2010 Colorado Senate Race: How Bennet Defeated Buck
The 2010 Colorado Senate race was one of the most contentious and hard-fought races in the country during the 2010 election cycle. Like many other races, it pitted an establishment Democrat against a tea-party backed Republican. The outcome of the race was important for Democrats and Republicans alike. The Democrats watched the race hoping to keep a comfortable majority in the Senate and Republicans were anxious to oust another vulnerable Democrat. Early on, Republicans had high hopes for defeating the incumbent, Senator Michael Bennet, who had poor approval ratings. However, several factors, including the impact of primary elections, campaign finance, and the gender gap allowed Bennet to eke out a win and Democrats to maintain a 53-seat majority in the Senate.
Michael Bennet was not an incumbent in the traditional sense, having been appointed to his position after President Obama picked the current senator, Ken Salazar to be the Secretary of the Interior. Governor Bill Ritter’s choice of Michael Bennet as his replacement was met with shock. Bennet was the Superintendent of Denver Public Schools and had never run for office before (RealClearPolitics). An inexperienced politician in a traditionally red-state coupled with strong anti-establishment sentiment made the election a likely pick-up for Republicans and from the start Bennet was a key GOP target.
On the eve of the primary, Sen. Michael Bennet was heading toward a possible defeat. The former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D) had been gaining traction and was ahead of him by 3 points in a Denver Post/Survey USA Poll, whereas only six weeks earlier Bennet had held the lead by 17 points (Osher and Crummy 2008). The primary also held somewhat symbolic significance on the state of the Democratic elites as President Obama backed Bennet and former President Clinton backed Romanoff. To clear the field for Bennet, the White House reportedly offered Romanoff which he declined, demonstrating the real limitations that the party in government faces in trying to influence elections. In the end, Obama’s candidate won with 54% of the vote (NY Times Primary Results).
On the Republican side, tea party-backed Ken Buck, the Weld County District Attorney, appeared to be edging out the former Lt. Governor Jane Norton (Osher and Crummy 2008). Norton had the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List and several sitting Senators and was the Republican establishment pick (Altman 2010). On the run-up to the election both Norton and Buck appeared to be jockeying for the title of Washington outsider and benefiting from the wave of grass-roots energy and anti-establishment sentiment that was cropping up around the country is various races. Despite their attacks on each other during the primary race, however, both Norton and Buck were against higher taxes, cap and trade, abortion, illegal immigration, health care reform and same-sex marriage (Altman 2010). Buck started out as a long shot in the race but at the end of the heated primary, Buck was able to defeat the establishment-backed candidate Norton with 52% of the vote (Feldmann 2010). This set up the stage for a showdown between the Democratic party of Washington and the tea party movement.
As Bennet and Buck faced off against each other, the race became one of the most contentious and close races in the country. With only a week left until election day, the Senate seat remained an essential tie. On October 27th the CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corporation survey had 47% of likely voters backing Ken Buck with 46% supporting Bennet. A little over a month earlier, Bennet was trailing Buck by five points (“CNN/Time Poll: Colorado Seat still up for grabs”). By midnight on election day, the race was still undecided. On November 3rd, Bennet was declared the winner by a slim margin (Rein 2010). Bennet managed to gain 47.7% of the vote to Buck’s 46.8%, helping the Democrats hold control the U.S. Senate (NY Times).
In an election year that heavily favored Republicans, the defeat of Ken Buck at first appears to be an anomaly. However, like the tight race in Nevada it displayed the negative impact that weaker candidates produced by primary elections can have on the election outcome. Buck, a far-right conservative was unable to win in Colorado despite other Republican gains in the state, suggesting that he was a poor pick for the swing state. Additionally, the candidate himself suffered several major gaffes that intensified the gender gap in the favor of the Democrats. The race also became the most expensive in the country, showing the impact that campaign finance laws have in elections and how campaigns are run, especially in the realm of negative advertising.
Almost a third of the active voters in Colorado are not affiliated with either party and during the course of the 2010 Senate election, both of the major parties candidates attempted to gain the support of this significant voting bloc. One analysis of the race noted that the Democratic contender began to switch his message to appear more centrist. Instead of campaigning on President Obama’s endorsement, Bennet began to establish some distance, despite utilizing those connections during the primary contest. Even the Republican candidate looked as if he was angling for the middle. Buck, who had already entrenched his candidacy in conservatism, said that he would “reach out our hand for the independents and Democratic voters” (Wyatt 2010).
The strategy that both Bennet and Buck are using here coincides with the median voter theory. This theory holds that if there are two candidates who are trying to maximize their share of their votes then they will adopt stances closer to the position of the median voter. In a two-party system this would play out with both parties converging to the center on issues in order to get the most votes and win the election (Congleton 2003, 708). Even though Buck was not a moderate, nor did he attempt to come across as one, he tried to reach to the median voters. Yet he did this by relying on voter frustration with the party in power more than by appealing to the median voters’ policy stances which is part of why he was unsuccessful in picking up enough of the moderate vote to win.
Also, the median voter theory is complicated by the direct primary. Since primaries do not tend to draw a slate of voters representative of those who will vote later, they may select a weak or extreme candidate whose views may not appeal to the wider electorate (Hershey 2011, 168). If that didn’t exactly describe the Republican nominee Ken Buck, then it at least was how his opponent tried to paint him. Buck’s views on global warming and his stance on opposing abortion even in cases of rape or incest drew criticism from Bennet that he was too extreme for the typical Colorado voter (Snow 2010).
The contentious primary battle between Buck and Norton caused both of them to compete for the far-right position in a typically centrist state. Furthermore, the Republicans should have had an easy victory with Bennet’s low approval ratings. Public Policy Polling’s latest poll showed that only 39% of voters game him good marks while 47% were not happy with his performance (Public Policy Polling). Had Bennet been going up against a stronger candidate, he might have had a tougher time staying in the race and winning. Buck’s approval rating in the same poll was only 44/48 favorability, whereas a hypothetical contest between Bennet and Norton showed that Norton would lead by a 47 to 43 margin (Public Policy Polling).
The Colorado Senate race ended up being the most expensive race in the country with huge amounts of outside money rolling in on both sides. The number of 527 committees involved in the campaign showcased the impact of soft money under the current campaign finance system initiated under the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act (Green and Coffeey 4). Although the initial hope with the act was that it would reduce the amount of money in politics, the large number of money spent in Colorado shows how off that was.
According to Open Secrets, Bennet raised $13,164,844 and spent $12,405,432. Buck raised $4,884,114 and spent $4,677,295. Both received the majority from individual contributions, making up 85% of Buck’s total and 75% of Bennet’s. The top campaign contributor for Bennet was ActBlue and for Buck it was Hensel Phelps Construction. This shows the different industries backing each candidate. Buck’s top three contributors broken down by sector were construction, ideology and then finance while Bennet’s top sectors were ideology with $2 million followed by finance and then lawyer/lobbyists. Historically, the financial sector has been the largest source of funds for U.S. elections, contributing $105 million in 2002 (Open Secrets 2010).
The race drew in the most money from outside groups in advertisements. The Sunlight Foundation estimated that $32 million dollars were spent on Colorado’s Senate race (Snow 2010). The biggest outside spenders included the Democrat’s and Republican Senate Campaign Committees. The DSCC spent $8.3 million on the race and the NRSC spent $5.7 million Another large group, the conservative American Crossroads, spent almost $6 million on the race as well trying to get Buck elected (Attkisson 2010).
The bulk of this money appeared to be spent on ads. Interest groups and the two parties spent over $17.5 million in ads by October 18th since the primary, considerably more than any other race in the country. In fact, the next closest Senate races in terms of spending were Pennsylvania and Missouri, with about $11 million and $9.8 million (Farnam 2010). The bulk of the money in Colorado, adding up to about $750,000 per day appeared to go toward negative advertising, with Bennet supporters painting Buck as an extremist and Buck supporters portraying Bennet as a rubber stamp for the president (Farnam 2010).
Even though negative advertising has become a staple in U.S. elections, it is debated if their effect is negative or positive. Some researchers have found that they increase voter cynicism and drive down voter turnout, while others suggest that they are emotionally engaging and memorable, driving voter turnout (Hershey 201). In an effort to explain why the GOP failed to win the Senate seat, despite the odds being in their favor the GOP state chairman Dick Wadhams blamed the negative campaigning, claiming it turned up enough undecided voters against Buck who otherwise would have voted for Republican candidates (Bartels 2010).
Another interesting feature of the race was the gender gap. Buck had a twelve point advantage over Bennet of 51 to 39 percent among men, while Bennet had a twelve point advantage of 54 to 42 percent among women a week before the election (“CNN/Time Poll: Colorado Seat still up for grabs”). Even though Republicans have less of a hold on the women vote, Buck undermined this weakness further through his comments on homosexuality and abortion (Rein 2010). On November 2nd the race remained one of the closest in the country, with both candidates acknowledging that the outcome could come down to just a few hundred votes (Snow 2010). With the election so close, the final outcome relied on a small number of votes and the Democrat’s relative popularity with women could have driven the results. In the election, Bennet won a 17-pinot advantage among women (Burns 2010).
This gender gap in Colorado shows the continuation of the three-decade trend of women supporting Democrats more than men. In 2008, 56% of women voted for Obama and 43% voted for McCain. The gender gap is significant in politics because men and women have different attitudes on major issues like social programs, gender equality and abortion (Hershey 2011, 126). This trend was still evident in Colorado in 2010, making it vital for both parties to pay attention to women, especially in close elections.
Millions of dollars were poured into Colorado from various corporations, 527 committees and individuals. Even though it was the most expensive Senate campaign in the midterm elections, the incumbent managed to hold unto his seat. This was partly due to the fact that the structure of primaries allowed a more extreme candidate to get chosen on the Republican side, the impact of campaign finance that benefited the Democrat and the gender gap heavily favoring Bennet.
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