Will the real political outsider please stand up?
That question easily could be asked in Colorado's Democratic Senate race, where both the incumbent and his challenger are arm-wrestling over who is less likely to embrace anything Washington. Being seen as the bona fide outsider is a powerful election-year quality as frustrated voters turn their backs on the establishment.
Sen. Michael Bennet highlights his years as superintendent of Denver's public schools far more than his time as appointed senator; he replaced Ken Salazar, who became President Barack Obama's interior secretary, in January 2009. Andrew Romanoff, a former state House speaker, reminds Democrats that he upset party leaders by challenging Bennet and that some in Washington are "not my best friends at the moment."
In one campaign ad, Bennet's three daughters — Caroline, 10, Halina, 9, and Anne, 5 — remind voters that their dad has only been in Washington for about a year and he's told them "it's the biggest mess he's seen." As the girls speak, they clean up their bedroom, tossing pillows into place.
Romanoff's ad shows the U.S. Capitol, flashing lights and a roulette wheel — "It's like a rigged casino," he says, arguing that Congress is too cozy with special interests and Wall Street. Romanoff says he doesn't take a dime of special interest money and proclaims, "I stand with you."
Heading into the mostly mail-in Aug. 10 primary, each candidate is claiming he can change Washington. The Colorado GOP is also choosing between two candidates jostling to portray themselves as outsiders, prosecutor Ken Buck and former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton.
At a recent campaign stop, Romanoff said Bennet and other Democrats have failed the voters who gave the party control of Congress.
"We don't realize that we're in charge now," Romanoff said. "It looks like we may squander the best chance we've ever had to transform public policy."
Bennet favors a lifetime ban on lobbying by former senators and changes in Senate rules to rein in spending. Talking to a crowd of business owners in Eagle, Colo., Bennet focuses on the $13 trillion debt. "Part of the way we get out of this is by reforming the way Washington works," he said.
Both candidates are trying to overcome cracks in their reformer images.
Romanoff has vowed not to take money from political action committees though he organized one himself as state House speaker. Bennet's campaign was embarrassed this month when it admitted that an intern dangled access to the senator if a potential donor forked over money. The intern was fired.
Bennet also has strong ties to Washington. He grew up in the nation's capital, where his father, Douglas, worked for two Democratic presidents — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — and his grandfather was an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Bennet discusses his time managing a Denver-based investment company, The Anschutz Company, before taking control of the school district. He called his primary race completely different from the races involving longtime Democratic senators in Pennsylvania and Arkansas this year.
"It's not as though I've been in the Senate for three terms," Bennet said. Voters "appreciate that I bring a lifetime of experience outside politics," he said.
Last month, the White House acknowledged it had contacted Romanoff about possible administration jobs in hopes that he would not challenge Bennet in the primary. Both the White House and Romanoff said there was no job offer. The White House did say Romanoff had applied for a position at the U.S. Agency for International Development during the transition period before Obama took office in January 2009.
Bennet leads Romanoff in fundraising by a wide margin, hauling in $7.44 million by the end of the last fiscal quarter, while Romanoff's latest filing has him just over $1 million.
They each have one presidential endorsement. Obama endorsed Bennet and headlined a Denver fundraiser for him in February. Clinton endorsed Romanoff in June — a rare instance in which a former president bucked his party and the incumbent president.
Democrats in Colorado appear just as divided. At a party fundraiser in Denver earlier this year, a crowd wearing Bennet T-shirts and another waving Romanoff signs — both in blue — competed to see who could cheer louder when party donors smiled their way.
"I'm torn, I'm really torn," said Vail Kozatch, a gift-shop owner who attended a Romanoff event in Steamboat Springs. "I love Bennet, too. I guess I just liked that Romanoff is the underdog. Maybe that's a good thing to be this year."
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