In a dingy, wood-paneled restaurant with a $9 pizza buffet, Ken Buck is waging the latest fight with a Republican Party establishment that favors candidates with shinier political pedigrees.
A group of retirees has gathered to hear Buck, a prosecutor who had little name recognition until he became a hero to conservatives by targeting illegal immigrants in northeast Colorado's Weld County. For the past year, the indefatigable Buck has pitched a hard-right conservatism to tea party followers and GOP clubs, turning the Republican Senate primary into a fiercely competitive race.
His rival, Jane Norton, is a former lieutenant governor backed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and most Republican senators. She raised nearly $1 million her first few weeks in the race and once appeared to be a shoo-in. But she's run into Republican resentment over the party's failed choices in recent elections — and the denim-clad Buck's tireless campaign and folksy charm.
Buck rails against Democrats, President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and the federal stimulus package. Then he rolls right to criticize his own party.
"These issues were around when we had power," said Buck, 51. "And we did nothing."
The retirees nod.
Upstarts have toppled the parties' preferred candidates in a handful of Senate primaries, from Republican contests in Kentucky and Nevada to Democratic races in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Voters fed up with the status quo have embraced the hard-charging hopefuls promising to upend Washington.
Buck hopes he gets his turn in the Aug. 10 primary.
A Princeton-educated lawyer, Buck moved west after college, attended law school in Wyoming and served as a prosecutor for the U.S. attorney's office in Denver before becoming district attorney of Weld County. Conservatives started noticing when he tried to arrest illegal immigrants in 2008.
Buck seized tax records from a company that catered to Spanish speakers, then combed the documents for possible identity theft cases. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, and the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the operation violated tax clients' privacy rights. But the case made Buck something of a hero to conservatives who want to see more done to stop illegal immigration.
"Ken has come from nowhere and run this great campaign, and we love it," said Jon Warnick, 71, who came to hear Buck's remarks at the restaurant. "I think Norton's a very good lady, but she doesn't have the passion. She's the establishment."
Buck has called for a constitutional requirement that Congress balance the budget and has promised to serve just one six-year term. He favors raising the retirement age for Social Security and labeled the Energy Department a failure for not reducing foreign oil imports.
"Let me tell you, I'm going there to stir the pot," he told listeners in Steamboat Springs earlier this month.
Buck's both soft-spoken and a rabble-rouser, a combination that has won him a rabid following among tea party groups. He got a wild reception at a statewide GOP assembly in May, an event Norton bypassed, choosing instead to use the party's petition process to get on the primary ballot.
Buck won the endorsement of Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who backs conservative challengers to the GOP's mainline candidates. Buck also benefited from two six-figure television ad buys from Americans for Job Security, a right-leaning Virginia group that promotes conservative candidates.
Norton is scrambling to convince Republicans that Buck's not quite the outsider.
Her backers routinely remind voters that Buck went to Princeton, where his acquaintances included President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan. Buck remembered Kagan as a bright and friendly classmate, but quickly added that they never talked about politics — "I suspect we would've disagreed," he said. Colorado's Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, was best man at Buck's wedding — the two knew each other as young prosecutors.
Norton has derided Buck as a government lawyer in automated phone calls to Republican voters and on radio ads.
"This guy is the consummate insider," Norton's campaign manager, Republican state Sen. Josh Penry, told reporters recently.
Norton reminds voters that she is the only Colorado native running for the seat; she attended Colorado State University. Sure, she has deep-pocket donors in Washington, she says, but that's because she's the best choice.
"It's no surprise that people all over the country see that I can beat (Democratic Sen.) Michael Bennet," Norton said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed her this week.
Bennet was appointed to the Senate seat as a replacement for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and is now waging his first campaign. He faces a primary challenge from former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff but has proved a capable campaigner.
Bennet has raised more than $6 million and got a personal campaign visit from Obama. Romanoff has struggled to raise money, although he got a major boost Tuesday with an endorsement from former President Bill Clinton.
Many Republicans are turned off by the fact that the party establishment favors Norton — and Colorado's Republicans have lost badly in recent statewide elections.
In 2002, Colorado had two Republican senators, a Republican governor, a 4-2 advantage in the House delegation and both chambers of the state Legislature. Today, Democrats hold both senatorial seats, the governor's office and the Legislature. Only two members of Colorado's seven-member House delegation are Republican.
"I see a lot of people who don't want anybody the party picks," said Don Suppes, head of the rural Delta County GOP. "They're just fed up with the overall scheme, and they refuse to vote for anybody they see as a permanent politician the party wants them to vote for."
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