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What Clues Did Colo., Conn., Ga. Voters Reveal?

August 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet's win came as good news to the Obama administration, but the senator would not say if he'd have the president campaign for him. Political Editor David Chalian speaks with Jim Lehrer about Tuesday's primary results and what they could mean for both parties.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And on to politics. Primary results from four states last night produced more clues about the shape of the 2010 midterm election season.

Ten weeks out from Election Day, voters on Tuesday gave both the president and the Tea Party something to smile about. The marquee race was in Colorado, where Democratic Senator Michael Bennet beat former State House Speaker Andrew Romanoff to win the nomination. Bennet was appointed last year, after Ken Salazar left the Senate to become interior secretary.

President Obama had endorsed Bennet, while former President Clinton endorsed Romanoff in the hard-fought primary race. Bennet’s eight-point win was a piece of good news for a beleaguered White House.

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: The president was proud to lend his name. We, I think, appeared over the course of the last week in get-out-the-vote mailings, television ads. The president participated in Senator Bennet’s tele-town hall.

JIM LEHRER: But with the Democratic primary behind him, Bennet wouldn’t commit today to have Mr. Obama back to campaign this fall against a Republican opponent.

SEN. MICHAEL BENNET,(D-Colo.): We will have to see. We will obviously do what’s right for the campaign. He’s been a huge help. And I appreciate his endorsement. And we will see what happens between now and November.

JIM LEHRER: Bennet will face Republican district attorney Ken Buck, with ties to the Tea Party movement. He claimed the mantle of outsider in beating former Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton.

KEN BUCK (R), Colorado senatorial candidate: Republicans have been sending their elected officials back to Washington, D.C., to change Congress, and, instead, those — those Republicans have been changed by Congress.

JIM LEHRER: In fact, Buck’s win was one-half of a big night for the Tea Party in the Rocky Mountain State. The other half was businessman Dan Maes and his upset win over former Congressman Scott McInnis to take the Republican nomination for governor.

Maes will face Denver’s Democratic mayor, John Hickenlooper, and a third-party candidate, former Congressman and anti-immigration crusader Tom Tancredo.

A Republican gubernatorial primary runoff in Georgia featured another proxy fight between national political figures.

SARAH PALIN (R), former Alaska governor: Show the nation how you are ready to bring it on, Georgia.

JIM LEHRER: There was Karen Handel, backed by Sarah Palin and former Congressman Nathan Deal, endorsed by two other potential presidential contenders, Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. Handel conceded the tight race today, clearing the way for Deal to face Democratic former Governor Roy Barnes.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JIM LEHRER: In Connecticut, Republicans nominated Linda McMahon for the U.S. Senate. She’s the former head of World Wrestling Entertainment.

WOMAN: Linda McMahon said she wouldn’t take any money from special interests either.

WOMAN: Well, how much did she take?

WOMAN: Not a dime.

JIM LEHRER: In fact, McMahon spent more than $20 million of her wrestling fortune in the primary. She will take on longtime Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to fill the seat of retiring Democrat Chris Dodd.

And to NewsHour political editor David Chalian.

Now, there are themes to be read into these results, beginning with Colorado. Let’s start there.

DAVID CHALIAN: Yes, the Democratic Senate race in Colorado.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

DAVID CHALIAN: As you said there in the piece, Jim, very welcome news at the White House today, because they avoided the headlines of, the Obama political operation is out of sorts. They won one here, and they won it big, by eight points.

They backed Michael Bennet, that appointed senator. And they needed — they needed a win here over Andrew Romanoff, the Bill Clinton-endorsed candidate. I do think that it is an ability for Barack Obama, a chance for him to show, hey, guys, to his party, I have some political mojo. Don’t count me out. I’m not on the mat.

But that’s within the context of a Democratic primary fight. That’s very different than the general election contest. And that’s why you heard Michael Bennet on that morning show this morning not saying, hey, here’s the date I would like to invite Barack Obama back to Colorado this fall. He started keeping his distance, because now he has to appeal to the broader electorate in Colorado, where Barack Obama’s not nearly as popular as he is inside the primary electorate.

JIM LEHRER: But is it conceivable that he could get away with that, turning his back on Obama now?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, I don’t think necessarily he will turn his back. I mean, he voted for the health care bill.

JIM LEHRER: He will just be very busy.

DAVID CHALIAN: He will just be very busy.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID CHALIAN: He will say that the president has other places to be. Exactly.

JIM LEHRER: Now, on the Republican side on the Senate — in the Senate race.

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, this is the other big theme, I think, of the night overall, and we saw it here in the Senate race on the Republican side.

Ken Buck was a Tea Party-backed candidate, and he upended that establishment candidate, Jane Norton, the former lieutenant governor there. This is the third Senate race now where we have seen a Tea Party-backed candidate, somebody who ran to the right, sort of embraced all that Tea Party energy, and actually emerged the nominee, even though they were not the preferred pick of Washington Republicans.

We have seen it in Nevada with Sharron Angle. We have seen it in Kentucky with Rand Paul, and now we have seen it with Ken Buck. Now, he has run to the right here, but he still has a lot of sort of mainstream credentials in his repertoire. So, this is by no means all of a sudden he’s some way-out, far-right, out of the mainstream of Colorado, and the contest is over.

This will be a hard-fought battleground contest between Michael Bennet and Ken Buck now. But Democrats are hopeful that they got the better Republican candidate, the more — the one that is more easily defeated because of his Tea Party ties.

JIM LEHRER: Buck vs. Bennet is going to be a careful race to watch, is it not?

DAVID CHALIAN: No doubt about it. It is a key state, Colorado. It will be a battleground state in the presidential. We have seen it tip to both parties in recent years. And this Senate race will tell us a lot in November about where the country is.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the Colorado governor’s race is also interesting.

DAVID CHALIAN: Right. Now, this one actually may be a lot easier for Democrats now.

Dan Maes, also a Tea Party-backed candidate, won against Scott McInnis, as you mentioned in the piece, the former congressman there. Here’s what complicates the governor’s race for Republicans, that third-party candidacy of Tom Tancredo, because now the conservative vote is going to be split on the right between Dan Maes, who has never run before, small businessman, and Tom Tancredo on the right.

John Hickenlooper, who had — the Denver mayor, who had no contest primary, looks like he has a real open shot to keeping that gubernatorial seat in Democratic hands this fall.

JIM LEHRER: And that would be kind of bad news for Republicans, who are looking, of course, for Colorado to come back as a really solid Republican state both ways.

DAVID CHALIAN: No doubt, yes. And, remember, we’re going into a redistricting here year because of the census numbers, and so these gubernatorial contests in these key states are very critical, not just for next year, but the next 10 years, in setting up the political cycle.

One senior Republican in Colorado, Jim, told me that, with Dan Maes as the nominee, that is their nightmare scenario that the Republicans are now facing in their own party in Colorado.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

All right, on to Georgia, and endorsements, particularly the Sarah Palin endorsement. Fit that into where — what happened last night.

DAVID CHALIAN: When we were talking this morning, I didn’t know that we would have a result to talk about tonight about this race.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

But Karen Handel was the backed candidate by Sarah Palin, and she just came up short, about 2,500 votes, against Nathan Deal, who won now the Republican nomination. She conceded today. She said she is not going to call for a recount.

This, though, is a big test for Sarah Palin, because now we’re seeing a real mixed record of folks she has endorsed. A lot of the House candidates she has endorsed have not emerged successful in their primaries. She has been better on the statewide races, Senate and governor. But, today, she lost this one.

In previous — about two weeks ago, in the Kansas Senate primary, she also backed the losing candidate. So, she really has a mixed record at this point.

JIM LEHRER: Isn’t it interesting that the Palin endorsement tally is important right now? Why is that important?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID CHALIAN: Oh, well, first of all, just the fascination factor…

JIM LEHRER: Fascination.

DAVID CHALIAN: … with all things Sarah Palin. We’re about that, but because she has a real following, especially on the — in the right wing of the Republican Party.

And that’s the wing that really, usually, drives primary elections. And so you watch her to see, is she activating a base so much that, in a primary, she can have a real impact? And, like I said, we’re seeing mixed results.

One Republican congressman in Georgia, Jack Kingston, today said on the radio down there, he said: I wish she would have stayed out of this contest. Sarah Palin seems to be dividing our party, when we need to be united.

He wasn’t pleased that she got involved.

JIM LEHRER: Connecticut, the victory in the Republican primary of Linda McMahon in the Senate race, what does that — how do you read that? Money?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID CHALIAN: No doubt it’s money. And she will be one of the most colorful characters that we cover this cycle because of her past as the CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment. So, there’s lots of colorful pictures of her in the wrestling ring.

But this is a case of money here. She poured $20 million, $22 million of her own money into this race. She’s willing to spend another $30 million. And in the general election contest — I will give you an example of what that means.

JIM LEHRER: It’s against Blumenthal, the…

DAVID CHALIAN: It’s against Blumenthal, the attorney general there on, the Democratic side.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID CHALIAN: She was 30 points back from Blumenthal in the polls just a couple of months ago. She’s now 10 points back. So, the money is having an impact, and this is going to be a race to watch.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Let’s go to some other things in politics. It was announced yesterday through the — the — I think it was the Department of Labor — that some of these Republican governors who had refused or said they were going to refuse to take federal stimulus money, it turned out, particularly in South Carolina, they did it quietly anyhow.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID CHALIAN: This is one of those great stories of what a difference a year makes and Mark Sanford’s political fortunes. He’s the governor in South Carolina, of course.

When he was first leading the charge amongst Republican governors to not take unemployment funds in the stimulus bill, it was when he was still very much considering a run for the White House in 2012. Well, obviously, after a walk down the Appalachian Trail and his own problems, personal problems with his marriage, that — those chances for a White House run have disintegrated.

And right now, we have learned that he’s taking tens upon tens of millions of stimulus dollars. He very quietly a couple of months ago arranged for this to happen, signing a bill from his legislature, unemployment money coming in to prop up the diminished unemployment funds in the state of South Carolina.

JIM LEHRER: It turns out a couple of other governors did the same thing, right?

DAVID CHALIAN: Yes, although they’re also — they’re doing it with complaining about some of the recent stimulus money, not the big stimulus bill that has passed. But we have seen Mitch Daniels in Indiana and elsewhere, governors complaining about this additional spending that Congress has been doing, but they’re actually putting it to use.

JIM LEHRER: Taking it. Taking it. Yes.

And, finally, quickly, David, Dan Rostenkowski died, another giant of the Congress — former Senator Ted Stevens — died today. Both of them had had hard falls, and — but here they are, as a matter of history, what they both — on both sides of the ledger, correct?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, there’s no doubt that their legislative legacies are intact. You called them giants. And they were chairmen and leaders and longtime members of the House and Senate.

But, of course, they both knew that their obituaries would be written with a remark about the ethics scandals that brought an end to each of their careers. So, that — that is a bit of what has tainted their long legislative records.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

David, thank you very much.

DAVID CHALIAN: Thank you.