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Colorado Contests: Dan Balz Handicaps Competitive Primaries

August 9, 2010 at 7:53 PM EDT
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As voters cast ballots in Colorado's primary, politics-watchers will be keeping an eye out for signs of what might be to come in November's midterm elections. Gwen Ifill speaks with Dan Balz, national political reporter for The Washington Post, about what's at stake and what to watch for in the races.

GWEN IFILL: Here to tell us what he will be watching for when those ballots come in tomorrow night is Dan Balz, national political reporter for The Washington Post.

Dan, we hear this insider/outsider meme which has built up around this and other races. How much of it — that is the case in Colorado?

DAN BALZ, chief political reporter, The Washington Post: Gwen, there is a lot of that in these races, but it’s somewhat more complicated than that.

I mean, let’s step back for just a second. Colorado is a state that, over the last three elections, has moved dramatically toward the Democrats, 2004, 2006 and 2008, when Barack Obama was very popular there and the Democrats scored very well.

The pendulum is moving back in Colorado. And this is a year in which Republicans believed that they were going to be able to capture the Senate seat now held by Michael Bennet and the governor’s office. But, along the way, they have all gotten tangled up in these internal party fights.

And, as you suggest, a lot of it is, who is the outsider? Who is the insider? Who is more conservative in the Republican Party? Who is more liberal in the Democratic Party? What’s the power of the party bases? And so we have now got these three primary races that are all too close to call.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s try to go through them one by one.

How did Michael Bennet get to be so vulnerable, the incumbent senator?

DAN BALZ: Well, it — a couple of reasons. One is, appointed senators or people who get appointed office often have trouble because they have no roots. Michael Bennet has never been in politics. He had come out of a school system. He was superintendent of schools in Denver.

He had no political network, no political fund-raising network, no political base. He was plucked from relative obscurity into this seat. So, he has had to spend the last 18 months becoming well-known to people who had no idea who he was. That made him vulnerable in the fall, in part because of the political winds, but also because he isn’t well-known.

And when Andrew Romanoff stepped in, he was on — very much on the attack against Michael Bennet as somebody who had become a creature of special interests in Washington.

GWEN IFILL: Do the presidential endorsements, Clinton for Romanoff, and Obama for Bennet, make any difference at all?

DAN BALZ: They don’t seem to have made a lot of difference. I mean, Michael Bennet obviously has the support of the president and the national Democratic establishment. They have been hard at work for him.

The president made a call last week out to Colorado, a conference call, to supporters, urging them to get out and vote. Former President Clinton endorsed Andrew Romanoff. He did nothing else until today. He’s now done a little recording for him. But it doesn’t look as though either of those has been decisive. I mean, this is a battle that is very personal and in many ways very, very negative.


Jane Norton and Buck — what’s his first name? I just blanked on him.

DAN BALZ: Ken Buck.

GWEN IFILL: Ken Buck. How — that — is that as hostile as it looks, the whole high-heel-vs.-the-boots kind of…


DAN BALZ: It is. It is hostile. In some ways, I don’t think it’s as hostile as the now race between Bennet and Romanoff is. But it’s hostile because Jane Norton was the establishment favorite. She was recruited, among other people, by John Cornyn, who is the head of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee. She said that John McCain helped encourage her.

She looked like she was going to be the overwhelming favorite to win. And in the early stages of the race, she was. But Ken Buck was able to tap into that anger, small-government fervor that we have seen in other places and Tea Party activists in Colorado. And, as a result of that, because she wasn’t a particularly good candidate in the early stages of the race, he was able to get an advantage over her.

And I think, in the early part of the summer, it was clear that he had more momentum. Well, she of course then started to go after him in a negative way. And they have been firing back ever since. So, again, that race is too close to call. I think, a few weeks ago, you would have said Ken Buck was the likely winner, just because it seemed to be moving in his direction. I think, at this point, it’s not clear that that’s going to be the case.

GWEN IFILL: Kind of froze.

Scott McInnis and Dan Maes. Dan Maes is the Tea Party candidate, whatever — I don’t think what that really means in Colorado. Maybe you can tell me. Does this mean, because of Scott McInnis’s big plagiarism scandal stumble, does that make Dan Maes the likely nominee?

DAN BALZ: I don’t think it makes him the likely nominee. He — he is a flawed candidate in his own way. I mean, he was — paid recently the — one of the largest, if not the largest, fines in the history of the state for campaign finance violations.

He’s a political newcomer. He has some Tea Party support. There’s no question about that. But I think, if it were not for the plagiarism issue, Scott McInnis would win this primary. At this point, it’s too close to call.

And, depending on who wins it, we haven’t heard the last of who is going to be the Republican nominee for governor in that state. I think, if McInnis is the candidate, if he wins tomorrow, we could see some things playing out afterwards in which party leaders try to convince him to step down.

GWEN IFILL: It’s possible to over interpret the meaning of a single state in the national — in the national climate. But what — what are we watching for, for national interpretation for tomorrow night?

DAN BALZ: I think we’re watching for a couple of things. I think we are watching to see how much kind of anti-establishment energy there is out there. That’s one thing.

I think the second thing we’re watching for is a sign of whether there is any sort of movement away from Republicans in a year in which they are counting on the winds being at their back.

GWEN IFILL: And what — what — does anything happen between now and voting at this point? It’s a mail-in vote. So, it’s not like people can go to the ballot box…

DAN BALZ: I think there are some — a few places that are still — will have regular voting tomorrow. But most of the — most of the voting will have taken place by now. I mean, most of the ballots would have been mailed in by now. And we’re hopeful that we will get a fast count tomorrow night, so we can know the results.

GWEN IFILL: We will wait and we will see. And you will tell us all about it.

Thank you, Dan Balz.

DAN BALZ: Thank you, Gwen.