DENVER — Michael Bennet can't take all the credit for his upset win over Republican Ken Buck, the tea party favorite who cast himself as the outsider in the nation's most expensive Senate contest.
Bennet had plenty of help: From a Democratic party that poured millions into attacking Buck as an extremist, from two former presidents and a popular first lady, and from Colorado's independent-minded voters, who are suspicious of politicians who meddle in personal questions such as abortion.
With 97 percent of the projected vote counted Wednesday, Bennet led Buck by about 15,400 votes out of 1.4 million cast.
Bennet wasn't widely known when Gov. Bill Ritter appointed him last year to finish the term of Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar, who became Interior Secretary. Bennet, a Yale-educated lawyer whose father and grandfather worked for past Democratic presidents, was superintendent of Denver Public Schools at the time.
"Let's face it: Most people thought he had lost his mind," Bennet said Wednesday of Ritter's decision.
Democrats had big plans for Bennet, who advised Barack Obama on education policy during the 2008 presidential campaign. With the help of deep-pocketed party contributors, Bennet raised $1 million in the financial quarter after he was appointed.
He kept raising money at a remarkable pace for a first-time candidate, raking in seven figures every quarter. By mid-October, Bennet had more than $11 million to Buck's $3.8 million.
Senate Democrats helped by raising Bennet's profile. He was given the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's spot on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee — a panel that considered the health care overhaul.
Obama headlined a spring fundraiser. He recorded phone calls to Democratic voters just before Bennet's primary against a determined opponent, former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. After the primary, first lady Michelle Obama and President Bill Clinton — who had endorsed Romanoff — traveled to Colorado for Bennet.
Bennet's final lift came from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its left-leaning allies, which combined for more than $11 million. That money paid for ads attacking Buck as an extremist and targeting women critical of Buck's anti-abortion views.
The effort countered right-leaning groups that had swamped Democratic incumbents in other states. The GOP-friendly American Crossroads spent more than $5 million attacking Bennet. The DSCC spent more — nearly $8 million — against Buck.
Democrats blasted Buck for his belief that sexual orientation is a choice and his 2005 decision as Weld County district attorney not to prosecute an accused rapist, then telling a local newspaper that a jury could conclude the woman's complaint was a case of "buyer's remorse."
Buck downplayed his social conservatism and tried to focus on federal spending and the economy. And for weeks, most polls indicated Bennet was trailing or tied with Buck.
On the trail, Buck prided himself on spending hours a day answering voter questions. Bennet stuck to Democratic talking points and avoided giving specifics about how he'd cut spending or shore up Social Security.
About one-third of voters in the Senate race said the candidate quality that mattered most was understanding the needs of people like them, rather than having the right experience, not being too extreme, or being able to bring about change, according to a telephone survey conducted for The Associated Press and television networks by Edison Research. More than half of Bennet's supporters were women.
The Democrats' playbook worked. But Bennet's success surprised even his most prominent backers.
Introducing Bennet at a Wednesday rally, Colorado's senior senator, Democrat Mark Udall, deadpanned with a sarcastic grin:
"I think I speak for everybody here when I say there was never a doubt."
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