By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 7, 2010; A02
Internal party battles have been a hallmark mostly of Republican primaries this year. But for sheer nastiness and personal ill will, few of those can match what Democrats are doing in Colorado.
Tuesday's Senate primary will pit appointed Sen. Michael Bennet against former Colorado House speaker Andrew Romanoff. When the race was joined, Bennet was the overwhelming favorite to win. Today he is fighting to avoid becoming the latest in a string of incumbents to fall in this year's midterm elections.
Bennet has the support of President Obama, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Obama's Organizing for America operation, and he has a hefty financial advantage. Romanoff won the endorsement of -- but received no appearances from -- former president Bill Clinton and has rallied progressive groups and his party's left flank. To scrape together money for his final television ads, he recently mortgaged his house.
The contest has fast become a spectacle of negative ads and charges and counter-charges. Romanoff has been the aggressor. He has cast Bennet, a former investment banker, as a tool of Wall Street and a collector of campaign contributions from corporate interests. Bennet, once he engaged his opponent, accused him of falsehoods and hypocrisy.
The latest twist occurred Friday, when the New York Times published an article questioning the wisdom of a complex financial deal Bennet helped put together when he was superintendent of schools in Denver. The arrangement was designed to restore the financial health to the system's pension program. The Times said Denver ended up paying more than it expected because of the terms Bennet helped negotiate.
Bennet said the article misrepresented the deal. In a statement, he said: "They just got it wrong. . . . The New York Times got caught up in a heated political primary where my opponent and his supporters have repeatedly tried to score points at the expense of kids and have once again disregarded the facts."
"The timing of the story had nothing to do with the primary race in Colorado," Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty said in a statement. "We make news judgments on their journalistic merit, not on the impact they might or might not have on an election. The story highlights the creative financing many municipalities and public entities have used that is now adding to their financial burden. Of course if the principals provide evidence that warrants a correction we will do so, as we always do."
Romanoff said the article undermines Bennet's credentials as a financial expert. "These are the kinds of deals that got us into the [economic] mess in the first place," he said in a telephone interview. Asked about the Bennet campaign's contention that Romanoff was briefed on the deal while still in the Colorado legislature, he replied, "That's a red herring."
Romanoff helped steer legislation through the House to merge the school pension program with the state pension system. But he said that had nothing to do with the financing deal that came under fire Friday.
"No doubt by the time the day is done, they will try to paint me as the Wall Street wizard who worked all this out," he said.
Romanoff's campaign quickly put together a new ad trumpeting the article. "Wall Street made millions and now they're betting on Bennet," the ad states.
Bennet was appointed to fill the vacancy created when Obama nominated then-Sen. Ken Salazar as interior secretary in his new Cabinet. Bennet was the surprise choice, having never run for office before. Romanoff, who had won high marks as Colorado speaker, was deeply disappointed that Gov. Bill Ritter passed him over for the job.
When he announced his intention to run, White House officials, hoping to avoid exactly the kind of nasty primary that is now unfolding, asked Romanoff if he would be interested in a job in the administration. Romanoff had expressed interest in a position at the beginning of Obama's term but by the time the White House came back to him, he was committed to the Senate race.
Romanoff built his campaign around his longstanding connections to Democratic activists and constituencies. Although the challenger to the establishment's candidate, Romanoff defeated Bennet in caucuses and at the state party convention.
Even then, however, Bennet's campaign regarded Romanoff as more of a nuisance than a real challenge -- a costly decision as it has turned out. Over the summer, as he began to hammer Bennet, Romanoff started to gain ground. A week ago, the Denver Post published a poll showing Romanoff narrowly ahead, triggering alarm among Bennet's supporters.
The poll roughly coincided with perhaps the toughest ad of Romanoff's campaign. The 30-second spot accused Bennet of being a greedy takeover artist whose work had cost people their jobs as he prospered.
The narrator said, "Bennet worked for right-wing billionaire Phil Anschutz. In a corporate takeover they pushed companies into bankruptcy and looted a billion dollars. Workers lost their jobs. Bennet made $11 million."
The Denver Post, which has endorsed Bennet, repudiated the ad, calling it "below the belt" and "over the top" in an editorial that concluded, "What we don't need is another politician willing to grossly distort reality."
Bennet staged a news conference at the state capitol to denounce the ad and responded with a counter spot that accused Romanoff of "cynical politics at its worst."
Advisers to both candidates predict a close finish on Tuesday, but the final weekend of campaigning might have a limited impact on the outcome. Colorado's primary is largely a vote-by-mail election. As of Friday, more than 200,000 people had sent in their ballots, more than half of the expected turnout.
Republicans see Colorado as a major opportunity to pick up a Democratic Senate seat in November. But they, too, are engaged in a closely contested primary, theirs pitting former lieutenant governor Jane Norton against Weld County prosecutor Ken Buck, who has been embraced by many "tea party" activists.