Vying to Be the GOP Outsider in Colorado

It hasn’t garnered the attention of incumbent Republican Senator Bob Bennett’s ouster in Utah or conservative upstart Rand Paul’s ascendancy in Kentucky. But the purest parable of this election cycle may be the race unfolding in Colorado’s Republican Senate primary, which takes place Aug. 10.

The framework is all too familiar this election year. The insurgent candidate, county prosecutor Ken Buck, has surfed a wave of grass-roots energy and anti-Washington animus to a lead over the front runner, former lieut. governor Jane Norton. Buck, who nearly bowed out of the race last August when Norton jumped in, has earned the imprimatur of the GOP’s conservative kingmaker, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, the favor of Tea Party activists and the cash of a well-funded interest group. The groundswell of support has helped him open a 53% to 37% lead, according to a poll taken late last month.

Norton, who boasts the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List and a slew of sitting Senators, has tried to blunt Buck’s momentum by wresting the “outsider” mantle back. On July 9, she made headlines by saying there was “a real measure of truth” to former Representative Tom Tancredo’s assertion — made while the outspoken former Colorado Congressman was stumping for Buck — that the greatest threat to the U.S. was President Obama himself. For the record, Buck thinks she’s wrong. “It’s the progressive liberal movement,” he says.

What’s more striking than the rhetoric on this particular contretemps, however, is that the two candidates actually have few substantive disagreements. Both Buck and Norton are against higher taxes, cap and trade, abortion, illegal immigration, health care reform, same-sex marriage and Big Government. Norton wants to eliminate the Department of Education, while Buck advocates cutting subsidies for Amtrak, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“We’re not identical,” he says. “We have differences.” Asked to name a few, Buck mentions Norton’s support of a 2005 referendum that suspended state spending limits and his belief in congressional term limits — a perpetual pipe dream that would require a constitutional amendment driven by the very people it would remove from power. (Josh Penry, Norton’s campaign manager, says Norton fully supports such a measure as well). After several seconds, he finally adds to that list the war in Afghanistan: he advocates drawing down troops after securing the region, and Norton advocates “doubling down.” It’s one thing to reshuffle a race by staking out points of difference; it’s a trickier feat when you and your opponent look more or less the same.

John Straayer, a political-science professor at Colorado State University, says part of Buck’s surge flows from his dogged campaign and superior stage presence. But Straayer attributes much of Buck’s momentum to a narrative that, while seeming rubbery and reheated, continues to resonate with voters: outsiders are in, the Establishment is poisonous, and a political résumé is the surest sign that a candidate can’t be trusted. “Buck traveled and traveled and traveled. He made himself accessible,” Straayer says, adding that “in some measure, Buck’s success is all about Jane Norton, in that she was viewed as an insider. And an element of the Republican Party isn’t interested in insiders.”

Norton’s camp bristles at this idea. “The idea that Ken’s an outsider is an utter work of fiction,” says Penry, who adds that the campaign’s internal polling has Norton ahead. “The echo chamber in Washington has made a lot of that. The truth is, Ken is in this race solely because of the huge money he’s getting from Washington.” Americans for Job Security, a conservative Virginia-based organization, has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into ad buys on Buck’s behalf. (For her part, Norton has run a spot highlighting Buck’s association with “shady interest groups.”)

Rob Jordan, vice president for state and national campaigns at FreedomWorks — a Washington-based conservative organization that has endorsed Buck but is not spending money on the race — points to Norton’s support of Referendum C, the 2005 spending initiative, as a “major red flag.” Says Jordan: “We feel like Jane Norton, if she’s backed into a corner, will raise taxes or support a bailout or do some other things Republicans do when they get backed into corners.” Earlier this month, Buck reported having $664,000 in his coffers, while Norton reported slightly more than $600,000 despite a sizable edge in fundraising.

Colorado Democrats are relishing the Republicans’ bruising primary battle. “It’s clear that this is not the race they thought they were going to have. Last fall, they had a totally different candidate in mind,” says Pat Waak, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party. “Each [candidate] is trying to out-extreme the other, which is fascinating to watch, given that Colorado tends to be a centrist state. It will be interesting to see them try to scramble back to the middle.”

A recent Rasmussen poll, however, found both Norton and Buck leading hypothetical matchups against the two candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination: former Colorado house speaker Andrew Romanoff and incumbent Senator Michael Bennet, who was appointed to the seat in January 2009 when Ken Salazar became Obama’s Interior Secretary. Both Democrats are also trying to cast themselves as crusading outsiders capable of delivering much needed reform to Capitol Hill. In Colorado, it seems the one thing every candidate can agree on is that sprinting away from Washington is the best way to make it there.