One of the ads on Andrew Romanoff ’s website shows three guys in a bar — representing the triumvirate of oil, banks and insurance companies — talking about how they have Sen. Michael Bennet in their pockets because of all the money they’ve thrown at him. One asks who is supporting Romanoff, and another replies scoffingly, “Just the people.”
It is the latest attempt to paint Romanoff as David and Bennet as Goliath in the U.S. Senate primary.
Bennet, who has amassed a war chest of more than $4.8 million, was handpicked by Gov. Bill Ritter more than a year ago to succeed Ken Salazar.
On the other hand, former Colorado House Speaker Romanoff has raised only about $630,000, in part because unlike Bennet, Romanoff is not accepting money from political action committees (PACs).
He did, however, accept that money while serving in the Legislature, his critics are quick to point out.
Still, Romanoff is positioned to be the people’s candidate, given that 97 percent of his donors are from Colorado.
“And I’m pretty sure all of them are humans,” Romanoff quips, in a reference to Bennet’s PAC money.
According to the Huffington Post, in November Bennet had collected $612,804 in campaign donations from Wall Street, fifth-most among all members of Congress. And his list of donors shows contributions from corporations and individuals around the nation — including former colleagues at the Anschutz Corporation, where Bennet worked for right-wing billionaire Phil Anschutz. He’s also gotten about $26,000 from the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, solidifying the notion that Bennet is the favored son in Washington.
In some ways, he is. He was raised in D.C., and his father served in the Clinton administration, according to Colorado Republican State Chair Dick Wadhams, who says Bennet’s family is well-connected to the wealthy and powerful elite. He calls Bennet “a Washingtonian to his core. His family is a Washington family. … I don’t think he has done much to inspire rank-and-file Democrats across this state.”
“The national party has made no secret of its preference in this race,” Romanoff says, citing his experience while he was in D.C. about a year ago.
“Someone told me, ‘It’s a nice little reputation you’ve built for yourself. It’d be a shame if something happened to it.’ I thought I’d wake up with a donkey’s head in my bed,” Romanoff says.
President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Denver to stump for Bennet only solidified the impression that nationally he is the party’s top choice. And the fact that the Colorado Democratic Party’s name appeared among those affiliated with the Obama event — despite its own rules prohibiting giving the impression that it is endorsing one candidate over another in a contested primary — had Romanoff supporters crying foul. Bennet’s robocalls inviting people to the Obama event reportedly listed the Colorado Democratic Party (CDP) among the sponsors.
Romanoff asked Colorado Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak for a similar event with the president, and Waak says she passed that request along to the Democratic National Party. “That was all I could do,” she says.
But it didn’t happen. Unlike Romanoff, Bennet has been an active donor to the CDP — including $6,000 in the past nine months. “It does look like the Colorado Democratic Party is helping Bennet, and he’s helping them,” former Colorado Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon says.
In response to the complaints about the CDP’s apparent endorsement of Bennet, Waak says a portion of the funding raised at the event is going toward the CDP’s coordinated campaign, which is used to defeat the Republican nominee after the primary. So the CDP was required by Federal Election Committee rules to have its name on event materials, she says.
“We didn’t pay for anything,” Waak told Boulder Weekly. “None of us went to the event with the president.”
She says the CDP remains neutral and has not given funding or other support to either Bennet or Romanoff.
Waak adds that it is customary for a president to endorse an incumbent senator. “The president has an agenda,” she says, “and he actively supports the incumbents who can help him get that agenda through.”
Bennet was unavailable for comment. Asked whether having the CDP’s name attached to the event creates the impression that the state party is endorsing Bennet, Craig Hughes, Bennet’s campaign manager, told Boulder Weekly, “I think certain people tried to create that impression.”
Wadhams says he would not have put his state party’s name on a similar event if he had been in the same position. “The stark reality for Pat Waak is that she took a side in that primary by doing so,” he says. “There’s no pretense of neutrality any more. They’ve clearly thrown their hat in with Bennet. It doesn’t pass the sniff test.”
“The president’s visit has produced more press coverage for us than anything else,” Romanoff says. “I respect the president; I campaigned for him last fall. But he’s not registered to vote in this state.”
Hughes counters many of the claims being made by the Romanoff camp, including the impression that Romanoff has more support from Colorado voters. “We have more donors in Colorado than Andrew Romanoff,” he says. “We have more money raised from Colorado than Andrew Romanoff.”
As for the idea that Bennet is swayed by big donations he gets from PACs and corporations, Hughes says, “Michael’s record for independence and standing up for Colorado speaks for itself.” He cites Bennet leading an effort to bring the public option back into health care reform talks, being the deciding vote on a credit-card regulation bill and supporting more regulation on Wall Street.
A recent poll shows that Romanoff has a better chance than Bennet of beating the presumptive Republican nominee, Jane Norton, but Hughes says other polls show the opposite.
The Feb. 5 Rasmussen poll also shows that 17 percent of the respondents have a very favorable opinion of Bennet, while 24 percent view him very unfavorably. Seventeen percent view Romanoff as very favorable, and only 16 percent say he is very unfavorable.
But Waak is dismissive of polls conducted so early in the process. She also says out-of-state money is crucial. “We could not possibly raise all the money we need to run campaigns just from this state,” she says. “We’re not New York or California.”
Wadhams agrees, saying that while Romanoff has better grassroots support, “he has not been able to stay in the game in terms of fundraising. You can’t have one without the other.”
As for PAC money, Waak says she has seen no evidence that it sways politicians’ votes. Waak, who is a nurse by training, contributes to nursing PACs because “I think it’s important to have nurses’ voices heard in the political process. I don’t know what the big deal is about PACs. If you decide not to take PAC money, that’s fine. But how are you going to run a campaign that’s going to win a race if you cut off almost every source of funding there is?” But Gordon, a Romanoff supporter, says changing Washington politics can’t happen until special-interest money is removed from campaigns. He questions the circular argument that some Dems are using to justify their support of Bennet: He has the most money, is likely to win, and so liberals should be team players and get behind him. “If you can’t vote for the best candidate because he or she doesn’t have enough money, where does it stop?” he asks. “It stops when you cut off the special-interest money. I’m going to vote for somebody who’s only going to represent me.”
Gordon says some in the party are reluctant to have a primary because of the cost and because “somebody might say something negative about the nominee that the Republican Party can use.”
The effort by some in the party to kill the primary shows that “they’re not too keen on democracy,” Romanoff adds.
Waak says primaries can be problematic, in part because they deplete resources that could be used to defeat the Republican candidate and attract undecided voters. “I would be stupid and foolish if I said that every race should have a primary,” she says. “I’m not opposed to primaries, but from a pragmatic point of view, they’re tough on the party and tough on the candidates.”
Romanoff has a different view. “The party is strong enough to endure a contest between two honorable people,” he says. “This incumbent protection racket, for lack of a better term, is not good for the Democratic Party or the nation.”