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Colorado caucuses give outside pols chance to shine

Kristen Wyatt
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
FILE - In this Monday, Feb. 15, 2010 picture, gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis speaks in defense of jobs at a news conference at the Pepsi Bottling Group in Denver. Colorado's far left and far right have a single focus these days - the state's March 16 precinct caucuses at which Democrats and Republicans will pick favorites in advance of more-formal primary votes in August. At stake is the chance to be taken more seriously by deep-pocketed donors and party A-listers who have aligned for candidates considered more centrist, such as Democratic Sen. and GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, John Prieto) ** DENVER OUT; MAGS OUT; TV OUT; NO SALES **
AP | The Denver Post

DENVER – It was the Democrats’ biggest fundraiser of the year, and all their bigwigs were seated up by the stage. Congress members. Party leaders. And their newest U.S. senator, Michael Bennet.

Way in back, stuck at table No. 96 in a chair that didn’t even face the stage, was one Democrat hoping to knock off Bennet in a party primary.

If his seat assignment was meant to be a snub, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff worked it to his an advantage. With every break in the action, Romanoff greeted Democrats at other tables, shaking hands and hugging old ladies. The challenger had worked a good bit of the crowd with some covert campaigning by the end of the event.

Subversion of party leaders is the theme this year as Colorado’s Democrats and Republicans hold precinct caucuses on Tuesday. With disgust running high in both parties at their respective national leaders, outsider candidates are employing similar strategies. Vote for me, they’re saying, to show those Washington insiders what we think.

A GfK-Associated Press poll released this month showed just 22 percent of Americans approve of Congress.

Colorado’s caucuses are a chance for party members to pick favorites running for the year’s top offices, governor and senator. They are open to all registered party members but tend to attract insiders and political junkies. And though the eventual nominees will be determined in the Aug. 10 primaries, lesser-funded candidates hope a spirited caucus showing can boost their political fortunes.

Romanoff has railed against out-of-state money flowing to Bennet, who was appointed last year to replace Sen. Ken Salazar after Salazar resigned to become Interior Secretary. Romanoff has struggled to keep up with Bennet’s fundraising, which included a Denver visit by President Barack Obama. But he tells voters on his home page, “I’ll be the best Senator money can’t buy.”

Even the incumbent hopes to tap into discontent with Washington. Bennet recently proposed a sweeping set of Senate changes he describes as a way to “fix the broken Washington system.”

Republicans have some internal bickering of their own. In the Senate race, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton has raised more money than four challengers. But each of those four hopes to tap into GOP angst.

In one radio ad, former state senator Tom Wiens goes right after his own party for straying too far, in his opinion, from the party’s conservative roots.

“Democrats aren’t the only hypocrites,” Wiens says. “Too many Republicans have forgotten what our party stands for.”

Wiens, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and businessmen Cleve Tidwell and Steve Barton portray themselves as true conservatives in the race. They’ve tried to court the right by visiting tea party groups and vowing to be more conservative than sitting Republicans in Congress.

At a recent forum of several hundred conservatives in Colorado Springs, Barton said the time is right for outsiders.

“Being connected this time, and it may be the only time, might be a huge negative in this election,” Barton said.

The night’s biggest applause line came from Buck, who compared Norton to Bennet, saying both are favorites of their national parties.

“We do not need a politician who has been anointed by Washington, D.C., to replace the appointed U.S. senator,” Buck said to cheers.

Similar themes underscore the Republican governor’s race, where former Rep. Scott McInnis has a fundraising advantage over businessman Dan Maes. (On the Democratic side, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper has no opposition to replace Gov. Bill Ritter, who isn’t running.)

Caucus results won’t sort out the nominees. Some winners have lost badly in primaries. In 2004, Salazar didn’t prevail in party caucuses but dominated the primary and election. But a strong showing Tuesday could draw money from donors wary of betting on a losing horse. And a weak turnout by fundraising front-runners could reveal trouble in the ranks.

Tuesday could determine whether Romanoff’s years in state Democratic politics will pay off, said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.

“These are the people Romanoff has spent years cultivating the support of,” Masket said. “If he’s not going to do well at the caucuses, he’s not going to do well anywhere.”

Republicans will gauge the political muscle of tea party groups working to draw their party to the right, Masket said.

“At least in Colorado, we still don’t have a sense how powerful they are,” Masket said. “The caucus is the kind of situation where the tea party types would be very strong.”


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