Until recently, appointed Sen. Michael BennetMichael BennetDems knock Trump on Earth Day Dem pushed plan for both sides to admit to abusing Senate rules: report Senators aim to extend federal conservation fund MORE (D-Colo.) looked to be headed for a matchup with a poorly funded Republican. But in the space of 24 hours last week, he got a primary challenger and an established Republican opponent.
Now Democratic voters will face a choice between an unknown appointee of Gov. Bill Ritter (D) and an unknown former leader of the State Legislature, while Republicans will decide between a low-profile former second-in-command and two small-timers who appear headed for the big time.
On top of all that, the state has become Case Study No.1 for trends in national polling, with voters souring on Democrats after a five-year period that saw significant Democratic gains in the swing state.
The party took over the governorship, both Senate seats and two House seats in the last three elections, but after the Democratic National Convention was held there a year ago, Barack ObamaBarack ObamaThe US should give peace a chance when it comes to North Korea Obama photographer gets book deal Time for GOP panic? MORE won the state by a stark nine points.
Now Obama, Ritter and Bennet are all under 50 percent approval, and the latter two look vulnerable to defeat next year.
Independent Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli said Bennet is in a different race than he was seven days ago.
“Prior to this, Bennet was seen as the favored front-runner largely based on his money potential, a good-to-neutral political environment and a weak Republican field,” Ciruli said. “In all three of those cases, this has become a much more dead-even race.”
While Norton’s entry is notable and could be good news for Republicans, Romanoff has made bigger waves. He filed an exploratory committee and is set to officially launch his bid Wednesday.
Democratic consultant Mike Stratton, who is backing Bennet, seemed to welcome Romanoff’s challenge, noting the independent nature of Colorado Democrats. He said Romanoff should be formidable but that he could also be good practice for the political newcomer Bennet.
“He’s got a serious record, and I think he has the potential to run a strong race,” Stratton said. “It will be good for Bennet to beat Romanoff and put a hide on the wall, so to speak.”
Romanoff became the second Democrat this cycle to launch a primary challenge against an incumbent, joining Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania. The party averted another primary against an appointed senator in New York, thanks to the White House getting involved.
Compared to those two states, though, Colorado is unique.
While Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSenate votes to confirm Rosenstein as deputy attorney general Senate approves Trump's Agriculture chief Dems urge Trump to include Northeast Corridor tunnel project in infrastructure bill MORE (D-N.Y.) were eyed for primaries because of their centrist records, Romanoff’s motivations are hard to pin down so far. He is not significantly to the left of Bennet, who has made strides to come off as a centrist, and he doesn’t appear likely to steal key labor support from the incumbent.
Bennet has been on the hot seat on some issues, particularly the union-organizing Employee Free Choice Act, but his politics are largely unknown.
Former state Sen. Ken Gordon (D), whom Romanoff worked for and succeeded in the state House, said Romanoff’s challenge is more grassroots-oriented than ideological.
Romanoff was a Democratic National Committeeman before he joined the State Legislature and has worked in politics for many years, while Bennet’s background is in business.
“I’m guessing that Andrew’s probably a little bit more progressive,” said Gordon, who is supporting Romanoff. “It comes with having worked in the grass roots of the Democratic Party for years.”
Democratic leaders will attempt to portray Romanoff as a sore loser who is running because he didn’t get the appointment and because a deal for him to become lieutenant governor fell through.
For his part, Romanoff is expected to make the case that he brought his party to power in the State Legislature.
“This is less ideological than almost emotional and image-driven,” Ciruli said. “There, I think, he has many of the advantages Bennet does not.”
Bennet isn’t making an impact using his style and charisma, and he has spent much of the year learning the ropes, keeping a low profile and raising money. On that front, he has already raised a strong $2.6 million and is expected to far outpace an unproven fundraiser in Romanoff.
Fundraising will also be key on the Republican side, where neither Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier nor Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck established himself as a strong candidate in the second quarter.
Norton will have a hard time closing the door on them in the three weeks of fundraising she will have had before the end of the third quarter, but their competitiveness will continue to be gauged by the reports filed in one month’s time.
Buck was going to bow out for Norton, but after some grassroots consternation about the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s (NRSC) actions in the state, he opted to stay in.
Frazier said he’s here to stay as well, regardless of national party politics.
“On one end they say they are not involved; on the other hand, there is a lot of factual evidence that’s out there that says they are responsible for her getting in,” he said. “I don’t know what’s the case. But I do know that I can’t allow that to distract me.”