Colorado Senate candidate Jane Norton could become the latest Republican to lose a primary to an upstart, Tea Party-backed challenger.
Norton, a former lieutenant governor, was set to cruise to the GOP nomination after being handpicked for the race by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
But, like many other party-favored candidates, she has seen her challenger gain some momentum as the primary date draws nearer.
In Colorado, Norton faces Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck in the August primary. Buck has seen his support surge in recent weeks as Tea Party candidates have scored victories in Nevada and Kentucky.
“I think I get a lot of the Tea Party and 9/12 support, but I refer to it as grass roots,” Buck told The Hill. “It is much broader than the Tea Party.” 9/12 is a personal-responsibility group created by conservative Fox News anchor Glenn Beck.
“We have a lot of support around the state. Her message is resonating,” said Cinamon Watson, a spokeswoman for Norton.
Observers say Buck has the momentum.
“He’s got some real momentum on fundraising, and I think it’s a different game right now,” said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University. “I think it’s a real race on the Republican side.”
Buck had been “watering the grass roots,” Straayer said. “It seems to be working.”
Norton received praise from Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin in a May speech she gave in Washington, though the former governor of Alaska has not endorsed Norton.
Meanwhile, Buck went through the precinct caucuses, county assembly process and then the state assembly, where he won the right to be at the top of the August primary ballot.
Along the way, he won a non-binding straw poll during the precinct caucuses and took more delegates than Norton at the county assemblies, although at the time Norton indicated that she was going to petition her way onto the ballot. Norton then chose not to participate in the state assembly, Colorado GOP officials said.
Buck said Norton’s decision to forgo the traditional nominating process hurt her image with activists. “That really defined her,” he said. “It is a top-down campaign, as opposed to a bottom-up campaign.”
Republican observers said Buck was able to capitalize on his participation in the caucus and assembly process.
“I think he’s certainly got significant momentum coming out of the [state] assembly,” said Ryan Call, chairman of the Denver County Republican Party. “It’s a different approach.
“Overall, I think Ken Buck is clearly running more to the right,” he said. “But I think Norton’s approach on the campaign has certainly sharpened in recent weeks and she’s making her case to the Republican electorate as a whole.” Call is neutral in the primary.
There are subtle policy differences between the candidates. On term limits, for instance — Buck supports them for members of Congress, but a spokeswoman for Norton said she would only support them if all 50 states adopted them.
They’re mostly working to portray each other as the establishment candidate, which can be deadly for politicians, given the current national mood.
“Ken Buck may characterize himself as an outsider, but he’s been a government lawyer for most of his career,” Watson said. “He worked in the Clinton administration, he’s been elected DA and, in fact, the current governor, Bill Ritter [D], was the best man in his wedding. To characterize himself as an outsider, like Sharron Angle or something, is absolutely false.”
Buck shrugged off the Norton campaign’s characterization.
“I’m a prosecutor, not a government lawyer,” he said.
He noted that Norton was personally asked by McCain to run for the seat and had the backing of several other sitting senators. “To call someone else an insider is kind of amusing,” said Buck, who has been endorsed by conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
David Flaherty, a Colorado-based pollster who has worked with Buck, said there is the perception that Norton has the support of the GOP establishment. “There was the perception that the [National Republican Senatorial Committee] chose Norton to be our nominee,” he said.
Flaherty’s firm released a survey of Colorado primary voters Thursday that showed Buck leading Norton 42 percent to 32, with 26 percent undecided. It was an automated survey that wasn’t commissioned by the Buck campaign, Flaherty said. “We feel very comfortable about this survey.”
The results from the June 8 poll show Buck has increased his support by 27 points, while Norton has lost nine points, since the firm’s last survey in March.
“Momentum is now with Ken Buck,” Flaherty said.
Flaherty’s survey came from a GOP firm. A Democratic firm, Public Policy Polling, conducted a poll in mid-May that showed Norton leading by five points.
The results from Kentucky and Nevada, where Tea Party-backed candidates unexpectedly won the GOP primaries, are fueling the energy of activists in Colorado.
“The results in those other states are going to help people like Buck,” Straayer said.
“It pumps up that super-exercised crowd. It keeps the momentum going. If it started to go the other way, and folks that the Tea Party folks were supporting were getting drubbed, you’d see a very quick fall-away from the movement. But we’re not seeing that. It’s going the other way.”
The primary is Aug. 10.