Maverick Senate Campaign Could Be History Before It Hurts Udall

Democrat Mark Benner has declared himself a participant in the U.S. Senate race in Colorado in defiance of the wishes of his party’s hierarchy. But he’s likely to be out of the contest before he hurts fellow Democrat and presumptive candidate Mark Udall.Benner, a member of the state’s Democratic executive committee, said that if he doesn’t get the required number of votes to get on a primary ballot at a statewide Democratic assembly, he will not try to petition his way on to the ballot.

“If I don’t get 30 percent of the votes at the state assembly in May,” Benner said, “I’m done.”

You can’t quite put a fork in him yet. Benner, a member of the Progressive Democrats of Colorado that represents his party’s left wing, will travel the state in the next couple of weeks. He will be pitching his ideas about impeaching George W. Bush, withdrawing troops from Iraq, establishing a single-payer health care system, enacting campaign finance reform and stopping privatization of public services through companies like Blackwater and Halliburton. Benner hopes to attract delegates to the Feb. 5 Democratic county caucuses.

But he won’t be calling out Udall to debate on issues as many who encouraged him to run had hoped he would.

Benner is a contrarian. A school teacher in rural Colorado, he once ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate against Republican Mark Hillman in an overwhelmingly Republican district just to ensure an opposing voice was heard.

Benner was one of 13 members of Colorado’s delegation to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston who caused intra-party tension by refusing to vote on the first ballot for presumptive nominee John Kerry.

“We voted for Dennis Kucinich because that’s what the people who sent us to the convention wanted us to do,” Benner said.

Benner’s political philosophy also reflects Kucinich’s.

Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak didn’t want Benner to run. She has referred to his effort as “a protest campaign.” Benner calls it public education on issues not normally covered by media.

“I don’t think it’s a protest of Mark Udall or I’d be sitting in Mark Udall’s office,” Benner said.

He will be sitting with Udall at the May assembly where Democratic activists vote for a party candidate. Party assemblies can produce interesting results. In 2004, progressive candidate Mike Miles collected more votes than Ken Salazar at the Democratic assembly.

Salazar went on to crush Miles in a primary and then handily defeat Republican Pete Coors in the general election.

Benner isn’t sure his party’s progressive wing is as energized or hopeful as it was in 2004. He said he will serve as the progressive opposition to Udall’s more centrist positions in a primary if he gets the required 30 percent of state assembly votes. If not, he will forgo the route of collecting signatures to force his way on to the primary ballot.

“Really, it’s a party choice,” he said of not petitioning his way on to the ballot. Otherwise, “Republicans could register as Democrats and vote for me. I don’t want to see (presumptive Republican candidate) Bob Schaffer become our senator.”

So it’s up to his fellow liberals to play in the caucus and assembly process.

“You got to play to succeed,” Benner said. “If you don’t play, you may as well sit around at home and talk to the TV.”

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Jim Spencer

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