The hottest Senate race in the nation may end up being Colorado's battle between Democratic Attorney General Ken Salazar and Republican brewery executive Pete Coors, a political novice.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who switched from Democratic to Republican in 1995, took himself out of the race last March, creating a battle for his seat in a state that has moved decidedly toward the Republicans in recent years.
While “Coors” is one of the powerhouse brand names in the beer marketplace, Coors the candidate will need to make the case that in the marketplace of ideas, his are more in tune with Colorado than Salazar’s.
Like John Edwards when he ran for his Senate seat in 1998, Coors has never been elected to public office. He tried to portray that as a virtue in an interview with MSNBC.com Thursday.
“People find it refreshing that someone who doesn’t have a political background and doesn’t have any particular ties to the political machinery has learned to stand up and run for office as a citizen,” he said.
Coors stumbled briefly in his primary battle with former Rep. Bob Schaffer when he could not identify Paul Martin as the prime minister of Canada. But he demolished Schaffer in Tuesday’s primary and Thursday sounded poised and ready for battle with Salazar.
One way or another Coors’s wealth will be a factor in the race. As of July 21, he had chipped in $400,000 of his own money to his campaign.
Coors said, “I don’t want to make it sound like I’m not wealthy,” but he said all of his family’s wealth is tied up in family trusts.
He portrayed himself as a hands-on business executive who understands farmers and small-scale entrepreneurs.
“In our business, we deal with 1,400 barley growers in four Western states, we deal with 600 beer distributors, small businessmen and their employees, we have 5,000 employees in our company here in the United States. We deal with water issues, with agricultural issues, with things that are important to Main Street America,” he said.
Asked to contrast himself with Coors, Salazar took a populist approach, telling MSNBC.com Wednesday, “We have a different set of life experiences; I’ve been a farmer for a good part of my life, I’ve been a small business owner; I’ve been attorney general for Colorado…. I know the pain and struggle of the American family…. I know the struggles that people in Colorado, and across America, feel when they can’t afford health insurance, when they can’t have economic security because their job has left them or because they are not being paid enough to afford their rent or their mortgage payments.”
Salazar’s family was farming in the state’s San Luis Valley since before Colorado became a state in 1876.
Veteran Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli said Salazar is the first Colorado Democratic Senate candidate he can recall who is likely to run better in rural areas than the Republican.
Despite the usual GOP advantage in rural areas in Colorado races, “Salazar will cut into it pretty heavily,” he said.
Salazar is not a sharply defined Latino candidate in the same sense that California’s Rep. Loretta Sanchez or New Jersey Rep. Bob Menendez is. While Latino voters make up an estimated 17 percent of the Colorado electorate, Ciruli said, “The real question is: Will there be an exceptional Latino turnout?”
On the question of the ideological differences between himself and Salazar, Coors said, “I don’t know what they all are yet. I know that the differences we have are basic differences between the Democrats and the Republicans as different political philosophies, for making the tax cuts permanent, more tax cuts.”
'Less secure today'
On the question of whether Bush administration policies have created more terrorists and increased the danger to the United States, Salazar said, “I think our world is less secure today than it was four years ago. I think America had a great opportunity to build the international alliances to deal effectively with global terrorism after 9/11,” but he implied that Bush had not taken this opportunity.
"I think the hatred that the people who are spawning terrorism have has grown and intensified over the last several years. I think that ultimately the only way we are going to deal with the issue of global terrorism is by having a global approach to the problem," he said.
Salazar blamed Bush for not quickly agreeing to the creation of a Homeland Security Department and not quickly accepting the idea of a commission to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks.
When Coors was asked about whether America is winning its war against terrorists, he voiced impatience with those who said the United States is not winning. “Every time people say that we’re not winning the war, all it does is fuel the flames of terrorism,” Coors said. “We have an enemy, and it makes the enemy feel that they are winning, that we don’t have the resolve to make sure that we follow through and get the job done.”
Coors acknowledged that the state’s economy was not as healthy as it could be. “Colorado lagged the recession,” he said. “We were behind the rest of the country going into the recession and we are lagging the country as we come out of the recession.”
He also cited a severe drought that has hurt Colorado farmers and ranchers and the high price of gasoline, which has pinched tourism in the state.
But he said “things are going to continue to improve” because “people have money in their pockets because of the tax cuts of 2003. That money is being spent.”
Pollster sees tossup race
Pollster Ciruli said that based on polling done before Tuesday’s primary, Salazar begins the race with a slight edge and with the identity of “a moderate who had won two elections with a lot of Republican votes.” But, Ciruli added, “My personal theory is that Coors will move quickly to make this into a tossup.”
Coors came out of his bitterly contested primary with Schaffer appearing to be the relative moderate, Ciruli said. Even though Coors himself opposes same-sex marriage, Schaffer’s allies bashed Coors for the fact the Coors company extended employee benefits to gay couples.
In sum, Ciruli predicted, “this race will be pretty close pretty quickly,” as well as “very expensive and meaner than hell.”
One ace in the hole for the GOP: its 180,000 advantage in registered voters in the state.