Activists set pace in Senate race; will they hold?

Trying to find meaning in caucus votes in any election cycle is more art than science, but this year’s preference polls were a little more complicated, political observers say.

The dynamics of this year’s elections — an anti-incumbent sentiment in both parties, a poor economy and the so-called Tea Party movement — added twists to caucus voting that some political observers are having trouble deciphering, Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said.

Ciruli said the caucus polls must have come as a shock to Colorado’s presumed frontrunners in both parties: U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet for the Democrats and former Colorado Lt. Gov. Jane Norton for the Republicans. Both were shown to not necessarily be the leaders in the race for Bennet’s seat, Ciruli said.

“On the Democratic side, it confirmed that the most active, most committed people in the party would have preferred and would, if given the choice, go with Andrew Romanoff,” he said. “For the Republicans, the Tea Party movement appeared to care more about the federal races than the governor’s. But in the end, it may not mean anything.”

Ciruli said the caucuses are only the beginning of the process and that circumstances will change as the August primaries near. However, he added, last week’s outcome will embolden Romanoff and, on the Republican side, Ken Buck, the former Weld County district attorney who almost got out of the primary race before Norton entered it.

Romanoff, former Colorado House speaker, got into the fray when Gov. Bill Ritter, also a Democrat, passed him over for an appointment to the seat in favor of Bennet. That was when Ken Salazar left the Senate to head the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“The caucuses are maybe a bit beyond spring training, but this is early in the season,” Ciruli said. “While Romanoff likely will get top line (on the primary ballot), there is no chance that Bennet will not get on the ballot.”

Ciruli warns that something similar to the 2004 U.S. Senate race could occur. That’s when political upstart Mike Miles of Colorado Springs earned the top line on the Democratic Party primary ballot over Salazar, who went on to win the race with 73 percent of the vote.

That happened after party leaders came out in full force behind Salazar, which they are doing again, this time for Bennet. Even President Barack Obama endorsed him early in the race, and Obama has come to Denver to help Bennet raise funds. To date, Bennet has raised nearly $5 million, compared to Romanoff’s $630,000, but the senator earned less than 42 percent of Tuesday’s caucus vote, compared to Romanoff’s 50 percent.

Mesa County Democratic Party Chairwoman Martelle Daniels attributed some of Romanoff’s support elsewhere in the state to one-issue voters. Although Romanoff lost among Mesa County Dems by a nearly 3-to-1 margin, he won more than three-fourths of the votes in several southeastern counties, possibly because of his strong statements against a highly unpopular plan by the U.S. Army to expand the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site. He also lost El Paso County by a wide margin, an area that supports the Army’s expansion plans.

“For Mesa County in general, Sen. Bennet’s been out here quite a bit, probably more than Andrew Romanoff, so it may have had an impact, but Colorado has so many unique counties, it’s hard to tell,” Daniels said. “People who go to caucuses, it’s really hard to draw any significant conclusions from them.”

Still, Daniels said, the caucuses may have helped her find the candidates she has been seeking for some of the down-ticket races, such as state House and Senate. She wouldn’t, however, say whom that might be.

For some in the Republican Party, the much ballyhooed Tea Party movement isn’t some colossal entity to be feared by candidates, Norton spokesman Nate Strauch said.

Although Norton didn’t do as well in the caucuses as she might have liked, her chief opponent didn’t run away with them, either. Buck scored slightly better than Norton statewide, pulling in 37.9 percent of the poll to Norton’s 37.7 percent.

“Ken Buck has painted himself from day one as the grass-roots candidate, and in a grass-roots setting like the caucuses, he didn’t perform much better than Jane,” Strauch said. “What he doesn’t have is the ability to raise money and get the endorsements from some of Colorado’s best conservative leaders.”

So far, Norton has raised about twice as much money as Buck, about $1 million to his $500,000.

Strauch said Norton isn’t calling herself the tea party candidate and that Buck isn’t it, either.

“There’s this perception out there that somehow Ken Buck is the tea party candidate, and really the Tea Party groups aren’t monolithic,” he said. “A Tea Party in Colorado Springs is different from a Tea Party in Grand Junction.”

To Ciruli, this all points to one thing: No one really is any wiser as to who will emerge as the candidates in this fall’s election.

“Some lesser-known candidates probably will drop out, so that will change the landscape,” he said. “Miss Norton has herself a bit of a race, and if the party wants her, they’re going to have to make her.

“Bennet’s got a real challenger, too. However it works out is going to be a pretty good battle.”


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