Bennet’s political future at risk 
even though he’s not on 2014 ballot

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s name won’t be on the ballot this November. But as Nevada Sen. Harry Reid’s hand-picked choice to run the political machine tasked with keeping Democrats in control of the Senate, Bennet has a trove of personal and political capital at stake in the outcome of Senate elections around the country this year.

That includes especially the results of Colorado’s own hotly contested Senate race between Sen. Mark Udall and Congressman Cory Gardner.

If Democrats manage to keep control of the Senate amid public outrage over Obamacare and sagging confidence in Democrats nationally, Bennet’s shooting star will go meteoric. When Reid tapped Bennet to run the Senatorial Campaign Committee in late 2012, he called Bennet “one of the brightest rising stars in the Democratic Party.” Preserving Reid’s majority would dramatically enlarge Bennet’s stature in liberal circles.

But if Democrats lose six seats, as many observers now predict, blame will swiftly make its way to Bennet’s doorstep, just in time for Bennet’s own 2016 re-election ramp-up.

To understand how much Bennet has on the line this November, you first have to appreciate how important a job Bennet has as head of the Democratic campaign committee. In a city defined by money and power, the Democratic senatorial organization that Colorado’s junior senator now leads has dump trucks full of both.

Bennet will raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars. His team and he have recruited Democratic candidates, helping preferred choices navigate through and around potential primaries. Into the fall, they will make life-and-death choices, in the electoral sense, at least, about which candidates to defend ‘til the bitter end and which candidates to throw overboard.

Through it all, Bennet is doubtlessly working hand-in-glove with President Barack Obama and his senior election strategists, raising money, divining strategy and doing all the things that Team Obama has done with such excellence for the last six years.

But this year, it won’t be Obama calling the election shots. It will be Bennet sitting at the head of the table.

With control of the U.S. House almost certainly out of reach for Democrats, all Democratic eyes will be zeroed in on preserving power in the Senate.

That is no doubt the reason that Bennet, who once tried to position himself as a bipartisan problem-solver, has turned into a fire-breathing zealot since Gardner announced he would challenge Udall.

Gardner made Bennet’s already tough task of preserving Harry Reid’s majority orders of magnitude more difficult.

And Bennet isn’t shying away from the fight. The Senatorial Campaign Committee and he have issued repeated emails and statements excoriating Gardner in notably vitriolic ways, at one point making the laughable comparison between the likeable Gardner and Missouri goofball Todd Akin.

Even Bennet’s wife recently got into the act, saying Gardner wants to “turn back the clock on women’s rights 40 years.”  The exaggerated tone of Bennet’s attacks underlines the urgency that the Dems’ campaigner-in-chief and his spouse apparently feel about the Colorado race.

Bennet’s affection for Udall is probably beside the point. Thanks to a hugely unpopular president, heavy early spending by conservative groups and a tricky political map, Democrats are likely to lose Senate seats in West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana, Arkansas and North Carolina.

That leaves just one seat between Bennet and electoral Dunkirk this November.

Any guesses which seat will likely determine whether Reid, Bennet and Co. stay in power? You got it — Colorado’s.

Look for Bennet’s attacks on Gardner to become even more shrill.

But this partisan gambit isn’t without risks for Bennet. If Bennet spends all of 2014 playing the role of Harry Reid’s attack dog, it is going to be that much tougher for him to claw back to the role of “Mr. Bipartisan” in advance of 2016.

All of which points to a delicious wrinkle for conservatives already hyped up by the chance to win Colorado’s Senate seat: A Gardner victory would be as much a defeat for Bennet as it would be for Udall.

Two Democratic senators with one stone? Yup.Michael Bennet’s name won’t be on the ballot this November, but it might as well be.

Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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