Sen. Michael Bennet fends off primary challenge in Colorado

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010; A01

Sen. Michael Bennet (D) of Colorado turned back a sharp challenge from former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff on Tuesday night on a busy day of primaries that offered fresh clues about the anti-establishment mood of voters and the strength of the "tea party" movement.

Bennet's victory came after a nasty and often personal campaign between a political novice-turned-senator and a legislative-insider-turned-insurgent. His victory provided a welcome boost to President Obama, who had put his prestige and the muscle of his political organization behind Bennet's candidacy.

In the state's fiercely contested Republican Senate primary, Weld County prosecutor Ken Buck, a favorite of tea party activists, defeated former lieutenant governor Jane Norton, the choice of the GOP establishment in Colorado and Washington.

The Colorado races were the marquee events on a day that also included competitive statewide contests in Georgia, Connecticut and Minnesota.

Bennet's challenge was seen as the latest test of anti-incumbent sentiment in a year in which two senators and four House members have been defeated. His victory proved that the benefits and resources of incumbency can offset the liabilities that many officeholders are carrying this year. The Buck-Norton race once again highlighted the power and influence of tea party activists to challenge the GOP establishment.

In Connecticut, former World Wrestling Entertainment chief executive Linda McMahon claimed the Republican Senate nomination, easily winning a three-way primary that included former congressman Rob Simmons. She captured almost half the vote over her opponents.

McMahon, who has spent about $20 million and is prepared to spend millions more to win the seat of retiring Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D), will face state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who captured the Democratic nomination, in November in a race that will pit an outsider against a longtime insider.

In Georgia, former congressman Nathan Deal led former secretary of state Karen Handel in a runoff election for the Republican nomination for governor. Deal led Handel by 2,500 votes, or 0.4 percent of the vote, but both candidates were awaiting the counting of provisional, overseas and military ballots.

The Georgia race was notable for the competition it sparked among potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin backed Handel as one of her "mama grizzlies," and Handel also had the support of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Deal countered with former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

The winner will face former governor Roy Barnes -- who was defeated for reelection in 2002 -- in November in the race to succeed retiring Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), who is term-limited.

The Democratic Senate primary in Colorado underscored how much candidates this year are seeking to run away from Washington. Throughout the campaign, Bennet and Romanoff tried to outdo each other to demonstrate their distaste for the capital and its political culture.

Bennet, who was appointed to the Senate to replace Ken Salazar when he was named interior secretary, enjoyed strong support from Obama and the national Democratic establishment. But Romanoff's support from liberal activists, an endorsement from Bill Clinton and aggressive negative ads put Bennet on the defensive and party leaders on edge.

Romanoff hammered Bennet as a captive of Beltway and Wall Street interests, while Bennet stressed that he intended to do all he could to reform Washington, not conform to it.

Bennet heavily outspent Romanoff. In the campaign's closing weeks, the challenger mortgaged his house to raise an additional $300,000 to pour into a final round of television commercials.

National party officials have been worried that a bruising primary would make the Colorado seat even more vulnerable to a GOP takeover in November. At one point, the White House contacted Romanoff and asked him if he would consider an appointment to the administration rather than run against Bennet.

Republicans faced a sharp, intraparty fight of their own in their Senate primary. Norton, who was pushed to run by leading Republicans in Washington, once was the heavy favorite, given her high-profile support. But Buck's rough-hewn style and small-government, anti-Washington message found a receptive audience among conservative and tea party activists.

Republicans see Bennet as vulnerable and will probably need to capture the Colorado seat if they hope to take control of the Senate. Democrats hope to paint Buck as far outside the mainstream, but they recognize him as a serious threat in November.

The other race of note in Colorado was the Republican primary for governor. There, former representative Scott McInnis, once the heavy favorite, was in a dead heat with businessman and political novice Dan Maes.

McInnis's campaign took a substantial blow this summer when he was accused of plagiarizing portions of articles he had written on a $300,000 contract with a foundation. Maes, who enjoyed support from tea party enthusiasts, turned the opportunity into a competitive race.

The gubernatorial primary proved to be a major headache for Republicans. They hope to take the governor's mansion away from the Democrats this fall, but no matter who emerges as the nominee, he will enter the general election with serious liabilities.

Complicating GOP hopes is the decision by former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo to run for governor as a third-party candidate. His presence in the race is likely to split the conservative vote and give Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, the Democratic nominee, an easier path to victory.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) chose not to seek a second term.

In other races Tuesday, Connecticut Democrats nominated former Stamford mayor Dannel Malloy as their gubernatorial candidate. He easily defeated businessman Ned Lamont.

Four years ago, Lamont was the darling of liberal activists when he beat Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) in the Democratic Senate primary. Lieberman went on to win the general election as an independent. This year, Lamont could not re-create the energy of that campaign, and Malloy won with nearly 58 percent of the vote.

In Connecticut's Republican primary for governor, Tom Foley, a former U.S. ambassador to Ireland, defeated Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, capturing about 42 percent of the vote in a three-way contest.

Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) is retiring.

In Minnesota, state Rep. Tom Emmer won the Republican nomination for governor. In the Democratic primary, state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher led former U.S. senator Mark Dayton.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) chose not to seek a third term and is eyeing a presidential bid in 2012.

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