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Crashing the Parties in Colo.

Colorado Senate Underdogs Look for Upsets

Colorado’s recent political conventions provided setbacks for both parties’ frontrunners in the state’s open Senate seat election, as voters appeared to rebel against the efforts of state and national party leaders to handpick their nominees.

“When somebody from D.C. comes in and kind of dictates who the candidate should be there is a bit of blowback from that,” said Mike Miles, who narrowly upset state Attorney General Ken Salazar at the Democratic state Assembly to claim the top ballot slot in the Aug. 10 primary.

“There is a history of powerful people in states trying to handpick nominees and they are often wealthy people,” said Pat Fiske, campaign manager for former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R). “Often they lose because the activists rebuke that [effort].”

Schaffer defeated brewing mogul Pete Coors 61 percent to 39 percent in last weekend’s Republican convention, although the latter’s showing ensured him a slot on the primary ballot.

The campaigns of both Salazar and Coors argued that the convention results were not predictive given that they represented a sliver of the total primary day electorate.

“The pool of voters increases from 3,500 to 350,000,” said Coors spokeswoman Cinamon Watson. “It is clear that when people get to know Pete they like him and support him.”

Colorado political history is mixed when it comes to primary results matching convention outcomes.

In 1996, attorney Tom Strickland lost the Democratic Senate convention to University of Colorado Law School Dean Gene Nichol, but won the primary.

That same year, however, then-Rep. Wayne Allard upset state Attorney General Gale Norton at the Republican assembly and went on to win the subsequent primary and the general election.

In 1998, both now-Gov. Bill Owens and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell won the GOP convention and went on to win their respective primaries.

A strain of discontent appears to exist among grassroots activists on both sides of the aisle, following the candidate recruitment process in the unpredictable Senate race.

In the wake of Campbell’s March 3 announcement that he would not run again, both sides scrambled to unite behind a single candidate.

Senate Democrats saw those dreams go up in smoke at first as Rep. Mark Udall and wealthy philanthropist Rutt Bridges appeared set to face off in a primary. But both were driven from the race when Salazar entered with the tacit backing of national Democrats and public support of key local party leaders, including former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.

Miles, an educator who had been running for several years against Campbell, refused to back out, and many party activists who attended last month’s assembly appeared willing to reward him for his persistence and liberal leanings.

“There is always a significant element of ‘question authority’ that comes from the Democratic Party,” said Mike Stratton, Salazar’s campaign chairman. “That is healthy.”

Republicans suffered a more drawn-out recruitment process.

Schaffer quickly entered the race after Campbell’s announcement, but watched as state party leaders, led by Owens, searched for an alternative candidate, eventually settling on Coors, the scion of a family that owns the third largest brewery in America.

Watson denied, however, that her boss was in any way urged into the race by Owens or Campbell, both of whom have endorsed his candidacy.

“Pete was never recruited into this race,” she said. “He sought this position when it became clear that Republicans had not launched a strong candidate.”

Even so, Coors’ political operation, including Watson herself, are remnants of the staff that aided Campbell and Owens in their latest re-election races. Coors also employs the same pollster and media consultant that the governor and Senator used.

Regardless of Coors’ reasons for entering the race, it is clear that he plans to use his expected financial edge over Schaffer to launch a massive television onslaught in the eight weeks leading up to the primary.

“Our fundraising is going very well,” said Watson, noting that Coors has raised better than $1.2 million. None of that came from his own pocket, she added.

“Pete’s successful fundraising is going to aid us in getting our message to voters,” said Watson.

Coors began that television campaign on June 1 with a biography spot in which he describes himself as “Colorado businessman, a jobs creator.”

Fiske said that Coors’ focus on reaching voters via television reveals the chasm between the two campaigns’ strategy.

“This is classic grassroots versus AstroTurf,” said Fiske. “What was obvious on Saturday is that we have a phenomenal grassroots effort. It’s hard to fake that.”

Fiske estimated that 200,000 voters would comprise the primary electorate, adding: “The couple of thousand of people that voted for Bob on Saturday are representative of the kind of people that are going to vote on Aug. 10.”

Fiske said that fundraising has picked up since Schaffer’s convention victory and that the campaign would hit $500,000 raised later this week.

Fundraising remains the largest stumbling block for Schaffer’s chances, however, since Coors has the ability — and the inclination —to put a large sum into the race, which could overwhelm Schaffer’s candidacy.

In a fundraising letter recently sent out by the Coors campaign, the candidate pledges that he and his wife are “digging deep to help pay for the effort.”

Seeking to emphasize the positive, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Allen said that the convention results simply showed that “Republicans in Colorado will have two good candidates to choose from.”

If Schaffer’s margin at the Republican convention surprised some observers, Salazar’s defeat at the hands of Miles was downright shocking.

Miles took 52 percent to 48 percent for Salazar in the the late May convention.

“There was a fair amount of complacency on the part of our people,” Stratton conceded. “We have to have our organization perform at a better level.”

He noted that 400 delegates pledged to Salazar failed to show up and that Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s strong performance on the Democratic presidential ballot boosted Miles’ support. Both men opposed the war in Iraq; Salazar supported it.

Stratton argued that although his candidate does not have the top ballot position on Aug. 10, he remains a strong favorite.

“We have a mainstream candidate and a mainstream message,” said Stratton. “We are already on television and continue by everyone’s polling to have good leads on Coors and Schaffer.”

That sentiment was seconded by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse, who said he was “confident” Salazar will be the nominee.

Miles, who is not expected to remain within shouting distance of Salazar financially, said the Democratic frontrunner continues to misjudge the strength of his underdog campaign.

“We have been underestimated every single point along the way,” said Miles. “They have been dismissive and they are going to be surprised.”

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