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Colorado Primary Challenge Looks Like Win-Win for Dems

Last night, word leaked that Andrew Romanoff, a 41-year-old who was recently term-limited out of his job as Colorado House Speaker, will be challenging incumbent senator Michael Bennet for the Democratic nomination. Romanoff had been considered a candidate to succeed Ken Salazar as Colorado’s Class III Senator when Salazar was appointed in December to head the Interior Department, but governor Bill Ritter went with the lesser-known Bennet, the former Denver Schools Superintendent, instead.

There is, in theory anyway, some room to challenge Bennet from his left. So far this year, Bennet has voted with the liberal position about 88 percent of the time, according to But this ranks him just 46th of the 59 Senate Democrats. He has also frustrated many progressive activists with his waffling stance on EFCA, a pro-labor bill that now appears to lack the momentum to pass.

Then again, voting with one’s party 88 percent of the time is still voting with one’s party 88 percent of the time, and Bennet has been a long way removed from the Evan Bayhs and Ben Nelsons of the world, who have Progressive Punch scores in the 50s or 60s. He also appears poised to support progressives’ latest raison d’être, the public option. In addition, Colorado Democrats traditionally take more moderate stances on fiscal policy, but more liberal ones on social policy, the environment, and perhaps foreign policy. So far this year, the Senate has voted almost exclusively on matters of fiscal policy, which might not give someone like Bennet a chance to show off his more liberal stripes.

But in any event, this does not appear to be a primary motivated principally by idological concerns. Rather, in a bit of role reversal, Romanoff is likely to highlight his superior experience as compared with the incumbent, as he has eight years as an elected office-holder to Bennet’s zero (Bennet had never run for public office before being picked by Ritter). In particular, he may try to relay his experience working with — or around — a vocal Republican minority, as this revealing passage from a 2008 Rocky Mountain News article might suggest:

Romanoff said Thursday he feels burned by Republicans who he thought were negotiating in good faith on a plan to untangle conflicting spending mandates in the constitution, including the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Now, Romanoff said, he realizes they were just buying time to galvanize their caucus against the plan.

“I feel like I wasted time in what I thought were genuine policy negotiations that turned out to have been political stalling tactics,” he said.

“And I’m embarrassed to admit that, because it makes me look like an idiot. I feel like an idiot, but that’s the way it’s played out. It’s not a game, and it’s not over yet.”

Bennet has one major advantage over Ronamoff: he’s proven to be a terrific fundraiser. In the first six months of the year, Bennet has raised $2.6 million, an impressive total for anyone, let alone someone who had never before held elected office.

But, Bennet’s approval ratings are marginal, and he has been running neck-and-neck in early polling against several prospective candidates in the somewhat disorganized Republican field. In addition, appointed senators have a poor track record when running for election, particularly if they had not previously held elected office at the time of their appointment.

Overall, this seems like a win-win for Democrats. If Bennet holds on, and that is more likely than not, he’ll have gained some experience as a campaigner and may become a stronger general election candidate. If Bennet proves to be too wet behind the ears, the Democrats will have a capable candidate in Romanoff to replace him. And in the meantime, even if the challenge is not explicitly on ideological grounds, Bennet will be under increased pressure to toe the party line, potentially giving the Democrats one less headache on issues like health care and the climate bill.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.