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Big surprises in Colorado Senate contest

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By Greg Romberg

Before Coloradans went to their precinct caucuses last month, it looked like U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and former lieutenant governor Jane Norton were on their way to meeting in a combative and expensive race for Colorado’s U.S. Senate seat. What a difference a month makes!

Former Colorado House speaker Andrew Romanoff bested Bennet in Democratic caucuses and then went on to improve his showing at county assemblies throughout the state. At this point, there is little doubt that Romanoff will easily take top honors at the state convention in Broomfield on May 22. In fact, Romanoff is doing so well that Bennet has announced that in addition to attending the convention and pursuing the delegate votes necessary to secure a spot on the August primary ballot, he has begun collecting petition signatures as well. Under Colorado law, candidates may earn a spot on a primary ballot by either receiving at least 30 percent of the votes at their party’s state convention or by collecting at least 1,500 signatures from their party’s registered voters in each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts. Bennet positioned the move as a way to introduce himself to more voters, but the move is clearly intended to provide a backup mechanism if Romanoff’s momentum with party regulars escalates to the point that he gathers more than 70 percent at the convention.

That seemed pretty shocking until last week, when Norton announced that she will forgo her party’s state convention process entirely to petition onto the ballot. Armed with both a big campaign war chest and the backing of most party leaders, she looked like a shoo-in for her party’s nomination. Then Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck caught on with Tea Party supporters, edged Norton in straw polls at caucuses and continued to build momentum in the county assemblies. The Norton announcement assures Buck of top-line honors when Republicans meet in Loveland on May 22 for their state convention. Additionally, former state senator Tom Wiens is gathering signatures to be on the Republican primary ballot as well.

Norton said she was forced to petition to combat Bennet’s campaign, but without Buck’s surge, the move to petition onto the ballot would have been unthinkable. There is no doubt that both parties will now have robust primary campaigns before we get to the main event in November.

When we get to the actual primary elections Aug. 10, the money advantages that Bennet and Norton have accumulated cannot be understated, but momentum for Romanoff and Buck is undeniable. Additionally, a second round of independent-expenditure television ads on Buck’s behalf started last week.

Colorado’s Senate seat will attract a lot of national attention this fall, but the race that pundits expected just a few weeks ago may never materialize as both Norton and Bennet are now forced to look outside their parties’ traditional nomination process just to be considered by their own parties in August primaries.

Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.