Primaries: a double-edged sword

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By Rob Witwer

The year 2010 is shaping up to be one of the most active primary seasons in recent Colorado history. In the U.S. Senate race, Democratic incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet (who was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter when Ken Salazar became secretary of the interior) faces a spirited challenge from within his own party from Andrew Romanoff, former speaker of the state House.

The winner of the Bennet-Romanoff primary will face the Republican survivor of a contest that features former lieutenant governor Jane Norton, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, Aurora City Council member Ryan Frazier and several others. 

In the governor’s race, either former congressman Scott McInnis or state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry will face incumbent Bill Ritter, who apparently will emerge as the only major party nominee not to face an internal challenge next year.

Primaries can be a healthy process, or they can sow division within a political party. Of all people, former congressman Bob Beauprez knows that. In 2002, he was elected to his first term in Congress by 122 votes. He probably wouldn’t have won if not for his primary victory over Rick O’Donnell, which sharpened his campaign skills, raised his name identification, and forced him to work from dawn through dusk throughout the summer.

But when he ran for governor in 2006, Beauprez found that primaries can also go the other way. His Republican primary opponent, Marc Holtzman, accused Beauprez of being a flip-flopper, and the term “Both Ways Bob” proved deadly against Beauprez in the general election.

The direction of next year’s primaries depends entirely on the candidates and their messages. If candidates choose to focus on the weakness of their opponents, the negative dynamics will not end once the primary is over. On the other hand, a vigorous, issue-based debate can strengthen a party and its eventual nominee, giving him or her an edge in the general election.

Either way, keep a close eye on these primaries. It’s some of the most interesting political inside baseball to happen in Colorado in years.

Rob Witwer, who grew up in Evergreen and currently lives in Genesee, is a former member of the state House of Representatives.