Andrew Romanoff, former speaker of the state House and a once rising political star, wants to be a U.S. senator. And there’s nothing Governor Ritter, the state Democratic Party establishment, or the White House can do about it. If he costs his party the big one and torpedoes his career along the way, well, that’s democracy.
Romanoff took 60 percent of the state assembly voters. With the win, he earned the bragging rights of having his name listed first on the August primary ballot. Bragging rights, though, don't win elections. At the assembly, Romanoff won the votes of 2,156 people he's known on a first-name basis for years. There are more than 800,000 active Democratic voters in the state. And losing at the state assembly has actually become a bit of a rite of passage for the primary winners: At the 2004 assembly, then Attorney General Ken Salazar lost out to educator Mike Miles; in 1996, lawyer and former U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland lost to former Colorado law school dean Gene Nichol. Salazar and Strickland both went on to crush their opponents in the primaries.
Romanoff's fund-raising has ticked up since the victory, but he's still no match for moneybags Bennet. As of press time, Romanoff had raised about $1.5 million. Bennet had raised more than $7.4 million, money that he could use to widen his 15-point margin over Romanoff.
The former speaker has three major advantages over Bennet: his name recognition across the state, his support among the activists—the type of people willing to bang on doors for him—and the wave of anti-establishment anger sweeping the nation. Mike Miles, who ran a quixotic campaign against Ken Salazar, points out that Romanoff is running the exact kind of campaign he has to in order to win. "The only way for him to win against an incumbent is a grassroots campaign," says Miles, who's now the superintendent of the Harrison School District in Colorado Springs.
Voters are profoundly unhappy with Washington: According to a USA Today Gallup poll in late May, voters preferred candidates without congressional experience to those with experience by a margin of nearly two to one. Bennet has done his best to evade the D.C.-insider charge: As he points out in his campaign commercials, "I've only been in Washington for a year, but it didn't take that long to see the whole place is broken." By the time Democrats head to the polls for the primary, Bennet will have only been a senator for 18 months. He also first entered public office at 44 years old; Romanoff's been holding elected office since he was 29. As Smith pointed out in his Politico story about "Romanoff's middle finger," it is the former speaker who is the "Establishment Democrat."
What it may come down to for Democratic voters is this: Do you want a single, smart, workaholic policy wonk who spent years navigating Colorado's political world? Or are you for a smart family man who excelled in business and education and is a political newcomer? Who's really the insider? Who, if anyone, is the outsider?
Establishment or upstart, insider or outsider, there's about a nickel's worth of difference politically between the two Democrats. They're both moderates. At the few debates they've held, they've agreed on just about every topic—so much so that Romanoff called Bennet "my shadow." Romanoff has tried to distance himself from his opponent, arguing that he would have supported cramdown legislation and the Brown-Kaufman amendment, and that he would have pushed for a single-payer bill during the health-care process. But the majority of voters have never even heard of the Brown-Kaufman amendment, which would have broken megabanks down into smaller units. It's a case of Andrew Romanoff the policy wonk getting in the way of Andrew Romanoff the politician—the same policy wonk who struggled with staff turnover and lacked a coherent message.
These are problems of a one-man, shoestring operation. And while Democrats can abide mistakes, they may not be willing to forgive Romanoff's criticism of Bennet. "In an attempt to find a message, he's gone with the angle that Bennet is in the pocket of those sullied by corporate interests," says a Democratic insider. "He's gone much more negative than anyone thought." Romanoff may have gone so far that he'll turn his friendly, intra-family argument into an outright estrangement. "I hope that he doesn't fall off the radar just because he doesn't win the election," says Lynea Hansen, a Democratic political consultant.
"He was a rising star, and if he loses, he's a pariah," says a former Romanoff campaign staffer. "Especially if he loses the nomination and Bennet goes on to lose the general election. [Romanoff] is going to be blamed by the Democrats for losing that Senate seat."
Patrick Doyle is a senior editor of 5280. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.