As far as parties at the Capitol building go, this is about as raucous as it's ever going to get. Techno music thumps from speakers at the base of the West Steps as dozens of people bounce to the pulsing beat. There's a man in his 30s, his face battered beyond his years, grooving at the center of the asphalt dance floor, waving imaginary glow sticks. A group of bikers stands off to the side. They're all leather and beards, looking like Hells Angels, but they're members of Sober Souls (mottos on their jackets read: "Let Go, Let God.") Dotting the perimeter are tables and tents advertising services like free massages, the Hep C Connection, and Narcotics Anonymous. It's the annual gathering for local sobriety groups: The Recovery at the Capitol is in full swing. At the center of the party is a pale blue tent, faded from the sunshine, advertising Andrew Romanoff's campaign for the U.S. Senate. It is staffed by several young volunteers who seem confused by the bazaar, as if they're wondering just what, exactly, they've gotten themselves into.
Just before 12:30 p.m., Romanoff arrives. Six feet tall and lanky, the 43-year-old has what's become a famously still-boyish face and a helmet of dark hair that's starting to recede. His smile is the first thing you notice: A big grin—a little cocky, a little awkward—loaded with bright Chiclet teeth and bookended by dimples. He quickly sheds his dark jacket and starts shaking hands. Followed by a small entourage of aides and supporters, he slides through the crowd, looking like a student council president trying to drum up votes in the corner of the schoolyard. The music cuts out. A man in a Hawaiian shirt, fedora, and wraparound shades ascends the West Steps to a lonely podium. "It's an honor for me to stand up here on the steps of the state Capitol, sober, with my family," says Hawaiian-shirt guy. Propped behind him is a green sign for Surrounded by Recovery. "We've asked governors and mayors to come speak to us, but they never seem to have time. But I have a gentleman here who was the speaker of the House."
The crowd is quiet and looks puzzled. "Andrew," Hawaiian-shirt guy shouts, "is running for the state Senate!"
He pauses. Awkward silence.
Immediately, he senses what he'd said was not right. "The U.S. state Senate!" he yells. "And he's got a good chance of getting there!"
Romanoff jolts up the steps, and Hawaiian-shirt guy awards him a plaque for his support of Colorado recovery groups. The candidate turns to the crowd and says hello. He doesn't bother to acknowledge the fact that he's actually running for the United States Senate, the hallowed chamber where 100 representatives make laws and determine, to a large extent, the future of America and the world. Getting dissed and discounted is par for the course these days for the once rising political star: "A good chance of getting there." Good chance?! He ignores the unintended slight and tosses out a joke. "I'm in recovery too," Romanoff says. "From eight years in the building behind me! Getting things done and getting people to cooperate isn't easy!"
No one laughs.
Candidate Romanoff has been scampering around the state, speaking to organizations like Neck-Lace-4-Life, a crocheting group in Lafayette; Grounds to Ground, a coffee-roasting business; Odell Brewing Company; Monroe Organic Farms; and at events like the Furry Scurry walk in Washington Park and the Juneteenth Caribbean American Heritage Festival in Colorado Springs. Short a speaker for a luncheon? Office birthday party? Bar mitzvah? Romanoff might be your guy.
He campaigns endlessly not because he loves speaking to crowds—although he does—but out of necessity. His opponent in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate is Michael Bennet, a man well-connected in business, education, and Washington, D.C. He ran Denver Public Schools and the mayor's office, helped direct business turnaround efforts for Phil Anschutz's Regal Entertainment Group, and worked in the Clinton administration. He's been endorsed by pretty much Colorado's entire Democratic establishment: Governor Bill Ritter; Mayor John Hickenlooper; U.S. Senator Mark Udall; U.S. Representatives Jared Polis, John Salazar, and Betsy Markey. Oh, and President Barack Obama. Romanoff has the support of the majority of Democrats in the state Legislature and many mayors across the state. The only local boldface-name endorsement he's earned is from Cary Kennedy, the state treasurer—and she used to work for him. Nationally, Romanoff's got Bill Clinton's endorsement. Then there's the money: Bennet has raised nearly $7.4 million for the August 10 primary and the general election in November. After running ads for a couple of months, Bennet increased his lead among Democratic voters from a tight six points to a considerable cushion of 15 points.
If Romanoff's got a chance, he has to ignore the establishment, forget about money, bang on more doors, make more phone calls, and speak to anyone who will listen. Which isn't really a problem. This is a guy who ran for the Democratic National Committee—the party's governing body—before his 30th birthday, at a time when his peers were doing beer bongs and taking off weekdays to get first dibs on fresh powder. Romanoff's spent the past 15 years getting to know Democrats in every town between Kansas and Utah. "If you could run for the U.S. Senate by knocking on doors, the people who would run and win—they'd make different decisions in office," he says. "A lot of people never take a look at a race for the Senate because they don't have the connections or the resources." He's a natural. On stage, Romanoff is Obama to Bennet's Ben Stein—charismatic, practiced, and moving. But even the most talented speaker can't always connect with a crowd.
The Recovery at the Capitol audience isn't much interested in politics. Romanoff wraps up, as he often does, with a reference to Robert F. Kennedy's groundbreaking speech on South Africa's apartheid: "He said, 'Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.'" Romanoff's voice builds to a crescendo, like he genuinely believes he is that ripple of hope. "We've lost a bit of the spark that Robert F. Kennedy had, but we can bring it back. Those ripples start here and now!"
The crowd applauds politely. Nearly everyone in the audience is marked with a number. On upper arms, they have written in black marker: 403 days. 23 days. 6,056 days. 248 days. Each signifies a stretch of sobriety, consecutive days free of whatever addiction—drugs, alcohol. Romanoff waves to the crowd, descends the West Steps, and starts shaking more hands, campaigning like he can't help himself. Andrew Romanoff, political junkie: 0 days.
A little more than 500 days earlier, above the Capitol's West Steps, Romanoff cleaned out his speaker of the House office. It was a tiny room with just enough space for a desk and a small conference table. Books were piled, ready to be boxed with his RFK photograph and a Yoda poster. Romanoff looked lost. After eight years at the Statehouse, including four as the speaker, he had to leave office, forced out by term limits. Packing his belongings, he began to unpack the question: Now what?
The rising whiz kid was now a 42-year-old unemployed politician. By way of comparison: Four years earlier, an ambitious 43-year-old Illinois state senator was elected to the U.S. Senate. That former state senator, Barack Obama, was about to be sworn into the White House.
Every political slot that a striver like Romanoff might have wanted—governor, congressman, senator—was occupied. He had been a finalist for the Colorado secretary of state position, but no dice. He had applied for a job with the Obama administration's U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) but hadn't received an offer. In his downtime, Romanoff wrapped up his law degree at the University of Denver. He didn't want to practice law; the cerebral politician just wanted to understand the law.
Then, in late December, President-elect Obama announced that he'd be appointing U.S. Senator Ken Salazar as the secretary of the interior. One of the most plum political jobs in the state was now ripe for the taking.
Romanoff certainly had the right CV, which was padded not just with dual Ivy League degrees and a law degree, but also loaded with political accomplishments. During his four terms, he built a broad statewide coalition, helped engineer a Democratic takeover of the Statehouse, and oversaw waves of legislation. He authored arguably the most important Colorado law of the past decade, 2005's Referendum C, which was passed by voters to help balance the state budget. Of particular note, Romanoff helped elect and worked alongside the man who'd be making the unexpected senatorial appointment: Governor Bill Ritter.
Many respected names were bandied about for the job, including U.S. Representatives Ed Perlmutter, Diana DeGette, and John Salazar (Ken's older brother), and Mayor John Hickenlooper. But all those folks had jobs—good, secure jobs. Romanoff, who was chosen by Governing magazine as the top public official in the country just the year before, was out of work. The former speaker rallied support quickly, earning endorsements from 61 of the 64 Democratic county chairs. The field promptly cleared, and the only men left standing were Romanoff and Hickenlooper. Either would be popular with both the party's base and the establishment.
Ritter didn't care much about pleasing the base or the establishment. On the morning of January 3, a Saturday, the governor appointed Michael Bennet to the U.S. Senate seat. Bennet, the whip-smart superintendent of Denver Public Schools, had, despite his many accomplishments, never served in public office. Standing at Bennet's side were his wife and three young daughters, the picture of a happy, young political family. You could almost see the Christmas card shot on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington.
Nobody was more stunned than Romanoff. He was absent from the Bennet press conference—off visiting family in California—but he did release a statement: "I called Michael Bennet to offer my warmest congratulations on his appointment to the United States Senate. Michael has been a friend for many years, and I wish him great success representing our state in Washington."
Romanoff's public affection for Bennet—and for that matter, his admiration of the Obama administration—has dissipated. "The national party put out the word that no one should help us," Romanoff tells me. "They had their chosen candidate." National involvement in a local race is standard, but the Obama administration's clunky dabbling has caused a virulent backlash this year; certainly, that's how Romanoff feels. "It's ludicrous and insulting to people here," he says during a recent lunch at Bruno's, a small, bright Italian restaurant next door to his campaign headquarters. "It doesn't sit well with most folks. And it might turn out to be a disservice to my opponent, because the more Washington tells us what to do, the more people want to do the opposite."
The former speaker is eminently approachable. Anger doesn't really suit the candidate, who, turning 44 this month, still earns youthful nicknames like Mr. Goody Two-Shoes, House Eagle Scout, and the Golden Boy. He doesn't drink alcohol or caffeine; during his "Coffee with the Candidate" events, he usually sips water. He likes playing tennis and catching movies—he's tickled that Scarlett Johansson was named "Romanoff" in Iron Man 2. And though he's long been considered one of the most eligible bachelors in the state, he's never had the time to settle down. He's got a dog, though, a border collie mix named Zorro. Romanoff's now on the road so much campaigning that even Zorro's often left behind in Denver, in the care of friends.
Despite his brutal travel schedule, fund-raising dollars remain scarce. "The problem of the campaign is that we have more organizational support than paid infrastructure," Romanoff says. "It's a happy problem." He pauses. "Our problem is how to corral hundreds of people and take advantage of them." Romanoff compares his predicament to It's a Wonderful Life, when Jimmy Stewart's business is kept afloat thanks to donations from his neighbors. Romanoff likes to point out that while the majority of Bennet's cash comes from outside the state, 95 percent of his comes from Coloradans.
When I ask him about not being chosen to replace Salazar, he deflects the question. "No comment." Pressed, he wryly offers: "I was disappointed by the governor's decision." Fact is, Romanoff was, to say the least, frustrated. "A day or two after Michael Bennet was appointed, I talked with Andrew, and he was very disappointed," says a former legislator who's close to Romanoff. "He said, 'I really hoped that I'd have this opportunity because there's a lot of things that I'd like to work on. I'm really worried about the genocide in Darfur, and I would like to use the office to help the situation there.' "
If Ritter had chosen Hickenlooper, John Salazar, Perlmutter, or DeGette, that might have made sense to Romanoff. But Bennet? The guy had never raised money, never campaigned, and probably had never even been to Salazar's San Luis Valley.
In the weeks after the appointment, some Romanoff followers encouraged him to challenge Ritter in 2010. The governor was the face of a state that was, like the rest of the country, in economic freefall, dealing out budget cuts. His unpredictable signing and vetoing of bills had managed to upset just about every constituency. Ritter was also the man who had passed over—and pissed off—Romanoff.
Bennet, also, was vulnerable. The new senator had to learn Washington's ways while building a Colorado political organization from scratch. Both were full-time jobs, and as Romanoff puts it, "If you don't know the people that you represent before you go to Washington, it's very hard to get to know them."
People who know Romanoff best say quick decisions aren't his forte. He mulls over every option. Instead of considering just choice A and B, he wants to look at C through Z. Sometimes it works. Consider the state's 2005 budget crisis: Bounded by the strict rules of TABOR, Colorado's education and health-care funding was dwindling. Instead of trying to repeal TABOR, a law popular with voters, Romanoff engineered a compromise: Referendum C, a five-year timeout from the revenue limits of TABOR. Supported by the business community and Governor Bill Owens, it narrowly passed at the ballot. "He developed a solution to what looked like an intractable problem," says Cary Kennedy, current state treasurer and a former policy director at the state House.
When it came to his own political career, however, Romanoff couldn't find a solution. He passed time as a scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado Denver while considering every option. He followed up with the Obama administration about the USAID job but still didn't receive an offer. Ritter's office dangled the possibility of lieutenant governor for the November 2010 reelection, but then pulled it back when Barbara O'Brien said she wanted to stay. Romanoff pondered and traveled. While on break from CU, he went to Nigeria to offer legislative training to that country's national assembly. He spent time in the Middle East.
Back in the states, he applied to be the president of the Colorado Children's Campaign, a bipartisan nonprofit that pushes for increased access to education and children's health care. It would've been the perfect job for him to bide his time and wait for another political slot to open, but he also started putting out feelers to gauge a run against Bennet. Why? Over our lunch at Bruno's, Romanoff served up one of his favorite campaign mantras: "The governor gets to fill vacancies, not grant senators for life. As much as I support the governor, he gets only one vote now."
On September 16, 2009, Romanoff finally announced he was running for Senate. He had few staffers and little money, but he believed he could leverage his grassroots network to beat a guy who had never before run an election campaign. By then, though, even critics had warmed to Bennet, who chalked up important votes on the stimulus bill, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and Obama confirmations like Sonia Sotomayor. He'd also launched a barn-burning meet-and-greet effort across the state. "Romanoff should have gotten into the Senate race last February ," says a former Romanoff campaign staffer. "Instead, he waited until September to announce, and that cost him endorsements, months of fund-raising, and a lot of activists." The day after Romanoff announced his Senate bid, President Obama endorsed Bennet.
From day one, Romanoff's campaign has seemed uncharacteristically half-baked. He lost his top campaign adviser, Sue Casey, only two months after the campaign launched. He failed to replace her for a month, a time during which he barely registered on the political scene. In mid-December, the Denver Post published a column titled "Candidate Romanoff has yet to show up for Senate fight." In January, after Ritter announced he wasn't going to run for reelection, there was widespread speculation that Romanoff might switch races—speculation that he stoked when he called a press conference. Instead, he announced that he was recommitting to the Senate race—as if he needed to remind people that he was still running.
In February, shortly after he brought on Jimmy Carter pollster Pat Caddell, Romanoff discarded him after videos surfaced of Caddell calling union members "thugs." Staff turnover was endemic. In the first seven months of the campaign, Romanoff employed four different spokespeople. There was a small scandal: In the middle of April, the Post reported that Romanoff's website campaign banner had been Photoshopped to include a black woman closer to the candidate. Then came the national scandal.
In May, U.S. Representative Joe Sestak confirmed that the Obama administration had offered him a spot on a senior advisory board if he dropped out of the Senate race in Pennsylvania, and all eyes turned to Romanoff. Months earlier, the Post had reported that the White House made overtures to Romanoff to drop out. Romanoff deflected questions. When I asked him about the job offers at the end of May, all he would offer was a "No comment." He considered the question a distraction. "I'm focused on this race and moving forward."
A natural on stage, Romanoff can be defensive in person, better at selling policy than himself. He exhibits a journalist's reticence—he was the editor-in-chief at the Yale Daily News—for talking about himself. Romanoff gives the impression that he's either suspicious of where the conversation is headed or that he's just not very introspective. A seemingly simple question, like why he doesn't go by his first name—which is Harlan—is met with near hostility. "Lots of people go by their middle names," he says, shifting in his chair. Or, when asked how he felt about being passed over by Governor Ritter, he answers, "It's not a story that serves a useful purpose."
Romanoff hasn't done anything in his life if it wasn't useful and purposeful, if it wasn't both altruistic and pragmatic. The son of a Republican prosecutor and a Democratic social worker—who divorced when he was a teen—Romanoff was raised in Ohio with his twin sister, Hilary. A gifted student, he left the Midwest for Yale, where he majored in American studies and spent a lot of his time at the Yale Daily News. In an international economic development class, he read Inside the Third World: The Anatomy of Poverty, a vivid book about the impoverished in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. It married three of his interests—journalism, poverty, and travel—and was a source of inspiration for him to travel to Nicaragua to teach English after graduation.
He was astounded by Nicaragua's poverty. "The families who I lived with in Nicaragua were in the deepest poverty," he says today. "It revealed a world that was dramatically different from my own. Some little kid growing up in Nicaragua may want to be an astronaut or scientist or poet, but will not be any of those things. He'll just be lucky to eke out a living. There's something profoundly unfair and disturbing about a world where kids' dreams are deferred or dry up just because of the luck of the draw. It doesn't seem right to me."
When Romanoff returned from Central America, he enrolled at the London School of Economics in political science. His term was cut short by appendicitis. He transferred to Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he earned a master's in public policy. In 1993, Romanoff moved to Colorado, lured by its beauty, and—Romanoff being Romanoff—its strategic location halfway between his divorced parents. One of his first jobs was at consulting firm Greenberg Baron Simon & Miller, where he worked on business development and research. He distinguished himself as a creative thinker and a strong writer but bored quickly of consulting. While at GBSM, he started moving in Democratic circles, and in 1997, he joined the administration of Governor Roy Romer.
By his late 20s, Romanoff had quietly begun laying the groundwork for a political career of his own. He starting hanging out at Barrys Bingo on South Federal Boulevard on Democratic Party nights, where the faithful raised money with bingo and scratch-off tickets. Romanoff would pull the tickets from the big pickle jar; eventually, he "graduated" from the pickle jar to become the bingo caller.
In 1996, at 29, Romanoff earned a seat on the state's seven-member delegation to the Democratic National Committee, the governing body of the national party. Four years later, he went local, running for an open Statehouse seat representing southeast Denver. Romanoff spent days and evenings banging on doors and giving speeches.
Easily elected, he was a fresh-faced young idealist in a room full of middle-aged lawyers and businessmen. Within two years, he was chosen as the Democrats' minority leader. He had a stroke of good luck when Alice Madden, a political whiz, was chosen as the caucus chair. "[Romanoff] and Alice Madden were the perfect political and policy team," says Travis Berry, a friend of Romanoff's and a longtime Denver lobbyist. "Alice focused on caucus politics and Romanoff on the policy and legislation strategy." Riding the momentum of a political movement financed by the wealthy Gang of Four—heiress Pat Stryker and businessmen Jared Polis, Tim Gill, and Rutt Bridges—Madden and Romanoff toppled the Republicans in both the state House and Senate in 2004, giving the Democrats the majority for the first time since the Kennedy administration. Romanoff became the youngest speaker of the House in Colorado's history.
Despite the Democrats' advantage in the Legislature, the governor was Republican Bill Owens. If Romanoff wanted to get anything done, he had to work across the aisle. He tackled the role with pragmatism. "I never heard anyone complain that he was treating the minority party unfairly," says Rob Witwer, a former Republican representative. "I didn't always agree with Andrew on policy issues, but I always respected that he was sincere and thoughtful."
That same thoughtfulness made him reluctant, as a 2010 Senate candidate, to get involved in the White House job offer controversy. On June 2, with the Sestak-triggered scandal reaching a fever pitch in the media, Romanoff finally released the Obama administration's e-mail offering him one of three positions if he wasn't running for Senate: deputy assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean for USAID; the director of the USAID's office of democracy and governance; and the director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. They were exactly the kind of positions that Romanoff might've taken if they'd been offered earlier.
The release of the e-mail amounted to, as Ben Smith headlined his Politico story, "Romanoff's middle finger." Smith wrote that Romanoff's release of the e-mail "does some real damage to the White House, showing governance at its most transactional. But it's also a sign of something else: How little Establishment Democrats like Romanoff fear the White House. It's a remarkable act of defiance."
Smith wasn't the only national political writer making Romanoff's life difficult. Less than two weeks later, in June, Romanoff got into a public tiff with one of his former Yale Daily News colleagues, Washington Post writer Dana Milbank. Milbank described Romanoff as "talented but prickly," and Romanoff responded with a long letter to the editor, calling Milbank's column "false," "misleading," and an "attempt to malign my character."
Three days after Andrew Romanoff spoke to the recovering addicts on the Capitol steps, he headed to Broomfield to speak to several thousand Democratic junkies at the state assembly. Now, these were Romanoff's people, the hardcore party activists willing to drive half a day from Durango just to rub elbows with elected officials. Outside, hundreds of his blue signs bedecked the grounds of Broomfield's 1st Bank Center. Earlier, Romanoff's people had sent out a newsletter dubbing the campaign's increasing energy "Romentum."
The state assembly is a bizarre event, a sort of grown-up pep rally for the folks who want to relive their high school student council elections. Despite the fact that their votes ultimately decide little—candidates can bypass the state assembly by gathering 10,500 signatures—the state assembly-goers take their duties seriously, donning T-shirts in support of their favorite candidates, wearing stickers, and waving signs. Many years, there are a number of primary battles, but this year, there was only one serious fight: Romanoff versus Bennet.
After a series of speeches from Governor Ritter and John Hickenlooper, along with several rah-rah videos on the Jumbotron, it was Romanoff time. He was introduced by a slick video showing childhood pictures and touting his accomplishments. When it was over, his fans waved blue signs and chanted "Andrew! Andrew!" Suddenly, Romanoff was running down the middle of the stadium aisle, backed by hundreds of followers waving blue signs. You could almost feel the Romentum.
Taking the stage, backed by supporters and family, Romanoff acknowledged his party's situation. "Whatever sticker you're wearing today, let's make sure that we are all wearing the same sticker on August 11th and unite behind the nominee. That is my pledge to you. I respect my opponent. I will support him if he wins our party's nomination. And I will ask you to do exactly the same." The crowd clapped and yelled. This, after all, is their primary fear: that the two Democrats will tear each other down and let the Republican candidate (Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck or former lieutenant governor Jane Norton) coast into office. On the way into the event, a middle-aged gentleman wearing a Bennet shirt had expressed exactly that concern: "Two of the most talented young Democrats are running against each other."
A week earlier, Democratic voters in Arkansas and Pennsylvania, where Sestak won, had voted against establishment candidates; Romanoff spared no time in comparing himself to them. "The voters in Arkansas and Pennsylvania sent a loud and clear message to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday night—and we should, too. The message to our own party is this: Stiffen your spine—or step out of the way."
It was Romanoff's big moment; a snappy, punchy, memorable line that was picked up in the press and became the campaign's motto. (He would repeat it during an interview on Hardball with Chris Matthews, in which he looked anxious enough to puke, and a couple of weeks later, the campaign named their used van the "Backbone Express.") His speech was rousing and populist, condemning corporate interests and special interest groups—and, by connection, Bennet. (On one campaign flier, Romanoff self-identifies as "The Best Senator Money Can't Buy.") Romanoff didn't promise pork for the constituents, but instead pledged seismic political change, starting with his candidacy. This is a man who wants to fix Darfur and Central America, who wants to raise up the poor, who wants to stop the wars abroad by the power of his own intellect and problem-solving skills.
"Join this cause, and we can reshape politics and restore public trust," he told the crowd. "We can turn America into what it once was, and what it can be again: a source not of cowardice or complacency or despair, but of courage and confidence and determination. Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it. Stand with me now, and I will lead this ticket. Stand with me now, and I will hold this seat. Stand with me now, and I will always, always stand with you."
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 email@example.com.