2010 Colorado Senate Race: How Bennet Defeated Buck
The 2010 Colorado Senate race was one of the most contentious and hard-fought races in the country during the 2010 election cycle. Like many other races, it pitted an establishment Democrat against a tea-party backed Republican. The outcome of the race was important for Democrats and Republicans alike. The Democrats watched the race hoping to keep a comfortable majority in the Senate and Republicans were anxious to oust another vulnerable Democrat. Early on, Republicans had high hopes for defeating the incumbent, Senator Michael Bennet, who had poor approval ratings. However, several factors, including the impact of primary elections, campaign finance, and the gender gap allowed Bennet to eke out a win and Democrats to maintain a 53-seat majority in the Senate.
Michael Bennet was not an incumbent in the traditional sense, having been appointed to his position after President Obama picked the current senator, Ken Salazar to be the Secretary of the Interior. Governor Bill Ritter’s choice of Michael Bennet as his replacement was met with shock. Bennet was the Superintendent of Denver Public Schools and had never run for office before (RealClearPolitics). An inexperienced politician in a traditionally red-state coupled with strong anti-establishment sentiment made the election a likely pick-up for Republicans and from the start Bennet was a key GOP target.
On the eve of the primary, Sen. Michael Bennet was heading toward a possible defeat. The former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D) had been gaining traction and was ahead of him by 3 points in a Denver Post/Survey USA Poll, whereas only six weeks earlier Bennet had held the lead by 17 points (Osher and Crummy 2008). The primary also held somewhat symbolic significance on the state of the Democratic elites as President Obama backed Bennet and former President Clinton backed Romanoff. To clear the field for Bennet, the White House reportedly offered Romanoff which he declined, demonstrating the real limitations that the party in government faces in trying to influence elections. In the end, Obama’s candidate won with 54% of the vote (NY Times Primary Results).
On the Republican side, tea party-backed Ken Buck, the Weld County District Attorney, appeared to be edging out the former Lt. Governor Jane Norton (Osher and Crummy 2008). Norton had the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List and several sitting Senators and was the Republican establishment pick (Altman 2010). On the run-up to the election both Norton and Buck appeared to be jockeying for the title of Washington outsider and benefiting from the wave of grass-roots energy and anti-establishment sentiment that was cropping up around the country is various races. Despite their attacks on each other during the primary race, however, both Norton and Buck were against higher taxes, cap and trade, abortion, illegal immigration, health care reform and same-sex marriage (Altman 2010). Buck started out as a long shot in the race but at the end of the heated primary, Buck was able to defeat the establishment-backed candidate Norton with 52% of the vote (Feldmann 2010). This set up the stage for a showdown between the Democratic party of Washington and the tea party movement.
As Bennet and Buck faced off against each other, the race became one of the most contentious and close races in the country. With only a week left until election day, the Senate seat remained an essential tie. On October 27th the CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corporation survey had 47% of likely voters backing Ken Buck with 46% supporting Bennet. A little over a month earlier, Bennet was trailing Buck by five points (“CNN/Time Poll: Colorado Seat still up for grabs”). By midnight on election day, the race was still undecided. On November 3rd, Bennet was declared the winner by a slim margin (Rein 2010). Bennet managed to gain 47.7% of the vote to Buck’s 46.8%, helping the Democrats hold control the U.S. Senate (NY Times).
In an election year that heavily favored Republicans, the defeat of Ken Buck at first appears to be an anomaly. However, like the tight race in Nevada it displayed the negative impact that weaker candidates produced by primary elections can have on the election outcome. Buck, a far-right conservative was unable to win in Colorado despite other Republican gains in the state, suggesting that he was a poor pick for the swing state. Additionally, the candidate himself suffered several major gaffes that intensified the gender gap in the favor of the Democrats. The race also became the most expensive in the country, showing the impact that campaign finance laws have in elections and how campaigns are run, especially in the realm of negative advertising.
Almost a third of the active voters in Colorado are not affiliated with either party and during the course of the 2010 Senate election, both of the major parties candidates attempted to gain the support of this significant voting bloc. One analysis of the race noted that the Democratic contender began to switch his message to appear more centrist. Instead of campaigning on President Obama’s endorsement, Bennet began to establish some distance, despite utilizing those connections during the primary contest. Even the Republican candidate looked as if he was angling for the middle. Buck, who had already entrenched his candidacy in conservatism, said that he would “reach out our hand for the independents and Democratic voters” (Wyatt 2010).
The strategy that both Bennet and Buck are using here coincides with the median voter theory. This theory holds that if there are two candidates who are trying to maximize their share of their votes then they will adopt stances closer to the position of the median voter. In a two-party system this would play out with both parties converging to the center on issues in order to get the most votes and win the election (Congleton 2003, 708). Even though Buck was not a moderate, nor did he attempt to come across as one, he tried to reach to the median voters. Yet he did this by relying on voter frustration with the party in power more than by appealing to the median voters’ policy stances which is part of why he was unsuccessful in picking up enough of the moderate vote to win.
Also, the median voter theory is complicated by the direct primary. Since primaries do not tend to draw a slate of voters representative of those who will vote later, they may select a weak or extreme candidate whose views may not appeal to the wider electorate (Hershey 2011, 168). If that didn’t exactly describe the Republican nominee Ken Buck, then it at least was how his opponent tried to paint him. Buck’s views on global warming and his stance on opposing abortion even in cases of rape or incest drew criticism from Bennet that he was too extreme for the typical Colorado voter (Snow 2010).
The contentious primary battle between Buck and Norton caused both of them to compete for the far-right position in a typically centrist state. Furthermore, the Republicans should have had an easy victory with Bennet’s low approval ratings. Public Policy Polling’s latest poll showed that only 39% of voters game him good marks while 47% were not happy with his performance (Public Policy Polling). Had Bennet been going up against a stronger candidate, he might have had a tougher time staying in the race and winning. Buck’s approval rating in the same poll was only 44/48 favorability, whereas a hypothetical contest between Bennet and Norton showed that Norton would lead by a 47 to 43 margin (Public Policy Polling).Continued on Next Page »