Colorado caucuses: An early incumbent warning system?
The results of Tuesday's Colorado caucuses -- where underdog candidates upset establishment favorites in the Democratic and Republican races for Senate -- has some people pointing to them as the latest sign of the anti-politician/anti-Washington/anti-incumbent afoot in the country.
With all but four precincts having reported their results, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D) stood at 51 percent while appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D) took 42 percent. On the Republican side, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck appeared to have narrowly edged out former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, the establishment favorite, by roughly two-tenths of a percent.
Romanoff, hoping to seize some much-needed momentum in the wake of his victory, held a press call this morning to cast the implications of the caucus in the widest possible national political terms.
"Despite the most elaborate effort of the national political machine we won," said Romanoff. "Main Street won, Wall Street lost. That is the message Washington needs to hear."
Romanoff added that there was a common strain that linked he and Buck's win -- a distaste with politics as usual. "If you like the way Washington works, vote for somebody else," Romanoff said.
While Romanoff was ready, willing and able to cast his caucus win (and that of Buck) as reflective of broader national trends, there's were clearly some other more state-based factors at work as well.
The Colorado caucuses are small turnout affairs and, because of that, largely controlled by the most dedicated activists who tend to gather on the extreme ideological left and right of their parties. Both Romanoff and Buck had positioned themselves as the candidate of the most liberal/most conservative elements within the party so it's not terrible surprising then that they performed well.
The caucuses have also proven to be a very imperfect predictor of the eventual nominees in spite of the fact that they do ensure that the top vote-getter has the first ballot slot in the primary.
Take 2004 when former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R) and educator Mike Miles (D) won their respective party caucuses but lost the primaries later that year by 22 and 46 points to beer magnate Pete Coors and state Attorney General Ken Salazar, respectively.
In fact, in the 25 years from 1973 to 1998 just three Democrats with the top line on the primary ballot wound up winning the nomination -- a stunning figure that suggests that the activist base in each party is not reflective of the broader primary electorate.
With all that said, don't be fooled by Bennet and or Norton saying that the caucuses were entirely devoid of political meaning. Make no mistake: while neither candidate's loss is anything close to a death blow (as defeats for Romanoff and Buck might have been), both Bennet and Norton wanted to win. Period.
And, both will almost certainly redouble their efforts to break any associations with the political establishment back in Washington or, in Bennet's case, with the Senate itself.
The incumbent began that Senate separation on Tuesday with the first ad of his political career, a commercial shot with the Rocky Mountains as the backdrop and an emphasis put on Bennet's short time in the nation's capitol. (In keeping with that theme, Bennet said of the caucus results: "As someone who isn't a political insider, tonight's support is especially meaningful.")
Bennet and Norton have 146 days before the Aug. 10 primary. The task before both of them -- and many other candidates across the country who are seen as the establishment picks -- is to take advantage of the benefits of having the party infrastructure either tacitly or openly behind you (money, most importantly) while not allowing their opponents to cast them as part of the problem rather than a step toward a solution.
March 17, 2010; 2:50 PM ET
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