Senate primary in Colorado illustrates battle for direction of Republican Party

If you missed any of this year's primaries -- or just forgot -- here are the names and faces you need to know in November.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2010

COLORADO SPRINGS -- The hotly contested race for the Republican Senate nomination in Colorado has been described as party establishment vs. "tea party" activists. But in the campaign's final weeks, it has turned into something more bizarre: high heels vs. dung-stained boots.

Wearing the heels is Jane Norton, a former lieutenant governor and favorite of the party establishment. Wearing the boots is Ken Buck, the Weld County district attorney and darling of tea party and grass-roots conservative activists.

Buck had the momentum in the race before this week, when a video appeared of him speaking at an outdoor rally. "Why should you vote for me? Because I do not wear high heels," he said to laughter and then groans in the background.

He then went on to describe his own footwear -- in salty language. "She has questioned my manhood," he said. "I think it's fair to respond. I have cowboy boots on. They have real [cow manure] on 'em. That's Weld County [cow manure], not Washington D.C. [cow manure]."

By Thursday morning, the video was featured in a Norton ad, a clear effort to rally female voters. "Play that again," the female narrator says with a tone of indignation. The ad then turns Buck's line about having manure on his boots against him. "Now Ken Buck wants to go to Washington? He'd fit right in."

The heels-vs.-boots dustup is the latest unexpected twist in what has become a fierce battle over the future direction of the Republican Party. Republicans are determined to win in November the seat of Michael Bennet, a Democratic appointee. The question is, who would be the stronger challenger? Norton was the early front-runner. But Buck had picked up momentum in the race, or he had before the footwear flap, which appears to have given Norton a second boost.

For Republicans to take control of the Senate this fall, Colorado is one of a number of must-win states. Another is Nevada, where the GOP hopes to defeat Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid. Those hopes diminished when the campaign of Reid's Republican challenger, tea party favorite Sharron Angle, got off to a difficult start. And in Kentucky, libertarian conservative Rand Paul embarrassed the GOP establishment by knocking off their favored candidate in the primary -- and promptly cause an uproar by questioning parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Colorado's Aug. 10 primary will offer the latest evidence of the strength of tea party activists and GOP prospects in November.

Norton was recruited to run by, among others, Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The NRSC is officially neutral in the race, but last month Norton and Cornyn appeared at a fundraiser together. The proceeds were split between her campaign and the NRSC.

Buck began to gain attention only after he upset Norton in the party caucuses this spring. He has the endorsement of Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), who has parted company with party officials in Washington in several primaries this year.

There is some history to this boots-and-heels business. Last spring, Norton's campaign manager said that Republicans in Washington needed someone to "kick Harry Reid in the shins, and Jane is going to do that with her high heels."

More recently, a peeved Norton taunted Buck, complaining that, instead of relying on independently funded conservative groups to attack her with TV ads, he ought to be "man enough to do it himself." Republicans have long seen Colorado as a prime takeover opportunity. Bennet was appointed to the seat when President Obama selected then-Sen. Ken Salazar as Interior secretary and is vulnerable in a year when Democrats generally are on the defensive.

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