By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 6:16 PM
DENVER - After an election that featured $33 million in attack ads, a second-place finish in the governor's race by an anti-immigration activist viewed by many as an extremist and the narrow loss by a Senate candidate backed by the tea party, the message sent by Colorado voters in 2010 looks to be: We're unpredictable and we're up for grabs in 2012.
Democrats held the governorship, Michael Bennet's U.S. Senate seat and the state Senate, but the party lost several down-ballot races and two of three hotly contested U.S. House seats.
Bennet edged out Republican Ken Buck, a prosecutor with tea party support, by less than one percentage point. Buck, who conceded Wednesday afternoon, had kept Bennet on the defensive all fall but appeared to stumble in the campaign's final weeks with divisive comments on social issues.
"The prognosticators and pundits are spending a lot of time dissecting the election, dividing our state into red and blue," Bennet, appointed to his seat to fill a vacancy, told supporters as he declared victory Wednesday. "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 here."
Colorado Democrats held onto almost a decade of statewide victories and proclaimed themselves independent of the GOP tide that swept the country Tuesday. But political strategists said the mixed results - and Bennet's small margin - showed signs of deep divisions in a state that is home to conservative Christians, pro-business mining interests, a growing Latino community and environmentally minded, progressive urban voters.
"While the state is still winnable for Democrats, it's a clear battleground," said Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster in Denver. "There was a Republican wind out there, and Democrats are playing some defense at the moment."
In the governor's race, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper had the good fortune of facing a Republican field split between a weak nominee and third-party candidate Tom Tancredo, the former congressman who is one of the country's most well-known anti-illegal immigration activists and who says President Obama is a bigger threat than al-Qaeda. Hickenlooper won, with Tancredo in second place.
Ciruli called the Senate contest a "unique race" that tested Bennet's electability as a first-time campaigner and prompted Obama to weigh in early in a bitter Democratic primary - then stay away as Bennet tried to distance himself from Washington.
But Buck, who defeated the candidate endorsed by Washington Republicans in the GOP primary, appeared to turn off female voters with his stands on social issues including sexual orientation, which he called a choice, and abortion, which he opposes even in cases of rape or incest.
Colorado seems to have cemented its status as neither red nor blue, which is likely to make the state a battleground when the White House is up for grabs in two years.