Michael Bennet Might Not Be So Weak After All

April 2009

michael_bennet_711Michael Bennet has 574 days of work left before Election Day in 2010. And if the the first 75 days of the junior senator's time in office are any indication, he'll be a lot tougher to unseat than both Republicans and Democrats initially thought. When Governor Bill Ritter appointed Bennet in January to replace Ken Salazar in the Senate, many people--especially Democrats--were caught off-guard. Democrats and liberals had serious concerns about whether the former Denver Public Schools superintendent would be strong enough to hold the seat next year. But those criticisms have become increasingly muted. Bennet raised $1.37 million in the first three months of 2009--the most any Colorado U.S. Senate candidate has ever raised in a quarter during a non-election year. Bennet's also carefully cultivating his already-strong ties with the state's business community, as shown by his reticence to take a stand on labor union legislation. It's not hard to predict how Republicans will attack Bennet. They intend to portray him as a blue-blooded political dilettante from the East Coast, whose knowledge of Colorado stops at Highway E-470. (Born in India, Bennet moved to Colorado in 1997. His father is the former president of Wesleyan University; his brother is editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Monthly). Such a characterization could well end up being quite effective against Bennet. But which Republican is going to deliver that message to the voters?

The motley crew of Republicans currently interested in knocking Bennet off are either relative unknowns (like Aurora city councilman Ryan Frazier, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, talk-radio host Dan Caplis, and Denver businessman Cleve Tidwell) or the politically wounded (2006 failed gubernatorial nominee Bob Beauprez). And as the Denver Post notes, Bennet's financial prowess could scare away potential Republican challengers who either doubt their fundraising abilities or fear that a contested GOP primary would fatally cripple whichever candidate survives to face Bennet. This isn't to say that Bennet has next year's election sewn up. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza ranks Colorado as the ninth-most competitive U.S. Senate race in 2010. And as political analyst Eric Sondermann notes, Bennet's chances at holding his Senate seat will depend more on national politics--i.e., if there's a widespread backlash against Democrats in 2010--than how much money he raises. Plus, Bennet might have to face a primary challenge of his own from former Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff. Though many Democrats have been urging Romanoff to face Bennet, the former speaker has been mum on what his plans are. That's not unusual for Romanoff. Last November, he told virtually no one whether he planned to apply to be appointed Colorado Secretary of State, then submitted his application only minutes before the deadline. Yet if Romanoff does intend to jump into the U.S. Senate race, every day he holds off an announcement is a day that Bennet spends winning over the Democratic donors Romanoff would need to run a viable campaign.

But it's still early, and there's a lot of time left before election season. Sondermann says if Bennet continues at this pace, he'll be in good shape.

"In political terms, is he satisfied with his first 60 to 75 days?" Sondermann asks. "If I'm in his shoes, I'd probably say yes."