U.S. Senate primary: grassroots vs insiders, but who’s who?

With two close primary races for the U.S. Senate, some Colorado voters will go to the polls today or drop off last-minute mail-in ballots to determine who will battle it out in November. The vast majority of votes in what could be a record for a primarily mail-in election are already in. And the candidates for both parties would have voters believe that what’s at stake is the soul of the state – grassroots, western self-determination versus entrenched, inside-the-Beltway career political cronyism.

Incumbent U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet
The truth of the matter is that all four candidates – incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet, appointed to the office by Gov. Bill Ritter, former Democratic Colorado Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, former Republican Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton, and Republican Weld County D.A. Ken Buck – can lay claim to some degree of grassroots political support as well as some degree of backing from the political establishment.

When all the votes are tallied after the polls close at 7 p.m., what’s certain is that pundits will try to make a case for either the party elite – Bennet and Norton – winning out over disaffection with politics as usual in Washington – Romanoff and Buck – or some combination of the two. The fact is, all sides will be able to claim some form of victory, no matter how hollow, in what has been a particularly heated and brutal primary season.

Grassroots or politically entrenched?

In the Republican race for U.S. Senate, Norton is reportedly now tied with or leading Buck in the polls. The see-saw ride of a race has been the focus of national media in part because it seems to highlight narratives being written among national political observers.

GOP U.S. Senate hopeful Jane Norton.
A reported major concern this election season, for voters on the right and the left, is that lawmakers don’t listen to the people who elect them, that Congress is an arena where special interests play at the taxpayers’ expense, prioritizing corporate profit, for example, and union agendas and defense contractor dreams above the health of the nation and its citizens. In Colorado, the word “grassroots” has perhaps never carried more cache. That grassroots solutions are the best way to approach the nation’s problems is the top theme of the tea party, as well as of the Obama-born netroots network.

Norton is a well-connected political insider whose campaign has pulled in cash from major donors since it was launched. Yet she has attempted to sell her candidacy as a grassroots phenomenon. Fact is, Norton has moved between the government and the health industry for most of her career. Her family members, including her sister, her brother-in-law, her ex-husband and her daughter all work as government lobbyists. Her brother-in-law, Charlie Black, is among the top big money lobbyists in the nation, a man who sold lawmakers on the wishes of Big Tobacco and Big Oil for decades.

Black worked on Ronald Reagan’s campaigns and as a senior adviser to the George H.W. Bush campaign and did the same for John McCain in 2008. His firms, first Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly and later BKSH & Associates, have worked with foreign dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Jonas Savimbi of Angola and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, as well as with Nigerian general Ibrahim Babangida, Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre and for the Saudi Arabian embassy and the controversial and corrupt Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi.

Norton has said she talks with Black on occasion but that he would enjoy no special influence with her in the Senate. She adds that Buck has benefited from special interest campaign advertising spending on his behalf and that Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter was best man at Buck’s wedding, which she says demonstrates that Buck is similarly politically connected.

GOP U.S. Senate hopeful Ken Buck.
As Weld County D.A., Buck has made a splash. He is the man behind the 2008 “Operation Numbers Game” tax office raid that targeted thousands of undocumented Weld County workers for using false identities to file tax returns. The raid made Buck immensely popular on the anti-illegal immigration right, even though the case built from the raid was later thrown out as unconstitutional. But Buck also later challenged GOP orthodoxy by prosecuting hate-crime charges against a man ultimately convicted in the brutal beating death of a transgender woman, Angie Zapata.

As Senate candidate, Buck was embraced by the growing tea party movement, but the lean bank account built by his campaign and the lack of big names supporting him led many to bet against the campaign’s viability. Then in March, Buck beat Norton in the GOP straw poll caucus by a hair and in May took the state GOP delegate convention by storm, when Norton, struggling to maintain her air of inevitability, dropped out. He also pulled down major endorsements by people with grassroots credibility, namely South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and RedState blog founder Erick Erickson. Buck has led polls for most of the summer.

A victory for Norton today will argue against narratives touting the power of the tea party movement, seriously calling into question the movement’s electoral effectiveness. Colorado, after all, hosts the largest per capita tea party movement in the nation.

Democratic bloodletting

After a battle in which the bloodletting seemed better suited for the Roman Coliseum than the political arena, Democrats will cast their final votes for either challenger Romanoff or incumbent Sen. Bennet to be their champion in the fight for U.S. Senate today.

From the start the race has been seemingly overshadowed by backroom deals that spoke to a party-run system heavily influenced by top-down control. Those shadows darkened with former Colorado Speaker of the House Romanoff telling reporters that neither the national or state Democratic Party wanted him to run – statements that in turn added fuel to the growing rumor that Romanoff was offered jobs in President Barack Obama’s administration in exchange for his dropping out of the race completely.

While Romanoff later revealed that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina called to suggest three jobs in the U.S. Agency for International Development after telling him the president would support Bennet, Romanoff said he was never offered a job by the administration.

Yet Romanoff has continued to strike out at the Democratic Party, explaining he’s acting against party wishes simply by running. Bennet in turn has said that the president has done nothing to manipulate the campaign but supports a candidate he said he would back long before Romanoff entered the picture.

Burdened with a campaign that seemed late to the game, a difficulty in distinguishing himself from Bennet, and fundraising problems due to his decision not to take political action committee (PAC) donations, Romanoff floundered early in the race despite being viewed as the anti-establishment candidate in the year of the tea party.

Bennet took an early lead among all Democratic voters, while grassroots and caucus-goers roundly made Romanoff their man.

Though behind the scenes battling has been going on between the campaigns through email blasts and manager whispers, the first negative television advertisement was launched by the Romanoff campaign only a few weeks ago. That ad implied PAC dollars taken by Bennet’s campaign had influenced his votes. The next day, Bennet’s campaign returned the favor by launching an ad that noted the numerous PAC donations Romanoff had taken in former campaigns – a message that left out the fact that he was not taking money now.

Since that point, Romanoff has sold his house to add dollars to his advertisement spending and Bennet has used a small portion of his well-funded reserves to release messages attacking Romanoff’s record and character. With both sides saying their ads are telling the truth, fact checks are finding that “truth” to be broadly interpreted.

Both Democrats support single-payer health care, CO2 emission controls on industry, immigration reforms that include a path to citizenship, Wall Street reform, Social Security and other Democratic platforms. Where they differ may be more nuanced, but Romanoff has worked to make Bennet’s decisions to take PAC dollars a major issue in the campaign. Bennet in turn has said a statewide race against Republicans willing to take big business donations is likely not winnable and said that his decisions, like those of Romanoff while in the Colorado House, are not influenced by PAC dollars.

Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Andrew Romanoff.
Whether it is the ad spots, anti-establishment theme, or decision not to take PAC dollars, Romanoff pulled even with Bennet in a poll conducted by Denver Post/9news. The poll conducted by Survey USA found Romanoff up 48 to 45 against Bennet on Aug. 1, in a race that once had Bennet up by 17 points at one point.

One Democratic voter from Boulder County recently told the Colorado Independent that after the race turned ugly she didn’t want to vote for either candidate. Democratic officials should be concerned whether all voters hold the same view after today’s primary decision, and whether they will turn their thumb up or down.

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