This year’s race for a U.S. Senate seat in Colorado started as a nationally significant nail-biter— and might even finish like one. Maybe. Could be. Doubtful, but hey, anything is possible, right? With presidential polls tightening in the final days of the race, though, Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet’s campaign still holds a commanding lead.
Bennet faces Republican Darryl Glenn whose lackluster campaign in comparison could benefit from a Republican surge, should one emerge. The race also features a handful of third-party candidates and also-rans, two of whom have played a larger role than usual in a Colorado U.S. Senate race.
Is this a close race to watch on Election Day?
It’s probably not on the top of your list.
Bennet is a Democratic incumbent in a year when more Democrats are voting early in Colorado and more Democrats are registered to vote here than ever before. He has raised a tremendous amount of money— some $17 million— and has spent more than $13 million. Glenn has not cracked double-digits.
The presidential campaign of Donald Trump has not helped Glenn, whose operation never reached the level of Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s two years ago when he unseated then-Democratic incumbent Mark Udall. And consider this: Gardner spent his time campaigning for GOP candidates in other states rather than back home helping Glenn, who jumped on, then off, and then back on the Trump train.
Most election handicappers have this race safe, leaning toward Bennet, and have for a while.
This means a Glenn win would be a victory even more historic than Gardner’s 2014 coup over Democratic incumbent Mark Udall, especially given the campaign— or lack thereof— the Republican has run. In other words, it’d be a major upset that would tell us a lot about Colorado and national politics going forward.
But the Bennet campaign is not taking anything for granted.
Consider this from a fundraising email they sent just days before the election about “dire” news they got from the latest poll: “We’re losing ground with just seven days until Election Day and POLITICO is calling Michael Bennet ‘the only truly vulnerable Democratic incumbent.’”
Funny thing about that quote, though. It’s from March.
How we got here
The race began with a sprawling, 15-candidate Republican primary with a dumpster fire at every turn.
Top-tier Republicans like Congressmen Mike Coffman and Scott Tipton decided not to run, as did high-profile Denver-area District Attorney George Brauchler, who had been courted by the GOP establishment. Those on the B-team who did choose to run did so in an unusual fashion, splitting into two camps when deciding how best to get on the ballot. Half went through the grassroots caucus-assembly process, while the other half “petitioned” onto the ballot by trying to gather enough signatures to qualify from Republican voters across the state.
The decision by so many candidates to use the petition process resulted in a major meltdown when three of the four who gathered petitions — Jon Keyser, Robert Blaha and Ryan Frazier — were initially told by the GOP Secretary of State that they hadn’t gathered enough. All three sued and a courtroom drama swallowed a good chunk of oxygen in the race. Jack Graham made it onto the ballot clean with signatures to spare.
One of the legacies of that U.S. Senate primary will be the way in which the ballot petition process works in Colorado. The messy primary drew significant attention to the process of getting on the ballot, and Colorado’s Secretary of State’s office has already said it needs a close look in the future.
A retired Air Force colonel and lawyer who sits on the El Paso County Commission, Glenn stunned political observers when he beat six GOP rivals at the April state Republican convention, earning 70 percent of the vote from caucus-goers.
Many attributed his win to a rousing, red-meat convention speech, which you can watch here.
The general election
Throughout the general election, Bennet has clobbered Glenn in both fundraising and reach, demonstrating an ability to funnel the money he’s raised into effective messaging on TV, in mailboxes and at front doors. He has a bus; Glenn has a Humvee.
The two men debated twice, only once on TV. The first debate was in Grand Junction in August, which also featured Lily Tang Williams, the Libertarian nominee in the race.
The second debate was in downtown Denver, moderated by 9News, and was loudly disrupted by Green Party nominee Arn Menconi and his supporters— including a man in a bunny suit.
Throughout the race, Glenn focused on Bennet’s support for Obamacare and the Iran nuclear deal. Bennet hammered on Glenn’s hard-right partisanship and stated beliefs that working across the aisle is not something Glenn would be interested in doing as a U.S. senator.
On TV Bennet stayed positive, airing sunny ads about himself, until the very end when he attacked Glenn as a “fringe” candidate. Glenn raised eyebrows with a TV spot about his “relentless” attitude as an underdog that looked like an infomercial for a gym workout device.
If Bennet wins…
It will be another sign that he’s one of the luckiest politicians in America. He just seems to attract non-Gardners as general election opponents.
Bennet wasn’t elected by voters to the U.S. Senate when he took hold of the seat in 2008. He was nominated by then-Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter when President Barack Obama appointed then-U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar to a cabinet position. In 2010, voters chose Bennet to keep the seat during the midterm elections. He beat then-Democratic Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff in a heated primary, and squeaked out a win in 2010 after Republicans nominated current-GOP Congressman Ken Buck over a better candidate in an otherwise disastrous year for Democrats.
This year he escaped facing a well-funded general election candidate because Colorado Republican voters chose to go with an anti-establishment Tea Party flashback who couldn’t rally mainstream support.
Bennet will also help the Democrats in their effort to retake control of the U.S. Senate.
Bennet isn’t a flashy senator, nor a firebrand. It’s likely most Coloradans wouldn’t recognize him if they sat next to him in a craft brewery. When he spoke at this year’s big Democratic Party fundraising dinner in Denver, he made a self-deprecating joke about his public speaking abilities.
But he’s keenly adept at cultivating personal connections. He knows his facts on both domestic and international issues. And his office often is credited for its effectiveness working with other members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. He’s also skilled at raising money, and once chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which fundraises to help elect other Democrats around the country.
As for policy, Bennet’s campaign says he’s most proud of being a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” which helped write a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The campaign also touts his work helping rewrite No Child Left Behind as a bipartisan law that reduces high-stakes testing and restores local control of schools.
Bennet pushed back against the Obama administration when it cancelled NASA’s ORION project, which employs 1,000 Coloradans at 22 companies in the state. He worked with Republicans to allow veterans who live more than 40 miles from a Veterans Administration clinic to receive their care at non-V.A. facilities. He rankled many fellow Democrats — especially environmentalists — by supporting the $8 billion Keystone XL oil pipeline that would stretch from Canada to Texas.
He introduced legislation to prevent government shutdowns with his GOP counterpart Gardner. The close working relationship between Colorado’s two senators is a topic much touted in press releases by Bennet’s office. Bennet has also introduced legislation to ban members of Congress from ever becoming lobbyists. He wants to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates on corporate money in politics, and pass the DISCLOSE Act to hold dark money groups accountable. He supported Obama’s Iran nuclear arms deal, a move multiple candidates running against him say is the reason they entered the race.
If Glenn wins…
It will be a sign that something big is happening within the Colorado electorate that was not evident in polls or campaign reporting.
A Glenn win would also mean the Cory Gardner playbook of running a nice-guy moderate Republican campaign with national support from the GOP establishment can be thrown in the shredder, at least for the short term.
It will mean Glenn, who predicted he would be the only candidate to emerge victorious from the April Republican state convention, should be picking your Powerball numbers the next time you buy a lottery ticket.
Who were the big donors?
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Bennet’s top five campaign contributors are The League of Conservation Voters, the Blackstone Group private equity firm, the large law firm of Akin, Gump et al, Oaktree Capital Management, and Pershing Square Capital Management.
The top five constituencies who support Bennet include securities and investment firms, real estate firms, lawyers, retirees and Democratic and liberal groups.
Glenn has been supported by national anti-establishment conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Action Fund, which spent hundreds of thousands for TV commercials for him when his own campaign couldn’t afford them.
When Glenn did start raising money— $2.8 million between July 1 and Sept. 30, which was more than Bennet pulled in for the same period — most of his contributions came from individuals.
What about those third-party candidates?
If this was a year when voters were looking outside the two major parties they had some compelling options in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race.
One candidate, Libertarian Lily Tang Williams, even ended up in a debate because the Libertarians were able to crack the 1 percent statewide voter registration mark. That was a first this year.
As for disaffected Bernie-or-bust Democrats who didn’t like Bennet’s full-throated support for Hillary Clinton, they had another option. Arn Menconi, a former Eagle County commissioner and social justice activist from Carbondale, campaigned across Colorado as the Green Party nominee in the race.
Menconi and Williams held a multi-stop debate tour on college campuses throughout the campaign season.
So one thing to look for is how many votes these two candidates pull in on Nov. 8. If they crack anything higher than 5 percent, it will be a testament to their aggressive campaigns in a year when voters were fed up with the two major parties.
There are also a handful of unaffiliated candidates, a Unity Party candidate, and a write-in candidate in the race. The unaffiliated candidates are Paul Noel Fiorino and Dan Chapin. Bill Hammons is the Unity Party candidate. Don Willoughby is the write-in.
You can watch a debate I moderated among Menconi, Fiorino, Chapin and Willoughby last month in Pueblo here.
What is the national significance of this race?
If Bennet wins re-election, and elsewhere in the country Democrats pick up enough seats to give them control of the U.S. Senate, Colorado Republicans will have a lot to answer for.
Why, they might be asked, couldn’t they field a better candidate in a year when there was so much at stake for their party nationally and when Bennet was once seen as the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent?