It's Nasty In Colorado This Primary Day

Voters in four states will go to the polls Tuesday and pick their party’s fall candidates, but perhaps no races are being watched more closely than the primary contests for governor and the U.S. Senate in Colorado. There, the expected has taken a back seat to the astonishing.

Plagiarism? Check. Gender politics? Check. Charges of Wall Street coziness? Check. Competing presidential endorsements? Check. Bicycle-sharing as a United Nations plot? Check. Selling house for campaign cash? Check.

Andrew Romanoff, a Democrat, has former President Clinton's endorsement in his bid for the Senate. i i

Andrew Romanoff is challenging Sen. Michael Bennet in today's Democratic primary. Ed Andrieski/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Ed Andrieski/AP
Andrew Romanoff, a Democrat, has former President Clinton's endorsement in his bid for the Senate.

Andrew Romanoff is challenging Sen. Michael Bennet in today's Democratic primary.

Ed Andrieski/AP

Add to that the last-minute gubernatorial candidacy of an independent party spoiler in the name of former five-term conservative Rep. Tom Tancredo, and the political situation in Colorado is "pandemonium," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli.

GOP’S Dimmed Hopes — For Now

That the chaos is largely playing out in the Republican contests doesn’t bode well for a party that had viewed the state as highly promising territory.

Party leaders had great hopes this fall of picking up the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat Michael Bennet and of recapturing the governor’s office being vacated by one-term Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.

Bennet, the former Denver school superintendent, was appointed to the seat in January 2009 after then-Sen. Ken Salazar was tapped by President Obama to become interior secretary.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), while visiting a school in Denver last March. i i

Bennet visiting a school in March. The senator has been endorsed by President Obama. David Zalubowski/AP hide caption

itoggle caption David Zalubowski/AP
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), while visiting a school in Denver last March.

Bennet visiting a school in March. The senator has been endorsed by President Obama.

David Zalubowski/AP

"I thought that the Republicans here had a very good chance to take back a significant amount of the political landscape they used to control out here," Ciruli says. "And up until early June every poll consistently showed that they had a 5-point generic lead statewide — whatever the matchup."

"But it’s now all up in the air here," he says.

What Happened?

Democrats, as they do nationally, looked increasingly vulnerable in Colorado.

The ailing economy is local voters' top issue, and one that doesn't favor the party in power. Statewide unemployment is north of 8 percent.

And Obama, whose win in Colorado with 53.7 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential race suggested a political swing away from the GOP, has seen his approval ratings in the state plummet to 38 percent.

Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton picked up the support of 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain. i i

Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton has Sen. John McCain's support in her bid for the GOP's Senate nomination. Jeff Brady/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady/NPR
Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton picked up the support of 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain.

Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton has Sen. John McCain's support in her bid for the GOP's Senate nomination.

Jeff Brady/NPR

Colorado Republicans had recruited candidates who, on paper, looked strong — from former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton for Senate to former six-term Rep. Scott McInnis for governor.

Both now are in dead heats with party upstarts.

Senate Race

Norton, endorsed by Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential candidate, is battling Ken Buck, the Weld County district attorney and a Tea Party favorite endorsed by emerging conservative kingmaker Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

(Buck, however, may have alienated some Tea Party adherents recently when, in a private conversation with a Democratic operative, he was recorded saying: "Will you tell those dumb asses at the Tea Party to stop asking questions about birth certificates when I'm on the camera?")

Buck, who was referring to those who question whether Obama was born in the United States, has also mixed it up with Norton over footwear.

In videotaped comments from a gathering of conservatives, Buck was shown answering a question about why party members should vote for him with this: "Because I do not wear high heels," but "cowboy boots, they have real bulls- - - on them."

Ken Buck, who's hoping to get the GOP nomination for Senate. i i

Ken Buck, who has Tea Party support in his bid to be the Republican's Senate nominee. Ed Andrieski/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Ed Andrieski/AP
Ken Buck, who's hoping to get the GOP nomination for Senate.

Ken Buck, who has Tea Party support in his bid to be the Republican's Senate nominee.

Ed Andrieski/AP

Buck defended the comment as a response to Norton ads that question his "manhood."

Polls show Norton, who made some hay with the high heels comment, with a slim lead. She has raised more than $2.87 million for her campaign; Buck has raised $1.26 million.

Obama Vs. Clinton?

The Democrats' Senate contest pits Obama-endorsed Bennet against Andrew Romanoff, who secured former President Bill Clinton's endorsement — and recently sold his house to infuse cash into his insurgent campaign.

Romanoff, a former state speaker of the house, has used a series of hard-hitting and controversial advertisements — criticized as unfair by some in the party — to link Bennet with Wall Street interests.

Bennet, a lawyer and businessman who served in the Clinton administration, was also the subject of a recent New York Times article critical of the way he structured school funding as superintendent in Denver, where the financing terms have now become a financial drain. Bennet's campaign has dismissed the criticism.

Colorado voters go to the polls at 7 a.m. MT today (9 a.m. ET). Voting ends at 7 p.m. MT (9 p.m. ET). Other states voting today:

— CONNECTICUT (Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET).

The race to watch: Republicans Linda McMahon, Peter Schiff and Rob Simmons are facing off for the GOP Senate nomination. The winner goes up against state Attorney Gen. Richard Blumenthal for the seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Christopher Dodd.

— GEORGIA (Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET).

The race: A Republican runoff for the gubernatorial nomination. Former Secretary of State Karen Handel has been endorsed by 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Rep. Nathan Deal has been endorsed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Palin, Gingrich and Huckabee are all potential 2012 GOP presidential contenders.

— MINNESOTA (Polls open in post most places at 7 a.m. CT — 8 a.m. ET — and close at 8 p.m. CT — 9 p.m. ET).

On the ballot: Party nominations for governor and House races.

—Thomas Dreisbach

Though Clinton has not been on the campaign trail for Romanoff, he recorded a pitch for the candidate that will be sent as a robo call to potential voters in the final hours of the hard-fought campaign. The popular former president’s endorsement has given the challenger some credibility, says Joannie Braden, a Democratic consultant in Denver.

"Bill Clinton is a very popular Democrat and I think it was a meaningful endorsement," Braden says.

Obama has recorded automated calls for Bennet that started last week.

And though the pollster Ciruli says that Obama's endorsement is increasingly seen as a wash among state voters, Bennet has a huge fundraising edge: $7.7 million raised as of July 21, compared with the $1.9 million raised by Romanoff.

Bennet holds a slight lead in the race.

"It’s tight sneakers," Braden says of the Romanoff-Bennet contest.

The downside for Democrats, strategists say of the historically expensive race, is that no matter who emerges from the negative campaign will be covered with that bitter residue.

Governor's Race

The Democratic candidate for governor, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, has been described as the luckiest man in Colorado.

Why? Because he is not being challenged for his party's nomination. And the Republican candidates — McInnis and businessman Dan Maes — are not only self-destructing, but the winner will now face not only Hickenlooper but the fall challenge of Tancredo.

Tancredo, who engaged recently in an ugly on-air radio throw-down with state GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams, has called on the winner of the Republican primary to withdraw before the fall election.

If the fall race is a three-way contest, Tancredo almost certainly helps Hickenlooper by siphoning GOP votes running under the banner of the American Constitution Party.

McInnis, the former congressman, has had his candidacy declared as much as dead after he admitted to plagiarizing work for columns he wrote while a fellow at the Hasan Family Foundation.

McInnis in recent days struck a deal to pay back the foundation, which had demanded the return of its money. Politicos say it’s the size of the foundation's payments to McInnis for the "Musings on Water" contributions — $300,000 — as much as the plagiarism that has hurt him with party voters.

His opponent, now considered the GOP primary front-runner, has drawn attention for claiming that Denver’s bike-sharing program, advocated by Hickenlooper, is "converting Denver into a United Nations community."

"This is bigger than it looks like on the surface," Maes said, "and it could threaten our personal freedoms."

The Democrat, Hickenlooper, is also being credited with a good pick for his running mate: Joe Garcia, president of Colorado State University, Pueblo, a respected Hispanic leader.

Endgame

The GOP’s disarray has inspired some sympathy, even though, overall, conditions suggest that this remains a Republican year.

"Republicans here, however, are in a complete mess," Ciruli says. "I feel for them."

The Colorado secretary of state’s office reports that 1.5 million mail-in ballots went out around the state, including to 46 of the state’s 64 counties that are holding all-mail elections. As of Wednesday, the state had received 436,382 mail-in ballots: 222,938 from Republicans, and 210,201 Democrats.

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