Romanoff Wins Democratic Caucuses; GOP Senate Contest Still Close

05/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

DENVER (AP) -- Disgruntled Colorado voters in both major parties rejected political insiders in straw poll results at caucuses around the state that exposed deep unease with two Senate candidates seen as favored by Washington party bigwigs.

Tuesday's Republican and Democratic caucuses were just the first step for party nominations in Colorado. The nominees won't be picked until the Aug. 10 primaries - and in Colorado, caucus success sometimes bears little influence on who ultimately wins a nomination.

Few party leaders seemed surprised that rebellious sentiment pervaded both party caucuses, a possible warning sign for Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, both of whom have large fundraising advantages over their opponents.

Colorado Democrats snubbed Sen. Michael Bennet in precinct straw polls in favor of a former state House speaker who railed against national Democratic leadership. Andrew Romanoff defeated Bennet handliy, even though Bennet swamped him in fundraising and had the blessing of top Democrats, including President Barack Obama.

The president campaigned in Denver last month for Bennet, who is considered one of the more vulnerable Democratic senators this fall. But the star power didn't sway Colorado Democrats who said they're disenchanted with party leaders in Congress.

"The same people still own and run Washington, no matter what party," said 72-year-old Denver Democrat Jeanette McIntosh, who chose Romanoff.

In Republican caucuses, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton lost narrowly to Ken Buck, a northern Colorado prosecutor.

Buck trails Norton badly in fundraising but was backed by several tea party groups who have criticized Norton as a Washington-backed insider. Norton's brother-in-law, Charlie Black, is a powerful Republican lobbyist who advised Sen. John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Buck said his showing was evidence of conservatives' unrest with the GOP.

"Republicans want Republicans to act like Republicans. I say, 'Game on,'" Buck said Tuesday night.

Even the front-runners seemed aware of the discontent among party faithful.

Bennet talks as if he's not an incumbent in his first television ad, which is set to air Wednesday in Denver and Colorado Springs. He reminds voters he hasn't been in Congress long - he was appointed last year when Ken Salazar resigned to become interior secretary - and refers to sitting lawmakers as "them," instead of "us."

"I've been in Washington for only a year," he says. "But it didn't take that long to see the whole place is broken. It's time to give them a wake-up call."

Norton spent the evening at a caucus shaking hands with suburban Denver voters and downplaying her front-runner image.

"I don't see myself as the front-runner," Norton said. "I see myself as the one who represents Colorado values."

Party members also picked favorites in the governor's race, but that contest was less exciting on both sides.

Democrats had no race at all: No one has announced that they'll take on Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper to become the party's candidate to replace retiring Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.

Republicans handed former Rep. Scott McInnis a wide victory over little-known Evergreen businessman Dan Maes. McInnis seized more than 60 percent of the caucus vote, even though Maes had courted tea party activists.

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UPDATE (11:25): With 94% of precincts reporting, Ken Buck leads Jane Norton by 29 delegates, or 0.12%.

UPDATE (11:05): The spin begins. In an email, Bennet spokesman Craig Hughes declared the night a victory. "Competing against a political network built over nearly two decades is never easy, but not only did our opponent not do as well as expected, tonight gave us the opportunity to build a valuable grassroots base that will help us win in the fall," Hughes wrote.

Denver Post political editor Curtis Hubbard agrees, tweeting:

Romanoff in danger of dropping below 50%. Have to believe the campaign was hoping for a bigger margin of victory (Bennet at 42) #caucusCO

UPDATE (10:30): The last GOP update from 10:10 had Norton leading Ken Buck by less than 1% with 89% of the state reporting. Buck has run strong in Larimer County, which has reported only 30% of its results.

UPDATE (10:00):: The pivotal Denver County results are in. Andrew Romanoff secured 3318 Delegates (60.05) to Bennet's 1963 (35.53%). Romanoff leads statewide 53.44% to 41.24%. with 1951 precincts reporting.

Meanwhile, Jane Norton narrowly leads Ken Buck with 74.71% of precincts reporting. Norton, the frontrunner, has secured 38.29% of delegates to Buck's 34.35%.

(Live Coverage Below)

With the 2010 Colorado caucuses upon us, party insiders and campaign staffers are working to temper expectations for 'establishment' candidates.

The Hill points out that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which supports the incumbent Michael Bennet, is downplaying the significance of the caucuses by pointing out that former Democratic Colorado Senators Ken Salazar and Tom Strickland both lost the party caucuses before going on to win the party's nomination in the August primaries.

Bennet is expected to face a stiff challenge Tuesday night from former State House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who counters Bennet's national support and money advantage with endorsements from dozens of state legislators and party activists. Although the most recent public polling showed Bennet ahead 40%-34%, Romanoff's local connections are expected to give him a big advantage in the caucuses.

The DSCC is also sending out press clippings that raise expectations for Romanoff.

Meanwhile, Nate Strauch, a spokesman for Republican front-runner Jane Norton,downplayed the results of the caucus in an interview with Politco, saying "the straw poll is a sideshow to the real purpose of tomorrow night: electing delegates to begin the nominating process. We're not taking anything for granted, and an unscientific straw poll isn't going to change our strategy one bit."

Polling shows Norton with a significant lead over her closest competitor, Ken Buck. Buck, however, recently received the endorsement of the state's largest tea party group. The state's right wing organizations are expected to make a big impact at Republican caucuses across the state.

Recent polling showed Norton with a smaller advantage against self-described 'conservatives' than she has against 'moderates.'

Check out, and contribute to, live coverage from the Colorado Political Institute Below:

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