Paul Nitze: Primaries a Democrat should love

Paul Nitze
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Colorado voters came out of the woodwork to cast ballots on Tuesday, a turnout that vindicates most counties’ decisions to move to an exclusively mail-in system. Primary turnout was the highest it’s been since records have been kept – more than 40 percent on both sides.

Democrats read the high turnout numbers as a sign of an energized liberal base, ready to fight to keep the party in control this November. And Tuesday was a fantastic night for Democrats, but it had little to do with turnout. After all, the Republicans really smashed turnout expectations – Republicans voted in numbers that would have met expectations for a general election as little as a decade ago.

Tuesday was good to Democrats for two reasons. The first is that the governor’s race is now signed, sealed and delivered to John Hickenlooper. Unless a small army of skeletons starts marching out of his closet, the race is his. Tom Tancredo just might be convinced to step aside, but Dan Maes will not. And Maes cannot win the general.

What does Maes have to fall back on? His major source of income last year was mileage reimbursements from his campaign for use of his personal vehicle on the trail. Otherwise he’s basically broke. Perhaps he’d step aside if guaranteed a perch from which he could earn a lot of money doing nothing. But that trick was already played to ill effect by a guy named Scott McInnis.

With the governor’s mansion in hand, Democrats hold the advantage when redistricting begins in earnest during next year’s legislative session. If you remember, the GOP is still smarting from its largely failed effort to pull off a gerrymander beyond the deadline in 2003, an effort that the courts shot down. 2010 was supposed to be the pay-back cycle, when conservatives would draw lines that effectively booted John Salazar and Betsy Markey out of the 3rd and 4th Congressional Districts.

Gov. Hickenlooper will veto any such effort. And Dems aren’t limited to playing defense. By winning his primary, Dan Maes allows Democratic political committees to reallocate money from the gubernatorial race to contested state legislative races. What looked like it could have been a Republican clean sweep of the Capitol now shapes up as a tightly contested battle for the state House, with Dems holding onto the governorship and the state Senate.

A second bit of good news for Dems is that the party is sending its best candidate into a general election battle against Ken Buck for the open U.S. Senate seat. Michael Bennet’s comfortable win against Andrew Romanoff was touted as a “victory” for the White House, but so far as I can tell the president’s efforts were not the story in the Democratic primary.

The past few weeks have shown us a cynical, desperate side to Romanoff, who ran an entirely baseless series of attack ads against Bennet. But it’s worth remembering that Romanoff remains beloved among the party rank and file and is one of a handful of people who can claim the mantle of recovering the state Legislature for the Democrats.

The party faithful wanted a reason to vote for Romanoff, who’d earned it in their eyes, but Romanoff’s hapless campaign wasn’t giving it to them. At the same time, Bennet was raising money at an astonishing rate (the one area where White House backing was a boon), but coming over as both patrician and uncomfortable at campaign events – not a candidate’s sweet spot.

Had the two campaigns remained on the same trajectories – Romanoff under funded and disorganized but loved, Bennet wallowing in cash but failing to connect – it could have been Romanoff’s night Tuesday. So what changed? Bennet got a whole lot better on the campaign trail.

Bennet will never be the second coming of Gary Hart. He’s not a natural on the stump. Not surprising for a guy who’s never run for office. You could catch a glimpse of it at Bennet’s appearance with the president in February, but since the start of the summer Bennet has been remarkably more comfortable speaking to big audiences. It helps that he’s the smartest candidate either party has fielded in, well, a very long time.

He’ll need those freshly honed skills to beat Buck this fall. Buck’s fire-breathing rhetoric has gotten him into trouble during the primary, but he’ll dial his tone way back in the general. Buck’s an Ivy Leaguer whose wife used to be vice-chair of the state Republican party. He may be the Tea Party pick, but he’s not exactly an insurgent.

Buck knows that statewide races are won and lost in the Denver suburbs and exurbs, and those are the voters Buck had to win over to get his current job as Weld County District Attorney. Bennet’s fundraising prowess will stand him in good stead in the fall – if he can double Buck’s raise, which isn’t out of the question, he should hold the seat.

Local and national pundits have already flooded us with “themes” from Colorado’s primaries. But the story of Tuesday is pretty simple: If your side has better candidates with more money and fewer disqualifiers, you can put yourself in a position to win no matter how bad the general outlook.