By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010; A02
DENVER Andrew Romanoff was once a rising star of the Democratic Party here in Colorado, the youngest speaker in the history of the Colorado House and apparently assured of a bright future. Today he is rattling the doors of the party establishment that used to be his home.
Romanoff finds himself in the role of the uninvited guest because he has chosen to challenge Sen. Michael Bennet in the Democrats' Senate primary. In a year in which the party is on the defensive, officials are not enthusiastic about challenges to vulnerable incumbents, which Bennet is. Democratic voters will have to decide who would be the stronger candidate in the general election.
But this is a primary campaign in which the world seems turned upside down. Bennet is a political newcomer. He had no elective experience until he was appointed to the Senate after the 2008 elections. Now he has the blessing of virtually every party leader from President Obama on down. Romanoff, the onetime insider, is contesting Bennet's right to claim the Senate nomination without a contest. He now casts himself as an outsider who would go to Washington and truly shake up the system.
There is little love lost in this contest, as is often the case in party primaries. Republicans have drawn much attention this spring for their intraparty battles -- Sen. John McCain vs. J.D. Hayworth in Arizona and Gov. Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio in Florida -- but Democrats have a few of their own. In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched parties in 2009, has been challenged by Rep. Joe Sestak. In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who has been running away from the national party, faces a contest against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who is running to her left.
In Colorado, it's not yet clear whether the contest between Bennet and Romanoff will be close, but it is causing plenty of discomfort for the establishment. Many Democrats here and in Washington think Romanoff decided to challenge Bennet purely out of pique, resentful that Gov. Bill Ritter (D) did not appoint him to the Senate seat left vacant when Obama named former senator Ken Salazar interior secretary.
Romanoff insists that was not the reason, but he does say, "While the governor has a right to fill a vacancy, nobody's been elected to this office since Ken Salazar."
Before he was named Salazar's replacement, Bennet had been superintendent of schools in Denver. Before that, he had been chief of staff to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and before that a businessman at an investment firm, where he helped turn around failing companies. He was highly regarded in those previous positions, but his appointment nonetheless was a major surprise, given his lack of experience in politics.
Romanoff is well regarded not only by many Democratic activists but also by Republicans, who say he was an effective opponent as speaker. Some Republicans say he would be more formidable in the general election and, were he to win the nomination, would emerge with real momentum.
Since becoming a senator, Bennet has simultaneously worked to learn the ropes of the Senate, seeking to cast himself as a reformer, and traveled throughout Colorado building a political and financial network. Even after Bennet's year in office, only about 55 percent of Coloradoans recognize his name. With Democrats on the defensive in the state, his seat is high on the Republican list of potential takeovers in November.
As he was making his decision to challenge Bennet, Romanoff heard plenty of discouraging words. "The national party made no secret of their distaste for this exercise in democracy," he said. "They were pretty clear they would support the incumbent, as they are doing in Pennsylvania and Arkansas."
Did he hear from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel or White House senior adviser David Axelrod or White House political director Patrick Gaspard or Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.)? "I got plenty of calls," he said, declining to name names. "I can take a hint. I got the word. It was not subtle. To be honest, it was a little comical."
Romanoff's challenge to Bennet has little to do with ideology. They agree on many major issues. Instead, Romanoff asserts that Bennet has become part of a broken system in Washington that has turned its back on ordinary people in favor of big money and special interests.
He has attacked Bennet for taking money from political action committees. As of the end of last year, 18 percent of the nearly $5 million Bennet had raised for his campaign had come from PACs. Bennet says Romanoff's charge that he is in hock to special interests is spurious -- arguing that as a member of the Colorado legislature, Romanoff took PAC money, and further, that he has been unable to show that the PAC contributions have influenced Bennet's voting.
Bennet, who grew up in Washington and worked for a time in the Clinton administration, also rejects the accusation that he is a political insider or part of the political establishment, saying it is being made by people "who spent their entire adult lives under the capitol dome here" in Denver.
He says he is not denigrating those with experience in elective office. What irks him, he says, is that someone who was "in one of the most insider positions a person can hold is all of a sudden an outsider, versus an incumbent who's not even been in office a year and a half with no prior political experience."
Colorado requires candidates to qualify for the ballot, either by petition or by securing 30 percent of the vote through a caucus-convention process. In the first round of precinct caucuses, Romanoff led Bennet, 51 to 42 percent. Both claimed victory.
Bennet, who was aided in the caucuses by Organizing for America, the post-2008 version of Obama's grass-roots organizing network, said Romanoff should have won a contest of insiders and party activists. "This is where my primary opponent has spent his life," he said.
Romanoff said Bennet's claim of victory is "the kind of fuzzy math only Washington could love. We were outspent 10 to 1, we were facing a national political establishment, and our grass-roots campaign beat a sitting member of that chamber."
The real contest will be the August primary. Romanoff claims he is building "a head of steam" that will carry him to victory in that primary. "If I'm the Democratic nominee, I hold the seat -- or at least I'm in a stronger position" than Bennet, he said.
But Bennet's financial advantages will be ever more valuable as the two candidates head toward the primary. Through the end of 2009, Romanoff had raised only $630,000 and he concedes that Bennet will be able to heavily outspend him.
Bennet has begun airing television ads, which Romanoff cannot afford yet. The ads are designed to inoculate Bennet against the accusation that he is part of a broken system in Washington. One ad shows the senator framed against the dome of the U.S. Capitol. "Here," he says, "the special interests have too much power." The next scene shows him back in Washington County, Colo. "Here," he says, "people are looking for someone to stand up for them."
Bennet hopes Colorado voters will see him as that person, but Romanoff will spend the next four months trying to convince them otherwise.