By Aaron Blake - 02/25/10 01:09 AM EST
Andrew Romanoff must lean on a convoluted primary process to help him upend Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).
Romanoff has struggled on the fundraising front, and some are doubtful he can put together the kind of campaign required to knock off an incumbent. The state’s precinct caucuses, which will be held next month, are looking more and more like either a lifeline or a death knell for his campaign.
Political observers say — and supporters of Bennet worry — that Romanoff will gather momentum with a strong showing at the caucuses next month and the state assembly in May, using it to create a real race before the Aug. 10 primary. Conversely, they say losing at the state assembly could represent the end of the road.
Colorado Democratic consultant Steve Welchert called it a must-win and said Romanoff needs a “pretty healthy margin.”
“He’s got to come out of the caucus looking like he’s the choice of grassroots Democrats, because financially he is so far behind,” Welchert said. “This is an expectations game, and there is an expectation that Romanoff will do well.”
When it comes to the state’s primary process, the word “Byzantine” is often invoked. The March 16 precinct caucuses lead into county and district assemblies in April, which eventually lead to the state assembly on May 22. At the state assembly, candidates must get 30 percent of the vote to make the ballot, or get at least 10 percent and then petition onto the ballot.
Alternatively, a candidate can skip the process and simply petition to get on the ballot. But whoever receives the most votes at the assembly gets the top of the ballot in the August primary.
Bennet’s campaign is casting the caucuses and state assembly as do-or-die time for Romanoff, a former state House Speaker and political veteran.
“He’s the insider in terms of the caucus process, given his long years in the assembly,” Bennet campaign manager Craig Hughes said. “For Andrew, it’s a critical must-win in the caucuses, given the home-field advantage.”
In an interview, Romanoff sought to lower expectations. He said the state assembly is merely a means to get on the ballot, and that the goal is what he needs to do that: 30 percent.
He sought to de-emphasize the process and declined to discuss strategy in detail.
“It is part of our broader strategy, which is to reach out to as many voters as possible between now and August,” Romanoff said. “That is one step on that journey.”
Even if he wins at the state assembly, though, Romanoff will have his work cut out for him. Democrats note that Interior Secretary and former Sen. Ken Salazar and former Senate nominee Tom Strickland both lost at the convention but still won their primaries in recent years.
“It really doesn’t mean a whole lot,” state Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak said.
Perhaps bigger than its potential to help Romanoff is its potential to hurt him. Welchert noted that former state party Chairman Buie Seawell went into the 1990 Senate primary with expectations that he would win at the assembly. When he didn’t, it ended his hopes.
Romanoff has long been considered the grassroots candidate in the race. Thanks to his status as a former state House Speaker, he’s much better tied in to that segment of the Democratic electorate than is Bennet, who came to the Senate after serving as superintendent of the Denver school system.
But Romanoff has struggled to differentiate himself from Bennet. He has received plenty of support from fellow state legislators and recently got the endorsements of a pair of big unions — the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) — but his fundraising has stagnated and he’s in search of some footing.
After raising a little less than $300,000 in the third quarter, Romanoff only improved slightly in the fourth, raising $337,000.
“He has not raised a ton of money, and it is a concern on everybody’s part that he needs to ratchet that up,” Waak said. “That’s a concern for now in the primary and general election.”
Bennet, meanwhile, appears to have all the benefits of a primary front-runner, including establishment support, President Barack Obama — who recently did an event — and cash. Bennet has proven a quick study in fundraising and has $3.5 million in the bank, compared to $480,000 for Romanoff. Bennet has also been endorsed by the SEIU.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) is backing the incumbent, while the state party has stayed neutral.
DSCC Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Wednesday that he’s not concerned in the least about Bennet’s chances in the primary.
“The reality is that he has been smart and strategic in pursuing the electorate in Colorado,” Menendez said, noting Bennet has made inroads on the Western Slope and with business leaders. “I believe that he will do exceptionally well and continue to be the senator from Colorado.”