Former Gov. Bill Ritter improbably appointed Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet to the United States Senate in January 2009 to replace U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, who resigned to become President Barack Obama’s Secretary of the Interior.
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and the Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, Andrew Romanoff, both felt entitled to the seat as prominent Democratic elected officials. Hickenlooper, who had hired Bennet as his chief of staff, looked like he was about to endure a root canal rather than celebrate a newly appointed senator at Governor Ritter’s State Capitol news conference.
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall had just been elected in 2008 after a long, grueling campaign against former Congressman Bob Schaffer. One can only imagine what was going through Udall’s mind as he watched Bennet waltz into the U.S. Senate without having to campaign for one minute or raise one dime.
The Accidental Senator
The Colorado Republican Party, which I chaired at the time, dubbed Bennet “The Accidental Senator.” Although I doubt he saw it as complimentary at the time, he now embraces the moniker as a badge of honor after winning two consecutive elections in 2010 and 2016. He touted it in his book, “The Land of Flickering Lights” which was written to advance his brief presidential campaign in 2020 and he often alludes to it in his daily fundraising emails for his 2022 reelection campaign.
Now in his thirteenth year in the Senate, Bennet is the fourth longest-serving senator in Colorado history. Since 1913 when the 17th Amendment went into effect providing for the direct election of senators — previously state legislatures elected senators — Colorado has elected 25 senators. Two were elected to three terms, Democrat Edwin Johnson (1937-1955) and Republican Gordon Allott (1955 to 1973). Republican Eugene Milliken (1941-1957) was appointed to the Senate in 1941 before being elected to two terms.
Should Bennet be reelected in 2022 and serve the entire term until January 2029, he would be the longest-serving senator in Colorado history at 20 years.
Rumors are floating that Bennet is not enjoying the Senate anymore. Could he withdraw from the race at some point? It’s certainly something Colorado has seen before.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth was facing a strong challenge in 1992 when he abruptly ended his campaign in April, just six months before the election. Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who was elected as a Democrat in 1992 but reelected as a Republican in 1998, withdrew from the race in March 2004. Both Wirth and Campbell were running well-financed, aggressive campaigns before their sudden, unexpected withdrawals.
Republican fumbles against Bennet
So how did Bennet become one of Colorado’s longest-serving senators? He can thank Colorado Republicans for nominating opponents who were complicit in allowing him to win campaigns he should have lost.
Underscoring his vulnerability as the appointed senator in 2010, Bennet was challenged for the Democratic nomination by the jilted Romanoff who soundly beat Bennet at the Democratic State Assembly. But as the incumbent senator, Bennet grossly outspent Romanoff in the primary election and won by an unimpressive 55% to 45%.
Meanwhile, there was a very competitive Republican primary between former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton and Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck. Fueled by the newly emergent Tea Party movement, Buck overcame Norton’s financial advantage and won by a 52% to 48% margin.
2010 was a difficult year nationally for Democrats during President Obama’s first mid-term election and Bennet was on the defensive in the general election. Buck led Bennet late in the campaign but he made some damaging mistakes which squandered that lead allowing Bennet to be elected by a margin of 48% to 46%.
Bennet was once again vulnerable in 2016. A crowded Republican primary of five candidates resulted in the nomination of El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn. Raising very little money for his campaign, Glenn was propped up by more than a million dollars in independent spending on his behalf by the Senate Conservative Fund out of Washington, D.C. Glenn won the primary with 38%.
Going into the fall campaign, Glenn had no discernable campaign infrastructure and seemed totally bewildered about running in a competitive general election rather than in a Republican primary. Despite this, Bennet eked out a victory by six points, 50 to 44.
So, yes, Bennet has now been elected twice after being appointed to the Senate. But had it not been for the late undisciplined mistakes by one opponent and the not-ready-for-prime-time nature of another opponent, those races would have been closer and Bennet could have lost both of those elections.
Despite his less than impressive wins, Bennet clearly has some advantages in 2022, not the least of which is his incumbency. Although two incumbent senators have been defeated in the past eight years — Mark Udall in 2014 and Cory Gardner in 2020 — Colorado reelected senators in 1980, 1984, 1998, 2002, 2010 and 2016.
Also, Colorado’s electorate has dramatically changed over the past ten years since Bennet was given the seat and when the state’s affiliation breakdown was essentially 33-33-33. Colorado has added 700,000 residents according to census figures and now 42% of registered voters are unaffiliated, 30% are Democrats, and 26% are Republicans. And many of those unaffiliated voters are younger and more socially liberal, and were very anti-Trump in 2018 and 2020.
An opportunity for the GOP
But the political terrain has started to shift in the past six months.
Much of Colorado is in a state of decline with rampant homelessness and rising crime rates. But the homeless problem did not start under Mayor Michael Hancock. It can be traced back to the failed “Denver’s Road Home” project under then-Mayor John Hickenlooper in 2007 to allegedly end homelessness in ten years. But homelessness has dramatically increased and anyone who travels around metropolitan Denver can see it.
Just like every other Democratic elected official, the silence from Bennet is deafening as serious allegations of sexual misconduct stack up against Tay Anderson, a Democratic Socialist member of the Denver School Board, who was honored by the Colorado Democratic Party as their “Rising Star.”
Masquerading as a moderate during his thirteen years in the Senate, Bennet now votes 97% of the time with the hero of the Democratic Socialist left wing of the party, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The Consumer Price Index broke 13-year record with inflation surging on food and gasoline. Axios conducted national focus groups with voters who voted for Trump in 2016 and for Biden in 2020 and found an overwhelming majority not only fear rising inflation and the rising national debt but an economic crash as well. Bennet has been a loyal foot soldier for President Biden’s failing economic policies.
Colorado Republicans must nominate a candidate who will run an aggressive, disciplined campaign with a clear agenda that is in stark contrast with Bennet and that focuses on the issues that appeal to unaffiliated voters rather than repel them. And the candidate cannot get mired in discredited conspiracy theories about alleged stolen elections.
Colorado Republicans have another opportunity to get it right in 2022. If not, Bennet will be headed to another undeserved victory.
Dick Wadhams is a Republican political consultant and former state chair of the Colorado Republican Party.
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