US & World

Underdogs Steal Spotlight In Colorado Primaries

Andrew Romanoff is challenging incumbent Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet for the Democratic nomination.
Andrew Romanoff is challenging incumbent Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet for the Democratic nomination.
Ed Andrieski/AP

This year, voters seem in the mood to dump anyone with establishment credentials. That attitude is helping candidates like Democrat Andrew Romanoff, who is trying to beat incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet. It's also pushing GOP establishment candidate Jane Norton to pump up her tea party connections.

In political races, party establishments often have a favorite candidate. Those candidates get a lot of money, much of the media attention and -- if all goes well for them -- the glory on Election Day.

But this year, establishment candidates are having some difficulty. The source: activists, often within their own party. Remember just a few weeks back when it was Democrat Joe Sestak -- not Arlen Specter -- delivering the victory speech after Pennsylvania's Senate primary?

In Colorado, underdog candidates also are making a surprisingly strong showing. Take the Democratic primary race for senator. Incumbent Michael Bennet would seem to have all the advantages. He was appointed to the job 18 months ago, so he can still claim to be a newcomer to Washington. He has President Obama's endorsement, and there's his 6-to-1 fundraising edge over his primary opponent, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

But last month at the state Democratic assembly, party activists chose to get on board with Romanoff.

"I think Romanoff would be a better guy," says Democratic voter Tony Bianchini of Broomfield, Colo. "He seems more genuine."

Bianchini thinks voters are in the mood to get rid of anyone tainted with establishment credentials. If choosing Romanoff means losing the seat to Republicans, so be it. And it's not just Democrats who feel that way.

"I think we're seeing some of it on the Republican side," says Katy Atkinson, a political analyst in Denver.

Tea Party Power

The tea party movement has affected the Republican primary in Colorado. In general, tea party supporters are passing over the establishment candidate, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, in favor of Ken Buck, a district attorney from north of Denver.

Buck's platform includes opposition to just about everything the Obama administration has done: the auto company bailout, the health care overhaul and the stimulus bill.

Norton has responded by burnishing her conservative credentials. She aired one advertisement telling Obama he should pledge to balance the budget or drop out of the race for re-election in 2012.

And just this week, Norton stepped up her effort to appeal to tea party activists. She held a fundraiser with Marco Rubio -- the tea party-backed candidate for Senate in Florida who prompted Gov. Charlie Crist to abandon the GOP and run for senator as an independent.

"They're campaigning together, they're fundraising together and she is reminding Colorado Republicans -- every opportunity she gets," says Atkinson.

By hanging with Rubio, Norton gives her campaign an insurgent air that's appealing this year, she says.

Despite all this, Atkinson predicts Colorado likely won't see an insurgent candidate win during the state's primary in August. Polling would seem to back her up on that. But in the meantime, the strong showing among underdogs is making for an unusually interesting primary season.

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