On Primary Day two weeks ago, Weld County D.A. Ken Buck had just defeated former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton to win the GOP nomination to face Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in the general election. Buck campaign consultant Walt Klein gave a short speech to the crowd at the victory party in Loveland and then climbed down from the stage onto the floor, smiling and shaking hands. Klein has been working Colorado Republican electoral politics for 30 years and was basking in the hard-fought success of this latest campaign.
“How many Nortons is that now?” asked the Colorado Independent. Klein’s smile turned into a grin and he shot three fingers into the air.
“Gale Norton was the opponent of Wayne Allard in the 1996 Senate primary and Wayne won a big victory, not entirely unlike this one tonight,” he said. “It was Tom Norton who ran against Bill Owens in the  governor’s race. Tom was a state senator and ran a tough primary campaign, but we won that primary too.”
Klein said he has been lucky to work for talented politicians but he clearly played a major role in the race against Jane Norton. The victory is the product of a highly focused incremental strategy designed to build grassroots support on the road. That was all Klein, who took charge as soon as he came on board with the campaign in May 2009.
Buck had already spent weeks in April sending out semi-announcements suggesting he was planning to run while apparently struggling to put a team together. When Klein came on in May he said he immediately put Buck to work on the stump.
“You’re a good candidate,” he said he told Buck. “But you could be a whole lot better.” He said Buck tirelessly began barnstorming the state.
“The campaign spent 15 months trying to catch up with the momentum Buck was generating,” Klein said, arguing that the approach couldn’t have been a better match with the mood of the electorate.
“In the primary, Ken was focused on what you’ve got to do first, which is line up a base of support. You can’t fake grassroots support. You either have it or you don’t have it. You can’t send a letter out to people who have never met you and expect them to sign onto support your campaign. He did the work for almost a year, in every part of the state. He lined up the base. Among people who had met him, he was winning straw polls by a country mile.”
Klein said media outlets reporting on the Buck campaign mostly by examining fund-raising tallies were missing the larger part of the campaign story.
“Voters are clearly looking for a different kind of candidate in this election cycle and they saw, I think with Ken from the beginning, they saw here’s a guy who has the potential. And the more they saw him, the more they listened to him. The more they saw him with the other candidates, the more attractive he became.”
Klein believes the campaign against Norton has positioned Buck particularly well for the general election run against Bennet, another comparatively wealthy and well-connected candidate.
“Norton outspent us three-and-half to one. They had an army of lobbyists raising money in Washington DC and 25 or 30 United States senators that had endorsed her and all that.”
Yet, he said, none of it mattered in the end due to the connection Buck had made with voters on the stump.
The night of the primary victory, Buck told the Colorado Independent that the plan going forward was simple. “I’m going to chase Michael Bennet all over the state on his voting record. The stimulus, the health care bill, the financial reform bill… He’s now going to have to answer to the people of Colorado.”
Klein’s grassroots boot camp has given Buck confidence. Despite recent high-profile gaffes, he lingers with reporters and will talk on any topic. Over the past two months, his name recognition has rocketed. To the left, he is a member of the new radicalized mainstream right, a partner to Sarah Palin and candidates like Nevada’s Sharon Angle and Kentucky’s Rand Paul. Among his supporters, though, he’s a new kind of anti-establishment Republican and that’s a good thing.
“If you read the newspapers in the fall and early spring, you would hardly have known there were candidates running against [Norton]. She was treated as the appointed-anointed candidate,” said Klein.
But then Buck won the precinct caucus voting in March.
“Even though Buck only won that by a half a percent, it was the preliminary to winning the state convention and it set in motion a couple things: one, that he was a terrific candidate and; two, that there was a choice in the Republican primary.”
Fundraising finally came together for Buck only in the last quarter before the primary voting. Indeed, the campaign raised more money in the second quarter of 2010, which ended in July, than it raised in the preceding three quarters. In the last quarter of 2009, the campaign raised a mere $40,000, clearly a result of Norton’s entering the race and siphoning off big donors.
Klein admits that the bleak fundraising picture dissolved in large part as a result of the Senate Conservative Fund‘s spring endorsement.
“They didn’t just give Ken a pat on the back,” said Klein. “They stepped up and raised critical funds. In fact, I think we added 2,500 people to our donor base as a result of the messages the Senate Conservative Fund was sending out over their website, [because] when you get check from the Senate Conservative Fund, you also get the names and addresses of the people who have contributed, small contributors, and some of those lists included 1500 or 1600 names. “
Bennet has long led the fundraising race in the campaign for his seat. In July, he announced a cash-on -hand total of $2.6 million, which was about $2.2 million more than Buck at the time had to spend.
Although Buck is no stranger to Washington power brokers (like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, for example) and has drawn most of his paychecksas an adult from the government, he will be running hard against Bennet as the Washington insider, the same way he ran against Norton.
“People in Colorado were frustrated with Republicans going to Washington and voting one way and campaigning another way here. Unfortunately, Jane Norton, although she hasn’t been in DC and doesn’t have a voting record, she was associated with that group of people that have done that in the past and so I was able to capitalize on that.”
Bennet has never run for office previously and was appointed to the Senate last year after former Sen. Ken Salazar joined the Obama administration as Secretary of the Interior.
But Bennet is in Washington now and he has voted with the majority to advance Pres. Obama’s agenda, an even riper target for Buck on the stump than were Norton’s ties to the high-profile lobbyist community.
“When people understand the differences between Ken Buck and Michael Bennet, Republicans will unite and we will be able to reach out to unaffiliated voters and Democrat voters,” he told the Colorado Independent.
“There’s a contrast between a conservative and a Washington DC liberal and it is going to be stark for voters in November.”
[Image: Walt Klein at the Buck Victory party August 10 ]