In Colorado, big coffers mean slew of negative ads

By T.W. Farnam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010; 8:39 PM

FORT COLLINS, COLO. - Sen. Michael Bennet (D) likes to tell voters how he agreed to get his three daughters a dog after the election. The girls talk about it so much that, in frustration, he recently asked his 11-year-old, Caroline, "What if I never got you a dog?"

She didn't skip a beat. "I would run an attack ad against you and tell everyone about the promises you don't keep," she said in Bennet's telling.

She must have seen a few such ads. Interest groups and the two political parties have spent more than $17.5 million on the Senate race here since the primary, far more than any other race in the country. Most of those millions have gone toward negative TV ads.

The two Senate races with the next highest spending, Pennsylvania and Missouri, are far behind with about $11 million and $9.8 million respectively.

Spending by interest groups has risen dramatically this year, buoyed by a string of Supreme Court decisions and rich donors' frustration with Democratic policies. Interest groups and political parties have reported more than $250 million in spending so far this election cycle in House and Senate races, according to an analysis of disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission.

About $750,000 of that is spent every day in Colorado, where a tight race in a newly important swing state has drawn considerable interest. No matter their allegiances, voters here appear to have had enough.

"It's making me crazy," said Nancy Buchanan, 53, a Democrat and Bennet supporter from Parker, a suburb south of Denver. "I'm sick of it. It's hateful politics."

Others say they have seen so many ads that they don't even listen anymore. "When they come on, I usually just flip," said Barbara Piper, 68, a real estate agent from Lone Tree, another Denver suburb, who supports Bennet's Republican opponent, Ken Buck.

Nevertheless, the message seems to be getting through. Bennet's campaign has portrayed Buck as a flip-flopper with a draconian view of reproductive rights who is "too extreme for Colorado."

Asked about Buck, Buchanan echoed that message. "He's taking us back 100 years," she said.

Buck and his conservative allies have portrayed Bennet as a rubber stamp for President Obama who has let spending get out of control, a view shared by Piper.

"I think he just voted along the lines he needed to be in good graces with people in D.C. and Obama," she said.

The candidates, who are prohibited by law from coordinating with outside groups, claim to not care for it either.

The barrage has changed the strategies for both sides. Bennet's campaign spent more in the early weeks of the election than it planned and, overall, the ads have been "less positive" in response to attacks, said campaign manager Craig Hughes.

Buck's campaign was thankful for the outside help as it struggled to rebuild finances after winning a hard-fought primary. Since his supporters are slinging the mud, Buck has been able to air more positive ads himself - something that helps set him apart, said Walt Klein, Buck's top media consultant. "The voices become indistinguishable. The charges become indistinguishable," Klein said. "And then, boom, there's Ken Buck saying something positive."

The groups are a who's who of big money in this campaign year. American Crossroads, the $65 million group founded with the support of political adviser Karl Rove, was the first to go on the air after the primary. A few weeks later, other conservative and business groups dropped six-figure sums on the race, including the anti-tax group Club for Growth, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Senate Conservatives Fund run by Sen. Jim DeMint.

The interest group spending has favored Buck, but the Democratic Party has picked up some of the difference with $4.4 million on behalf of Bennet. Also on the left is the union-backed Citizens for Strength and Security and Campaign Money Watch, which is sponsored by a nonprofit trying to promote public funding for elections.

Many of the voters they're trying to reach have already received their ballots in the mail, which is partly why there has been an early surge in advertising.

Being on the ballot is a first for Bennet, who was appointed to the Senate in 2009 when Obama appointed former senator Ken Salazar to become interior secretary. At the time, Bennet was head of Denver public schools and had never run for office.

Buck is the district attorney in Weld County who picked up tea party support to beat former lieutenant governor Jane Norton in the Republican primary.

Most voters won't actually see the candidates in person, however - only through the airwaves.

At a local Republican Party office last week, Harry Saunders worked the phones calling independents and asking them to support Buck. Saunders said he just got off the phone with a swing voter who checked out of the race because of its tone. "He said he wasn't going to vote for anybody because of the negativity," Saunders said. "I tried to ask him to vote for Ken Buck and he just said 'no' and hung up on me."

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