Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) visits with a young girl as he campaigns in downtown Colorado Springs, Colo., on Aug. 9. After surviving a tough primary challenge, Bennet is now in a close race with Tea-Party-backed Republican Ken Buck.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) visits with a young girl as he campaigns in downtown Colorado Springs, Colo., on Aug. 9. After surviving a tough primary challenge, Bennet is now in a close race with Tea-Party-backed Republican Ken Buck. Ed Andrieski/AP
Forty days before the midterm election, Democrats are campaigning hard to maintain their majority in Congress.
One of the key races to watch is for the U.S. Senate seat in Colorado. The incumbent, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), is a moderate, facing Tea-Party-backed conservative Republican Ken Buck.
Colorado has trended toward Democrats in recent years, so you might think Bennet would be well ahead in the polls. But he's not — largely because of the anti-incumbent sentiment that's playing out nationwide.
A New Focus
Bennet was appointed to the Senate to replace Ken Salazar, who left to become interior secretary. Bennet took over the job one day after Barack Obama became president in 2009, and he's enjoyed the president's support since.
Ken Buck was not the Republican establishment's choice for the U.S. Senate seat in Colorado. In the primary, Buck used lots of Tea Party money to portray himself as an outsider to win the GOP nomination.
Now as he faces incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet, Buck needs to convince Colorado's moderate voters that he can represent them.
Read more from NPR's Don Gonyea.
That helped Bennet win in a bruising primary campaign against former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. But once the primary election was over, it didn’t take long for Bennet to start distancing himself from President Obama.
Bennet was asked on All Things Considered on Aug. 11 whether he wanted Obama to campaign for him during the general election season. "I don't know," said Bennet. "I think it certainly helped during the primary and we'll make a judgment going forward."
So far, Obama has not traveled to Colorado on Bennet's behalf for the November election. And these days, Bennet is focused on touting his moderate credentials.
That's how NPR's Ken Rudin rates the Colorado Senate race between Michael Bennet and Ken Buck. Get Rudin's analysis — and see how other political watchers view the race — at NPR's Election Scorecard.
"I have voted more with the other party than any member of the Colorado delegation, Republican or Democrat," bragged Bennet at a debate in Colorado Springs on Friday.
Swinging Unaffiliated Voters
Look at the numbers in Colorado and you'll see why Bennet has changed his message: Polls show the race is tight and his Republican opponent — Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck — may actually be slightly ahead. This is surprising because Buck is widely seen as more conservative than most Coloradans, especially on issues like abortion and immigration.
Bennet is the type of middle-of-the-road Democrat who's done well in Colorado in recent years.
"The more moderate candidate should — all things being equal — be doing somewhat better than the more extreme candidate,” says Seth Masket, assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver. "In this year, though, all things are not equal. There's a very strong national tide against the Democrats right now and for the Republicans."
And, in the general election, Bennet has to appeal to the third of Colorado voters who don't belong to a political party. These unaffiliated voters can be a fickle bunch. Two years ago most were strong Obama supporters, helping him win the state. But the economy has worsened in Colorado. Many of those voters have turned against the president and, it appears, anyone who's allied with him.
"The voters want people out that are in and they really don't care — to a certain extent — whether they're Democrat or Republicans," says unaffiliated voter Bob Johnson of Parker, Colo.
Johnson plans to vote for Buck and says Bennet's biggest mistake was voting for the president's health care overhaul, plus his support for the stimulus bill.
Eric Bellamy/The Daily Tribune/AP
Ken Buck accepts the Republican nomination for Senate on Aug. 10 in Loveland, Colo. Buck, the Weld County district attorney, defeated former Colorado Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in the primary.
Ken Buck accepts the Republican nomination for Senate on Aug. 10 in Loveland, Colo. Buck, the Weld County district attorney, defeated former Colorado Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in the primary. Eric Bellamy/The Daily Tribune/AP
"We're trillions of dollars in debt and everybody's saying we can't keep doing this and they keep doing it," Johnson says.
While the economy is the focus around the country this election season, Democrats in Colorado recently have started talking more about abortion. The message is aimed at unaffiliated voters like Amanda Poltera of Wheat Ridge, Colo., who says she's voting for Bennet.
"He seems to be the only candidate that's not anti-abortion," says Poltera. "I'm not really excited about him as a candidate — he's kind of overspent in Washington."
That’s certainly not a ringing endorsement — but in this close race, even lukewarm support from a small group of voters could make the difference.