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Chaos in Colorado

Four states will hold primaries tomorrow, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia (a runoff) and Minnesota. And while all four have significant contests, the two that have garnered the most national attention are Colorado, which features competitive Senate primaries in both parties and a very strange gubernatorial contest; and Georgia, where Karen Handel and Nathan Deal are concluding an exceptionally nasty runoff campaign with implications not only for November, but for 2012. So I’ll cover Colorado and Georgia separately, and deal with Connecticut and Minnesota together later on.

To put it simply, Colorado’s appointed Democratic senator, Michael Bennet, is in danger of losing tomorrow, while Colorado Republicans are looking at a close Senate primary while struggling to make the best of a bad gubernatorial landscape.

Despite a large financial advantage (about 3-1 in spending as of the beginning of August) and the support of the White House, Bennet has been visibly slipping in the runup to his primary with former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. And his stretch run was interrupted by a negative story broken by The New York Times about his handling of investments for the Denver school system that quickly became fodder for a Romanoff attack ad, reinforcing his general argument that the incumbent is a self-profiting ally of Wall Street. Both candidates have had to dip into personal funds to pay for last-minute ads, with Romanoff actually selling his house.

You could argue that the perception of ideological differences between Bennet and Romanoff is largely an illusion; Romanoff was generally considered a bipartisan-oriented “centrist” in the legislature (and supported Hillary Clinton for president, a favor that Bill Clinton returned with a well-timed endorsement in this race), while Bennet pleased many progressives with a vocal stance in favor of a public option during the latter stages of the health reform debate. But Romanoff easily won the state party convention endorsement, generally dominated by liberal activists, and is definitely appealling to progressive unhappiness with the perceived coziness of the Democratic “establishment” with Wall Street.

The last-minute dynamics in this and every other Colorado race is affected by the fact that most of the state’s counties (including all the big population centers other than El Paso County, which includes Colorado Springs) opted for an all-mail-ballot system this year, boosting the likelihood of early voting and probably increasing turnout generally. (As of mid-afternoon today, 34% of registered Democrats and 37% of registered Republicans had returned ballots; Colorado is a closed primary state). A Survey USA poll taken July 27-29 showed just over half of likely voters in the Democratic Senate primary as having already cast ballots, with Romanoff doing very well among early voters, and leading overall 48-45. A more recent PPP survey showed Bennet still holding onto a 49-43 lead.

On the Republican side of the Senate contest, the race between former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton and district attorney Ken Buck has also become very contentious and competitive. The early front-runner and NRSC pick, Norton began the race dangerously associated with “the DC Republican establishment,” typified by her brother-in-law, big-time lobbyist and campaign strategist Charlie Black. She was also very close to John McCain, a mixed blessing in a state where McCain was trounced by Mitt Romney in the 2008 caucuses. Building a strong base in the Tea Party movement, and also earning the support of out-of-state conservative validators like Jim DeMint and RedState’s Erick Erickson, Buck won the state convention endorsement (which Norton did not even contest), and by mid-June had moved well ahead of Norton in the polls. A particularly embarassing moment for Norton occurred when Sarah Palin came into the state for a rally, and instead of endorsing her, as was expected by many observers, didn’t even mention the race.

But two highly visible gaffes by Buck helped Norton get her mojo back. First, clearly rattled by Norton taunts that he interpreted as questioning his masculinity, he answered a question at a public event by saying: “Why should you vote for me? Because I do not wear high heels.” Norton’s campaign sprang immediately upon the comment with ads, and with suggestions that it represented a “Macaca Moment” for Buck. Second, a tape recording came out of an earlier moment when Buck said to a Democratic tracker: “Please tell those dumbasses at the Tea Party to stop asking questions about birth certificates while I’m on the camera.”

While Norton had a significant financial advantage early in the campaign, the candidates been relatively even in the ability to run ads down the stretch, and both have benefitted from “independent expenditure” attacks on their opponent. During the last week, Norton made the surprising decision to invite John McCain to campaign with her in Colorado, supposedly to draw attention to her hawkish views on Afghanistan and Iraq.

It’s unclear who’s ahead. The end-of-July Survey USA poll for the Denver Post showed Buck still maintaining a 50-41 lead, while the later PPP survey showed Norton back up 45-43.

The outcome is equally unclear in the GOP gubernatorial race, but if Norton and Buck are trying to overcome occasional misteps, the candidates for governor are more accurately trying to show who’s less determined to lose.

The Democratic gubernatorial nomination was secured by Denver mayor John Hickenlooper the moment he announced. At one point, the GOP nomination seemed similarly nailed down by former congressman Scott McInnis, who benefitted from a field cleared of major candidates. Yes, little-known businessman Dan Maes won a Tea Party-dominated state party convention endorsement in an upset, but quickly squandered that advantage with a series of amateurish campaign finance law violations, with the fines dissipating his meager funds.

Then, beginning on July 13, the Denver Post very nearly drove McInnis out of the race with a series of revelations about extensive plagiarism in a wonky, serialized paper on water policy that had appeared several years earlier over McInnis’ byline, earning him a hefty $300,000 stipend from a local foundation. To make a very long story short, McInnis didn’t handle the scandal very well, but decided to gut it out, probably because of considerable misgivings among Republicans about Maes, who subsequently got his own very bad press after claiming that a popular private-non-profit bike-sharing program aimed at reducing Denver traffic was actually part of a United Nations plot to take over the city.

While Republicans quietly talked about the possibility of convincing the winner of the primary to withdraw and let the state party choose a more presentable nominee, former congressman Tom Tancredo crashed into the scene, threatening to run on the ticket of the far-right Constitution Party if Maes and McInnis didn’t immediately promise to get out after the primary. When the two candidates didn’t meet his ultimatum deadline, The Tank duly announced his candidacy; a Rasmussen poll subsequently showed him splitting the Republican vote right down the middle and ensuring an easy win for Hickenlooper.

Survey USA’s final poll showed Maes leading McInnis 43-39, while PPP’s had McInnis up 41-40. But it wasn’t clear if Republican voters were choosing the strongest gubernatorial candidate, or the one most likely to drop out after the primary and give the state party a fighting chance to find a unity candidate and convince Tancredo to stand down (a prospect not exactly enhanced when state party chairman Dick Wadhams got into a wild, extended screaming match with Tancredo on a Denver radio show).

With all this drama, downballot candidates in Colorado have struggled to get attention, but there are two competitive GOP primaries to choose opponents for potentially vulnerable Democratic congressmen John Salazar (3d district) and Ed Perlmutter (7th district). In the 3d, state rep. Scott Tipton has been the front-runner, but a surprise endorsement of Bob McConnell by Sarah Palin has given the fiery Tea Party activist hopes of an upset. And in the 7th, Aurora city councilman Ryan Frazier has had a big financial advantage over former McCain Campaign Veterans Coordinator Lang Sias, but the underdog probably benefitted from an attention-grabbing personal appearance with his old boss.

Polls close at (or in mail-ballot-only counties, ballots must be dropped off at “service centers” by) 7:00 MDT.