“Tough Democrats” Won Big in 2006

Colorado politicos are keeping a closer watch on the 2008 U.S. Senate race now that incumbent Sen. Wayne Allard has announced that he will not run for re-election. At the same time, Democrat Bill Ritter today begins his second full week as Colorado’s 41st governor.

What does Ritter have to do with Allard? Nothing directly, but after having made a successful transition from Denver district attorney to governor with a landslide victory in November, Ritter is the embodiment of the return of a different kind of political opponent for Republicans: The “tough Democrat.”“[Democratic leadership] wanted to recruit tough Democrats in 2006,” says Democratic strategist Eric Adelstein of Adelstein Liston Media in Chicago. “It was a combination of prosecutors, sheriffs, military veterans and FBI types – the tough Democrats.”

Of those “tough Democrats,” no flavor of candidate was more successful in 2006 than those with prosecution backgrounds. Like Sen. Ken Salazar before him, Ritter was elected to statewide office in Colorado with a resume as a former prosecutor (Salazar was Colorado’s attorney general when he was elected to the senate), and he wasn’t alone.

There were 44 Democrats elected to either the U.S. Senate or as governor in 2006, and of those 44 nearly half were former prosecutors. Whether it was former district attorney Amy Klobuchar winning a U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota or former state’s attorney Martin O’Malley taking the governor’s mansion in Maryland, Democrats with a prosecution background were able to break down some traditional liberal stereotypes.

“I do think that when you are running as a Democrat, people are looking for ways to identify you with the center in terms of problem solving,” says Ritter, who spent 12 years as Denver district attorney prior to running for governor. “So it helps a great deal [to have a background as a prosecutor].”

Adelstein, whose media firm knocked off incumbent Republican JD Hayworth in Arizona and helped Democrat Cary Kennedy win the Colorado treasurer’s race, thinks that Ritter’s resume had a lot to do with his decisive victory over Republican Bob Beauprez.

“Ritter’ background is absolutely a factor in why he won and won so easily,” says Adelstein. “Republicans like to say that Democrats are soft on national security and soft on crime, and you sort of bust that conventional wisdom with a prosecutor who has spent their life making streets safe and putting people in jail. It’s a great message point for Democratic candidates to start with.”

It was just that message point that went a long way toward positively defining Ritter’s candidacy. As The Denver Post wrote in its endorsement of Ritter for governor:

[Colorado’s next governor] needs firm resolve that won’t wilt under political pressures.

He must see government as a force to advance the health and education of Coloradans.

And, in this perilous time, to safeguard our borders from enemies, drug runners and the risks of natural disaster. He must be ready to crack down on illegal immigration while laying out a welcome mat for legitimate newcomers and temporary workers.

Most of all, he needs to lead an economic development effort that is second to none among our neighbors in the West.

He needs to be Bill Ritter, the one person in this race with all those attributes and more.

We’re proud, and a little surprised, to endorse Ritter’s candidacy for governor.

We know him as a tough prosecutor who served with distinction as Denver district attorney for 12 years. The DA’s office isn’t an obvious launching pad for statewide office, but Ritter entered the campaign early, never blinking in the face of would-be rivals. He used his months of obscurity to develop an impressive policy agenda (and fundraising effort) that has left Congressman Beauprez in the shadows.

Ritter’s background, his record in law enforcement and his centrist bearing have made a strong impression as he worked his way across all 64 Colorado counties.

[Emphasis added]

Not convinced? Take a look at how Klobuchar was portrayed in a post-election article for USA Today titled “Klobuchar Has Tough Reputation”:

Two famous mentors and a high-profile position as a county attorney helped Democrat Amy Klobuchar win Minnesota’s Senate race…

…She earned a reputation as a tough prosecutor. Since she was elected Hennepin County attorney in 1998, Klobuchar helped reduce serious crime, cracked down on gun possession by convicted felons and pursued sex offenders.

Klobuchar’s Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy, ran ads accusing her of breaking previous campaign promises to keep guns off the street and get tough with drug dealers. He noted that violent crime is up 24% this year in Minneapolis and accused her of offering plea bargains to career criminals instead of prosecuting them. Klobuchar’s campaign responded with a TV ad featuring crime victims praising her efforts.

Google “Klobuchar” and “tough” and you come up with thousands of hits.

Not enough for you? Then consider this New York Times profile of Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, a former prosecutor who won a tough U.S. Senate race in Rhode Island by knocking off incumbent Lincoln Chafee:

Sheldon Whitehouse argues that his background as a U.S. attorney and state attorney general may be one of his best assets in a Congress that has been reeling for months from allegations of malfeasance. “From the looks of it, having another prosecutor in Washington doesn’t look like a bad idea right now,” he said…

…He also says he will take on the special interests when it comes to health issues, which Whitehouse calls his “No. 1 priority” as a senator. He has called for Congress to “scrap the new Medicare prescription drug plan” and replace it with “a plan that will work.” He favors changing the 2003 Medicare law to give the federal government the power to bargain on prescription drug prices and making it easier for seniors to get coverage.

On Iraq, Whitehouse has called for a “rapid and responsible withdrawal” of U.S. troops to “responsibly extricate ourselves” from the conflict. To get all or most of the U.S. forces out of Iraq, he said, “We need to make it clear to the Iraqis and to other nations that we are in withdrawal mode.”

The former prosecutor also plans to continue his fight for tough gun control legislation – a battle he pursued as a federal attorney – and to work for legislation that would help local law enforcement fight gun crime and hold gunmakers and dealers “accountable for their actions.”

Aside from the advantages in messaging that stem from being a former prosecutor, candidates with that type of background may be more adept at challenging an opponent and being a strong, aggressive candidate. “I think part of that is a natural function of how you go after a case as a prosecutor,” says Adelstein. “You’re focused, prepared and aggressive in the same way.”

Colorado Democrats will run a different kind of candidate in 2008 when Rep. Mark Udall is the likely nominee for the U.S. Senate, but the success of prosecutors as candidates for higher office, both in Colorado and around the country, could be a trend that we’ll see repeated.

“We had an incredibly successful election cycle for a lot of reasons,” says Adelstein. “But one of the major reasons was the types of Democrats who won.

“Prosecutors are as real life as it gets. I can’t imagine you don’t at least continue to follow that blueprint.”

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Jason Bane

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