After convention, Bennet challenger embraces anti-incumbency mood

Colorado Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff is casting his victory at the state party convention as a reflection of the anti-incumbent mood that is sweeping the nation.

Romanoff bested incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) by 20 points at Saturday’s convention, but that only gives him the top slot on the August primary ballot, and not the outright Democratic nomination.

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However, he is using that victory to claim momentum.

“The message that Joe Sestak and Bill Halter delivered last week appeals to a lot of Coloradoans, too,” the former state House Speaker told The Hill. “The willingness of a candidate to buck his or her own party is something Coloradoans reward.”

Sestak defeated incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) in last Tuesday’s primary and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter forced Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) into a June runoff.

“In both cases, the candidates backed by the Washington establishment failed to win,” Romanoff said. “Folks in Colorado are glad that the voters in Pennsylvania and Arkansas didn’t roll over for Washington either.”

Romanoff got 60 percent of the vote to Bennet’s almost 40 percent.

“The assembly process is designed for candidates like Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who has been building relationships with party activists for nearly two decades,” said Trevor Kincaid, a spokesman for Bennet.

The senator’s campaign noted that Romanoff’s best chance of usurping the nod was keeping Bennet off the ballot, which he failed to do. 

Romanoff is lacking one thing Halter has going for him — significant national support. Halter has the backing of progressive groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, as well as strong union support.

Bennet’s supporters note the senator didn’t suffer the same fate as Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who lost his party’s nomination at the Utah GOP convention May 8. Instead, Bennet was able to keep his place on the August primary ballot by garnering support from 39.6 percent of the delegates — he needed only 30 percent to keep the spot. 

Romanoff has sailed through the state’s complicated nomination process, winning the precinct caucuses and county assemblies before winning the top line at the state convention. But the Bennet campaign says differences between the two Democrats aren’t as sharp as they are between, say, Halter and Lincoln.

“In Colorado, there is no such ideological divide,” Craig Hughes wrote in a recent memo. “Lincoln, Specter, Bob Bennett and even Rep. [Alan] Mollohan in West Virginia are all longtime politicians who have spent nearly or over two decades in Washington, D.C. Michael Bennet is not a politician, but his opponents are.”

The Bennet campaign also tried to downplay the significance of Romanoff’s win by noting that many candidates who win the party’s top line don’t go on to win the primary. The most recent example comes from 2004, when Democratic activist Mike Miles edged rival Ken Salazar at the state Democratic convention for top position on the ballot, but lost to Salazar in the August primary.

There are several differences between the two contests, Romanoff noted, saying, “One is the margin.” Miles won by single digits.

“The last four previous contested conventions, the margins were much tighter,” he said. “This seat was up at the convention in ’04 and a lot of people are interested in drawing some analogies to that race.” 

Romanoff said his campaign’s 20-point win in the caucuses shows the kind of “trajectory” he’s on.

“We won by eight in March, by 16 in April, by 21 this weekend — we are gaining ground,” he said. “Those gains have come despite a multimillion-dollar advertising spree that the opposition has waged.

“Democratic primary voters will see now see him as a winner,” Romanoff said. “I think a lot of folks are taking a look at this race in the wake of this string of victories and saying, ‘Maybe we could actually put a real leader in the Senate.’ ”

Bennet told reporters he plans to continue to collect petitions to get on the ballot even though he automatically qualified. 

“It allows us a real opportunity to talk to thousands of people,” he said, according to The Associated Press.

Bennet also told reporters he hasn’t been tainted by the backlash against Washington because “from the very beginning, we were the complete outsider.”

The former Denver Public Schools superintendent was appointed to the seat after Salazar joined the Obama administration. 

On the GOP side, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck appears to be gaining some momentum. He’s received national backing from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and won his party’s top line on the ballot at the GOP convention Saturday, although Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R), the leading candidate in the polls, did not participate. On Monday, fellow Republican Tom Wiens announced he was dropping out of the Senate race and endorsing Buck.