The Washington Post recently called the Colorado Senate Democratic primary one of the most important in the nation, and a new Denver Post/9News poll's results are stunning: Former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff has now taken the lead over appointed Sen. Michael Bennet. I say this is stunning because Romanoff's progressive-themed campaign has closed a 17-point gap despite being outspent by about 8-to-1. Romanoff will be on my AM760 morning show Monday (8/2) at 8:30am Colorado time to discuss the state of the race. Tune in here. (Note: We are also inviting Sen. Bennet on as well as we always do - but he has most often refused to come on the show and remains unconfirmed for Monday's show at this time).
A question I keep being asked right now is: How should progressives look at this race?
It's a fair question, considering the records of the two candidates.
Bennet has cast some truly terrible votes, tried to dupe progressive voters on the public option, and got caught on tape trying to dupe voters on credit card reform. At the same time, Romanoff, while certainly a solid Democratic vote in the legislature, was hardly some Paul Wellstone or Bernie Sanders. In sum, both candidates are imperfect - and it is, thus, rational to wonder whether this primary has major implications for the progressive movement both here in Colorado and nationally?
I'd say it does, and here's why: While both candidates are imperfect, there are very clear differences between them on the issues (see here for a good run-down) and, as importantly, their candidacies differ in key ways.
Bennet has run one of the most D.C.-directed, top-down, Big Money campaigns I've ever seen run in any state I've ever lived in. He is one of the biggest recipients of corporate campaign cash in the entire U.S. Senate and has relied almost exclusively on the support of the Democratic Party Establishment. That kind of campaign comports not only with some terrible votes he's cast, but also with a career that has been the antithesis of anything you might call "grassroots" (he went from son of an ambassador to D.C. insider in the Clinton administration to corporate takeover executive for right-wing billionaire Phil Anschutz to appointee as Denver Public Schools chief to appointed senator).
Romanoff, by contrast, has run an almost purely grassroots campaign, has not taken corporate PAC money in this race, has taken concretely progressive positions and has made concrete pledges to cast progressive votes on specific issues. In short, his campaign has been all that any progressive could ask for in terms of structure, issue positions and funding - and the Denver Post/9News poll shows that his campaign is being specifically supported by the progressive base. As evidence, note this excerpt of the Denver Post's report on the poll:
The results show a surge for the former state House speaker since June, when he was 17 points behind, and are likely a reflection of a well-organized and passionate ground game, analysts say...Romanoff's movement is "dramatic," according to pollster Jay Leve of Survey USA, the firm that conducted the poll. Leve said Romanoff is finding support from voters in the Denver area; among voters younger than 50; and among people who call themselves "liberal."
Now, it's certainly true that Romanoff has constructed his campaign this way, in part, out of necessity - not necessarily purely out of principle. For instance, he couldn't raise the money Bennet has been able to raise because he's not as connected to D.C. and Big Money as Bennet is, and so he's been compelled to raise his money in a grassroots fashion. Likewise, he has run his campaign on progressive themes because that's a powerful way to critique a more conservative Democratic senator like Bennet.
But here's the thing: Why should progressive voters care about motive? If we accept that all politicians are, in some way, professional opportunists, then shouldn't our votes be equally opportunistic in the cause of furthering the progressive agenda?
In this particular Senate primary's case, the Romanoff campaign has created a progressive dynamic in Colorado Democratic politics whereby (according to polls) voters are rewarding a candidate's progressive candidacy with support, despite that candidacy being outspent 8-to-1. If Romanoff wins - or even comes close - it sends a message that Democratic candidates in the future will be rewarded by Democratic voters if they run progressive campaigns, and they will be punished if they run anti-progressive campaigns and cast anti-progressive votes. Isn't that precisely the dynamic that furthers the progressive agenda?
I'd say yes, and I'd also ask what the opposite would say. If Bennet wins overwhelmingly after casting the votes he's cast and running the kind of campaign he's run, wouldn't it only reinforce the idea that Democratic politicians should continue voting with corporate interests, running D.C.-centric top-down campaigns and behaving in a way that undermines the progressive agenda?
I say all of this, again, acknowledging that neither of these candidates is perfect and stating that I am officially neutral in this race (I've publicly praised and criticized both candidates at different times, and frankly, I like both candidates personally very much). Indeed, I haven't officially endorsed either candidate in this race because the only thing I care about is creating a progressive dynamic in Colorado politics - regardless of who wins the race. The Denver Post/9News poll is encouraging to me not because Romanoff may win, but because clearly the closeness of the race represents an uprising among many progressive voters, and sends a message that even if more conservative Democrat outspends a progressive campaign, that progressive campaign still has a shot to win. Ultimately, that dynamic is what will ensure more progressive change in the future - regardless of who wins a given Democratic primary.
This is an axiom more progressive voters and activists are better understanding, as evidenced not only by this Denver Post poll, but also by the Bill Halter primary challenge against Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas. Like Romanoff, he wasn't a perfect progressive candidate - he wasn't some Paul Wellstone. But his candidacy contributed to creating a progressive dynamic in electoral politics, whereby Democratic incumbents have to now fear a progressive-themed primary if they are too conservative. It's the same thing for the Romanoff candidacy - and the way the incumbents can avoid those kinds of primaries is to simply be more progressive. Which is exactly the dynamic - and end result - the progressive movement should want.