By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 6:37 PM
DENVER - Incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet declared victory Wednesday over his tea party-backed challenger, Republican Ken Buck, bringing to a close one of the country's closest and nastiest mid-term campaigns.
With 97 percent of the ballots counted, Bennet's lead had widened to 15,400 votes. The Associated Press projected that Bennet would win the race with 47.7 percent to Buck's 46.8 percent, and Buck conceded Wednesday afternoon.
In a speech outside the Denver museum where Obama signed the stimulus bill into law, Bennet , 45, said Democrats in Colorado had bucked the Republican wave of 2010. The state GOP won several down-ticket races and wrested two U.S. House seats from Democrats, but failed to win the governor's mansion, which went to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.
"The prognosticators and pundits... are dividing our country into red and blue," Bennet told supporters. "And when they get to Colorado, let me tell you, they're not going to know what happened. They're going to scratch their heads, and wonder what the heck is going on out here."
In an interview, he called Colorado a "very independent-minded place, and our sense of independence is very strong."
The Denver Post and Fox News called the race for Bennet on Wednesday morning, but the Associated Press held off on until later in the day because of remaining uncounted ballots.
Richard Coolidge, a spokesman for Colorado's secretary of state, said Colorado had an "uptick" of thousands of provisional ballots this year from voters who came to their polling places with mail ballots they had filled out incorrectly.
"A lot of counties ran out of them," Coolidge said. And many counties still offer voters paper ballots over electronic voting machines, further slowing the tabulation. Absentee ballots from the state's large military community also have not been fully counted.
In a state about evenly split among Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters, the Senate battle was 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 was the most expensive race of the 2010 campaign, with outside groups pouring in $33.4 million.
On election night in Colorado two years ago, Obama trounced Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by nine percentage points after accepting the party's nomination for president before admiring crowds at Mile High Stadium. 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.
This time, however, this unpredictable state - whose political culture spans religious conservatives, environmentally conscious liberals, a growing Latino bloc and pro-business mining interests - ranked as one of a handful of tossups that would help determine whether Democrats hold control of the U.S. Senate.
Bennet 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.
Buck, the Weld County prosecutor, 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 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 said Social Security should be privatized for younger workers.
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.