Colorado Democrats have two men to thank for their victories and losses on Tuesday: President Barack Obama and Governor Bill Ritter. The Democrats weren’t just impacted by the issues (see: health-care reform and the auto bailout)—in Colorado, they had a personnel problem. When Obama appointed Ken Salazar as the Secretary of the Interior in January 2009, he yanked out the keystone of Colorado’s Democratic Party. Salazar was a moderate, popular Democrat with rural street cred, the kind of politician who could have lived out his days in the Senate, like Robert Byrd or Teddy Kennedy. He was the franchise player for state Democrats, the man who helped start the Colorado’s swing to the left way back in 2004.
Obama’s appointment thrust Ritter into a position of leadership he wasn’t ready for—and may not have wanted. Ritter had the unenviable job of not just being the player/manager of the state party, but also trying to find a franchise player to replace Salazar in the Senate. He passed over popular choices like Denver mayor John Hickenlooper and speaker Andrew Romanoff and appointed Michael Bennet, the superintendent of Denver Public Schools and a former chief of staff for Hickenlooper. Bennet was a political operator, but had never run for elected office before. A fired-up Romanoff challenged Bennet in the Democratic primary, and though he ultimately lost, he weakened Bennet for the general election versus Republican Ken Buck. (Oddly enough, Ritter and Buck are former colleagues from the U.S. Attorney’s office, and Ritter served as best man at Buck’s wedding). Bennet was able to squeak out a victory over Buck, in the closest—and most expensive—Senate race in the country.
The dominoes kept falling. The GOP frontrunner to face off against Ritter in the governor’s race was former congressman Scott McInnis, who had worked for Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells), a powerhouse law firm that had at one-time employed…Bill Ritter. And then, in January 2010, after an embattled Ritter decided he wouldn’t seek re-election, Hickenlooper—the other politician that Ritter had passed over for the open Senate seat—stepped into the race. McInnis flamed out, rather spectacularly, after a plagiarism scandal, leaving Hick with an easy win over Republican/Tea Partier Dan Maes and late entrant Tom Tancredo (representing the American Constitution Party).
But wait! There’s more! On election day, Ken Salazar’s older brother, John—the congressman from the 3rd District—went down in defeat, as did Salazar’s protege and one-time staffer, Betsy Markey, who represented the 4th District. Both John Salazar and Markey were representatives in Republican-leaning districts, but if Ken had been on the top of the ticket—and not Bennet—both would have likely fared better. Salazar’s seat would have been considered relatively safe, freeing up money for other down-ticket contests. And if a voter was going to pull the lever for Ken Salazar for Senate, he or she would be far more likely to vote for Salazar’s brother or protege in the House. And the same goes for the rest of the statewide Democratic ballot: Treasurer Cary Kennedy, Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, and Attorney General candidate Stan Garnett all would have done better, and maybe even won, by hopping on Ken Salazar’s very long coattails. Sadly for them, Salazar’s coattails didn’t extend from Washington, where he was dealing with the BP oil disaster.
Come January, Colorado will once again be split: Democrats will hold two Senate seats, the governor’s mansion, and the state senate, while the GOP is in charge of a majority of the congressional districts, the state house, and the rest of the statewide offices. Obama’s choice of Salazar may have helped his administration, but in Colorado, at least, it hurt the down-ticket candidates. And it’s left us with a state that has swung back to the middle—returning us to our purple state, divided government roots.