For decades, Colorado has been a leading indicator of American politics, mirroring the national shifts from right to left, from Republican to Democratic.
It's a state that has elected liberal senators such as Gary Hart and Tim Wirth, only to supplant them with conservatives like Wayne Allard and Hank Brown before Democrats recaptured their seats in recent years.
Bill Clinton carried the state in 1992 (but not 1996). Colorado went for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 then served as the location for Barack Obama’s nominating convention and part of his march to the White House in 2008.
And this November, Colorado is once again swaying in the national political winds as conservative Republican Ken Buck aims to unseat Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet.
In a race influenced by nearly every force shaping these mid-term elections, and with Republicans looking to make strides toward regaining control of the Senate this November, the stakes in this race are a mile high.
The Buck-Bennet contest is the nation's No. 1 senate race as measured by the outside independent spending it has attracted. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, nearly $6 million has been spent by groups such as American Crossroads to defeat Bennet and $5 million to sink Buck, most of that spent by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Both candidates faced primary challenges. Bennet defeated his primary opponent, Andrew Romanoff, the favorite of some progressives. Buck is the Tea Party- and Dick Cheney-supported candidate who beat establishment hopeful Jane Norton in the primary.
Buck told The Denver Post in July that he’s running "because I'm mad, because I think what's going on in D.C. is wrong. The lurch to the left has taken us down the wrong path." His closing argument in debates goes like this: "We protested when the government ran up trillions of dollars of debt, we sent e-mails when they were about to pass the health care bill … we pleaded with them to please secure our borders so that we would be safe — and you know what: they heard us, but folks, they ignored us. And on Nov. 2, they will ignore us no more.”
Appointed to fill the Senate seat held by Ken Salazar (who was tapped by President Obama as his Interior Secretary), and on the ballot for the first time ever, Bennet has found Colorado's political terra firma shifting once again. He and three of the state's Democratic House members appear to be in some danger of losing.
Coloradoans 'want the same thing'
Bennet voted for the stimulus plan, Obama's health care overhaul, the auto industry bailout, and the "cash for clunkers" program to stimulate car buying. Facing a Republican tide, Bennet has adopted a "can't we all get along" theme. He’s also running as the anti-Washington incumbent.
The goals of most voters, "whether they are Republicans, Democrats, independents, Tea Party people, are so much more common and important and shared than the divisive politics that are going on back in Washington," Bennet said in the first debate in Grand Junction, Colo.
"Politicians in Washington spend all their time trying to divide people" Bennet said. But, he argued, people in Colorado "all essentially want the same thing."
He explained by the time good ideas get to Washington, he argued, they get "screwed up by the special interests and by the lobbyists."
Washington, he scoffed in a Denver debate this week, "is full of people who have spent their lives working for government or running for political office, not people who are actually solving problems in their daily lives, as Coloradans are." He contends, for example, that public-private partnerships could build infrastructure "in much more expeditious way than the bureaucrats in Washington could ever do."
No stranger to Washington
For a man who is trying to get a six-year term back in Washington, Bennett often sounds as if he hates the place, portraying the capital as a den of misguided ideologues and clueless bureaucrats.
But Washington, D.C., is the place where Bennet grew up, attended prep school (elite St. Alban's), lived when he had a job for two years in the Clinton Justice Department and worked for the past two years as a senator.
People in Washington, D.C., Bennet said in the Grand Junction debate, "don't diagnose the problem and say, 'let's figure out the solution.' They find a solution that some lobbyist brings them … and then say 'here's the solution to a problem that may or may not exist.' No one here that runs a business does it that way. … And my whole career has been outside of politics until I was in this job, and I never approached my work that way."
Despite his disparaging talk about Washington, Bennet is steeped in a family tradition of public service and politics.
He was born in 1964 in New Delhi, where his father served as an aide to the U.S. ambassador. Bennet's father later served as an aide to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, an assistant to two Democratic senators, staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, a State Department official and president of National Public Radio.
An established Tea Partier
Buck has his own political connections: after graduating from Princeton University and the University of Wyoming law school, Buck met then-Rep. Dick Cheney, Wyoming’s sole House member, who hired him to work on the House Iran-contra investigation in 1986. Cheney held a fundraiser for Buck last year in Wyoming.
Buck later served in the Justice Department (as Bennet did 10 years later) and as a federal prosecutor in Colorado before winning his current job as Weld County district attorney.
In recent days, Democrats have raised a ruckus about Buck's decision to not proceed with prosecution of an alleged case of rape in 2006.
Buck said, "A jury could very well conclude that this is a case of buyer's remorse," according to an account of the case reported in the Greeley Tribune. The woman said the alleged rapist was her former lover. Buck said he sought a second opinion on the case from Boulder County prosecutors. "I thought, if there's anything they can see in this case that I can't, I want to know about it," Buck told the Tribune. "They sent back an e-mail saying, 'We agree with your analysis that this case is not prosecutable.'"
In many ways, Buck's campaign agenda reprises ideas from the 1994 Republican wave: he favors term limits and a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.
As many Tea Party members do, Buck harkens back to an earlier reading of the Constitution and limited government. "Our federal government can't be a solution to all problems for all people."
Buck said last June that a national sales tax "is a good idea" and "makes a lot of sense" but has since recanted that support. Bennet has slammed Buck for flirting with the sales tax.
Buck flatly opposes tax increases: "The folks that make over $200,000 are often the folks that hire the folks making under $200,000. If we increase taxes on those folks, they are going to hire less and we are not going to get out of this recession."
On the decision on tax cuts or tax increases, which Congress must make by Dec. 31, Bennet called for "a reasoned conversation outside the context of a political campaign." He wants a one-year extension of all the current tax rates.
But Buck said deficit reduction must come entirely through spending cuts. He said in this week's Denver debate, "We've got to reduce federal salaries — it's not enough to just freeze federal salaries."
On Social Security, Buck has taken an election year risk by proposing to gradually push back eligibility for benefits due to longer life expectancies, allowing younger workers to put some of their payment into private accounts, and advocating means testing "so that the very wealthiest don't get Social Security."
He says he wouldn't touch the benefits that current retirees are getting, but admits that some voters think he would cut their benefits.
Buck recounted the story of a 76-year-old lady in Colorado Springs who said to him, "Ken, are you going to take my Social Security away from me?"
He insists he won't.