Election 2010: Bennet-Buck outcome in Colorado a tossup

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 6:44 PM

FORT COLLINS, COLO. - In this swing county an hour north of Denver, even Democrats now say government may not be the answer to their economic anxiety. Voters in Larimer County - a mix of farms, colleges and high-tech campuses that collapsed with the dot-com bubble - also say they're angry over the new health-care law, which many expect to increase their insurance premiums.

"There's a gigantic lack of trust" in Washington, said Republican Robert Bisetti. "President Obama just happens to be the scapegoat for it."

Someone else who may be a bearing some of that sentiment is Sen. Michael Bennet, the Democratic senator locked in a tight race with tea-party-backed prosecutor Ken Buck.

Cindi Brown, a 51-year-old physician's assistant and registered Democrat, said she voted for Bennet and other Democrats on Tuesday, but with certain reservations. "We need to be a lot more fiscally conservative," she said.

In the face of two wars, the federal government should take a lesson from sacrifices made by local and state governments in shrinking their workforces and spending less, she said.

Bisetti, 46, a restaurant owner, said the health-care law and the bailout of big banks "have squeezed out the little guy."

He said the health-care law has forced up premiums for the managers he gives health insurance to by 25 percent. He also sits on the board of a community bank that's having trouble lending to small businesses like his. "I don't think government could run my restaurant better than I can."

Colorado was a good place for Democrats to be on election night two years ago.

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) trounced Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by nine percentage points after accepting the party's nomination for president before admiring crowds at Invesco Field at Mile High. For almost 40 years the GOP had carried the state in all but two presidential elections, but Democrats gradually had wrested control of the governor's office, the state house and the congressional delegation to help build a stronghold in the West.

But today this unpredictable state - whose political culture spans religious conservatives, environmentally conscious liberals, a growing Latino bloc and pro-business mining interests - is one of a handful of tossups that will help determine whether Democrats hold control of the U.S. Senate.

The race between Bennet and Buck, along with three competitive House campaigns, has made this a volatile political season for Democrats. In a state about evenly split among Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters, the energy that powered Obama to victory has faded, and Republicans smell opportunity.

Republicans entered Election Day with an apparent edge in early voting, with early ballots cast by 493,399 Republicans, 419,444 Democrats and 291,152 unaffiliated voters, as of 2 p.m. Mountain Time.

The Senate battle, which began with bitter primaries on both sides, has been noisy, costly and nasty to the end, with a barrage of television and radio ads calling the Republican "too dangerous" to elect and the Democrat "their" senator - meaning a creature of Washington who has ignored voters' pleas for smaller government. It has been the most expensive race of the midterm campaign, with outside groups pouring in $33.4 million.

The governor's seat is likely to go to the Democrat, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who has benefited from a challenge from two conservatives on track to split the Republican vote. Hickenlooper promised he would run a positive campaign, and one of his first television ads showed him in the shower, saying attack politics made him feel dirty. His nearest challenger is Tom Tancredo, the former GOP congressman who ran for president in 2008 and is one of the country's loudest voices against illegal immigrants. If Tancredo comes in second as the candidate of the third-party American Constitution Party, the results will test the strength of Colorado's establishment Republicans.

Bennet has had to defend himself against the anti-Washington tide sweeping the midterms. But Republicans also saw him as a vulnerable target because this is his first run for office. The former Denver school superintendent was a surprise pick to fill the Senate vacancy left when Obama tapped Ken Salazar as interior secretary, and he had no experience in elective politics.

Buck was an insurgent who beat a former lieutenant governor, the candidate endorsed by Washington Republicans, in the GOP primary. Buck surged by criticizing federal spending and debt, bailouts for Wall Street and the new health-care law. Bennet has tried to cast him as "too extreme for Colorado" - Buck compared homosexuality to alcoholism, saying "birth has an influence over it" in a debate, and he opposes abortion in cases of rape and incest. He also says Social Security should be privatized for younger workers.

But even Bennet has distanced himself from Washington. Despite heavy support from the White House (which offered his primary opponent an administration job to get him out of the race), Bennet has kept Obama at arm's length, and the president did not set foot here to campaign.

"I know one thing: Washington has a lot to learn from Colorado," Bennet said recently in Denver.

The Washington Post has reporters out in 10 states on Election Day. Follow all the feeds at PostPolitics.

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