no place in America’s midterm elections where the gender gap is so pronounced. Analysts say there are three certainties in the Colorado Senate race: It will be decided by a few points, Buck will garner 55 percent or more of the male vote, and Bennet will do the same with the female vote.
The incumbent senator, who has never run for office before, has established a reputation in Washington as a thoughtful lawmaker who tries, even in a poisonous environment, to work with Republicans. He is cautious.
On the economy, he says that all issues have to be on the table in reducing chronic deficits, and wants to extend the Bush-era tax cuts at all income levels for only one year, and then re-examine the whole tax system. Drawing on his corporate experience, he talks a lot about how to make America competitive, and a major focus is education. As the head of the Denver school board for three-and-a-half years, he won plaudits for reforming and improving that school system.
He is contemptuous of his opponent’s economic posture. “There are moms in Douglas County who moved there so their kids could get a good education, and nothing Buck says responds to that,” Bennet says, referring to a Republican suburb of Denver.
Detached observers say Bennet was bruised by the primary challenge on the left, forcing him to take more liberal positions, a view reinforced by the Denver Post, the state’s largest newspaper, when it endorsed him recently. He insists the primary was actually good for him: “I’d never run for anything before,” he says. “It made me a better candidate.”
Buck is smart and more outgoing than his opponent. He’s also more impulsive and confrontational.
After he describes DeMint as a “patriot,” a reporter asks, isn’t Obama a patriot, too? Buck laughs derisively and responds, “no comment.” When he’s asked about the dissonance between his background and political persona, he retorts, “Do you sleep at night” with questions like that, suggesting Ambien may be in order.
As a prosecutor, he was a hardliner on immigration, staging a raid that was declared unconstitutional. When asked for his views of more pro-immigration politicians such as Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Buck sarcastically cracks, “two of my heroes.”
Buck blames the media for focusing on social issues instead of the central question of the economy. Yet he encourages this kind of attention with recent claims suggesting that gays and lesbians act out of “choice” not out of genetic predisposition, likening their sexual identity to alcoholism.
And while he is convincing when he explains why he didn’t prosecute an alleged rape case involving a young woman and her ex-boyfriend, he doesn’t help himself with some women voters when he repeatedly says a jury might have thought it was a case of “buyer’s remorse” on the part of the alleged victim.
On the overarching economic issue, Buck says it’s not jobs but out-of-control government spending. He favors extending all the Bush-era tax cuts and enacting some others, although he has retreated from primary talk of changing Social Security.
When he praises a Republican plan to reduce discretionary domestic spending by 20 percent, he’s asked if that means he would favor something along the lines of a $6 billion cut in the National Institutes of Health’s budget for things like cancer research. The answer is yes: “How are we going to pay for $6 billion of cancer research?”
An uncertainty is the massive amounts of outside money in Colorado this year, primarily from Republican groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the secretly funded project led by Karl Rove, former President George W. Bush’s political adviser.
Predictably, the candidates disagree on the impact of this infusion of cash, with Buck saying Democrats have such groups, too, and Bennet charging his opponent wouldn’t be a credible candidate without outside support.
As this bitter race concludes, there’s only one question these guys answer similarly: Both are confident they will prevail.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)