Seventeen months out, the 2010 election heats up.
For a while, it looked like Governor Bill Ritter had made a smart choice by appointing DPS superintendent Michael Bennet to take Ken Salazar's Senate seat. Bennet was smart, young, and well-liked; he also, as a political unknown, would replace Ritter as target number one for Republicans with 2010 aspirations. Some Democrats, sensing that a Yale-educated lawyer might not appeal to folks on the Western Slope and the Eastern Plains, even tried to draft Andrew Romanoff, the popular former speaker of the House, to run against Bennet in the Democratic primary.
Senator Bennet, though, appears to have outmaneuvered and outhustled everyone—including Ritter—by raising a stunning $1.37 million in the first quarter of 2009. That's a record for a Colorado senator in a nonelection year, a chunk of cash probably big enough to dissuade any potential Democratic primary challengers. It might even be enough to keep serious Republican hopefuls out of the race; at press time, only Aurora city councilman Ryan Frazier and Weld County district attorney Ken Buck, two relative unknowns, had announced their candidacies. Attorney general John Suthers, who had expressed interest in the race, has dropped out; other Republicans floating their names include former congressmen Bob Beauprez and Tom Tancredo, and KHOW talk show host Dan Caplis—not exactly the A-team.
The two strongest Republicans, meanwhile, have focused on Ritter, who's recently seen his approval rating hover at a less-than-desirable 50 percent; he also only raised $118,000 in the first quarter of 2009—less than a tenth of what Bennet pulled in. Former congressman Scott McInnis has told friends he'll run for governor in 2010, as has Josh Penry, the state Senate minority leader. McInnis has Western Slope credentials and is a moderate in a party that desperately needs them; Penry, meanwhile, is an ambitious up-and-comer and has one of the few active leadership roles in the GOP.
Bennet and Ritter can raise money while the Republicans battle it out over the next year, but neither is sitting pretty yet. An April poll showed that 41 percent of voters disapproved of Bennet's performance so far, while the recession battering Colorado businesses and government isn't doing Ritter any favors. In the meantime, the governor can pray for a contentious Penry-McInnis primary—McInnis is Penry's former boss and onetime political mentor. And, as anyone who's seen Star Wars knows, a mentor-protégé face-off will inevitably turn ugly.