With thousands of votes still to be tallied, Michael Bennet has won the first political campaign of his life — and it was a political battle for the history books. He beat back a serious Democratic Party primary challenge and emerged victorious in the general election this morning over conservative Weld County DA Ken Buck in the post-Citizens United, anti-incumbent, anti-Democratic year of the Tea Party. Barring a dramatic recount turnaround, Bennet is headed back for a full term to the U.S. Senate, a lawmaking body he frustratedly described earlier this year as a sort of purgatory where nothing happens despite the grave problems facing the nation.
Bennet didn’t speak last night as the return results trickled in with Buck holding a shrinking lead over the course of hours and into the morning.
But Bennet spokesman Trevor Kincaid relunctantly climbed the ballroom podium at the downtown Denver Marriott at nearly 2 a.m. to say there were still 15,000 Denver ballots, 32,000 Boulder ballots and 5,000 El Paso county ballots to be tallied, in addition to provisional ballots. He said that given Bennet’s 3 to 1 edge among voters in Denver and 2 to 1 edge in Boulder and given the long-standing trend for provisional ballots to break majority Democratic, he was confident of victory.
By 7 a.m. major news outlets in the state had come to agree with those calculations.
The Denver Post declared Bennet the winner with 47.4 percent of the vote to Buck’s 47.0 percent, with 87 percent of the vote counted.
KDVR 7 News likewise declared for Bennet, whom KDVR is reporting has racked up an 8,000-vote lead with 88 percent of the vote totaled.
The Colorado race cost well more than $45 million, the cash pouring in from a host of outside groups across the political spectrum that included labor unions and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC, making it a poster contest for the system established over the course of years and pushed over the top by the U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which declared that attempts to limit corporate election spending amounted to restricting free expression. The political nonprofit groups that funnel corporate cash interpreted the ruling as an end to disclosure rules. The Senate race campaign ad wars that filled the airwaves in Colorado were roundly panned by citizens as ugly, exhausting and absurd.
The Buck campaign relied heavily on outside spending, particularly the cash plunked down in the race by American Crossroads, which paid for ads and get-out-the-vote efforts on Buck’s behalf.
Indeed the Buck campaign drew notice early on in the long GOP primary race mostly for its anemic fundraising. Former Lt Governor Jane Norton, the GOP frontrunner for months, pulled down funds from major establishment backers and appeared ready to skate to victory over the lesser-known Buck.
But Buck was happy to surrender the “grasstops” early for the longterm support of the grassroots, which he gained in spades. Conservatives fired up by the large Tea Party movement in the state embraced him and lifted him onto the national stage in the general election contest against the well-financed Bennet. From there, the non-Buck-campaign cash streamed into the state on his behalf, effectively evening the race and signaling what the future of smart campaign fundraising might look like in years ahead, barring any change in the rules.
Bennet was appointed to the Senate in 2009 by Gov. Bill Ritter to fill the vacancy created when Pres. Obama chose Sen. Ken Salazar to head the Interior Department. Ritter told the Colorado Independent that he knew Obama placed a high priority on education and Ritter sought to leverage Bennet’s experience as superintendent of the Denver Public School system.
In a contentious year that saw the passage of health care reform legislation, where energetic partisanship gained the lion’s share of headlines, Bennet’s soft-spoken even perhaps mumblingly thoughtful expression was notable as a sort of anti-charisma charisma. His non-politician everyman’s frustration with the goings on in a Senate hobbled by arcane and antiquated rules struck a chord with his supporters.
Given the wave of GOP victories across the country this midterm election, the Bennet victory will no doubt be the focus of analysis for months if not longer.
Longtime GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, however, will not be surprised by the victory. He told the Colorado Independent last week that he thought Republicans have been covering over deep GOP infrastructure problems with Tea Party fireworks all year. “The Colorado [Republican] party is in disarray and the national party has fumbled the get-out-the-vote effort,” he said, adding that in the end, when it came to translating enthusiasm to crucial last-minute votes, Buck would be on his own.
“If Buck is waiting for the cavalry, he’ll be disappointed,” said O’Connell. “There is no cavalry for him.”
That seems to have been the case.
Colorado Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak told the Independent Tuesday night that she had never seen as much effort among staff and volunteers as she had this cycle.
“I feel very positive. We won the governor’s office, the state senate. There are a lot of races undecided in the State House. This [US] senate race is not over,” she said at around 1:30 a.m.
“Democrats are only a third of the electorate in this state and so that means our candidates appealed to Coloradans across the spectrum, even in the so-called wave year for the GOP,” she said. “Candidates, like Bennet and [Congressman Ed] Perlmutter, overcame millions in outside spending because they’re conscientious lawmakers. Democrats could have lost everything today but their work spoke to the interests of the people.”