A Rocky Mountain showdown
DENVER Put away the pitchfork metaphors that are prevalent in this season of populist ferment: Colorado's Senate contest is a duel of distinguished diplomas. Tea Partyers toiled mightily to nominate Ken Buck as the Republican candidate to run against Sen. Michael Bennet, who is a direct descendant of a Mayflower passenger, grandson of an economic adviser to Franklin Roosevelt and son of an official in the Carter and Clinton administrations. He attended tony St. Alban's school in Washington and Yale Law School. Buck is a Princetonian.
But to erase the stain of privilege, Buck stresses that his family, although hardly poor, was frugal -- "No, you won't get a Happy Meal, you'll get a burger." And he worked in a Princeton cafeteria and later as a truck driver, ranch hand and janitor, so there.
A large man with close-cropped gray hair, he was a college football player talented enough to get a tryout as a punter with the New York Giants. Having, perhaps, an unslaked appetite for blocking and tackling, he became, after years in business, a prosecutor in Weld County, north of Denver. Explaining his Senate candidacy, he says: "I was in law enforcement for a long time and had seen how politicians had screwed up, so I decided I couldn't do worse and might do better."
Colorado Republicans have nominated a weak candidate for governor, and former Republican representative Tom Tancredo, an immigration obsessive who is running for governor as an independent, will siphon away some Republican votes. So Republicans assume that Democrats, assured of holding the governorship, will direct more money to Bennet. Republicans, however, hope Tancredo will pull to the polls some disaffected conservative voters who otherwise might not show up and who also will vote for Buck.
Bennet, formerly superintendent of Denver's schools, was appointed to the Senate after Barack Obama nominated Sen. Ken Salazar to be secretary of the interior. He is one of six appointed senators. The other five are Roland Burris (D-Ill.), who replaced Obama; Edward Kaufman (D-Del.), who replaced Joe Biden; Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who replaced Hillary Clinton; George LeMieux (R-Fla.), who replaced Mel Martinez, who resigned; and Carte Goodwin (D-W.Va.), who replaced the late Robert Byrd. A seventh senator, Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican, was appointed in 2002 (by the then-governor, her father). She was elected to a full term in 2004 and narrowly lost last week's Republican primary.
Joe Miller, who defeated Murkowski, is another populist with an elite pedigree. Before earning a law degree at Yale, he was a West Pointer and a decorated (Bronze Star) Persian Gulf war combat veteran. He is a former judge and a member of the Federalist Society of conservative lawyers. He, like Buck, is one of seven Republicans who won Senate nominations by defeating candidates favored by national party leaders. The other five are Marco Rubio in Florida, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Mike Lee in Utah and Linda McMahon in Connecticut.
Buck identifies with candidates such as Rubio, Paul and Pat Toomey (former congressman, now Republican Senate nominee in Pennsylvania). An admirer of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Buck would start over on health-care reform, stressing health savings accounts, medical malpractice tort reform and portability of insurance coverage.
Colorado is a red state that has recently turned purple and that Democrats still hope to make blue. Doing so would have national implications because until recently the Republican strategy in presidential elections was to hold the South and the Mountain West and spend half the gross domestic product to carry Ohio. In the past decade, however, parts of the Mountain West, and especially Colorado, have become competitive. Colorado's governor, both senators and five of seven U.S. representatives are Democrats, and Obama carried the state with 53.66 percent.
Coloradans, Buck says, now are "50-50 about Obama" but "80-20 against Washington." His one campaign stumble may actually have helped him. It occurred after an event where someone questioned whether Obama is an American citizen. Speaking within range of a tape recorder belonging to a Democratic worker who was following Buck around, Buck laughingly said to someone, "Will you tell those dumb asses at the Tea Party to stop asking questions about birth certificates while I'm on the camera?"
Buck says his language was inappropriate, but many people disagree. Tea Party leaders -- that is not quite an oxymoron -- know that Obama's performance, not his provenance, is the point.