Rocky Mountain High-Minded Pick

But Does Bennet Have the Chops?

Posted January 5, 2009 at 6:23pm

Since being appointed over several more seasoned Democratic politicians to replace Interior Secretary nominee Ken Salazar in the Senate, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet has begun putting a political team together for his first bid at elected office.

Salazar was a clear favorite for re-election in 2010, but Gov. Bill Ritter’s (D) appointment Saturday of Bennet to the Senate has political oddsmakers reconsidering their projections in the battleground state of Colorado this cycle.

Although Bennet is known as a policy innovator and creative thinker when it comes to city issues, Republicans see opportunity in his lack of electoral experience and low name recognition outside of Denver.

On Capitol Hill on Monday, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said Bennet “seems like quite an accomplished individual … but he’s never run for election before. My job … is to win some Senate seats for Republicans, so I think that you’d have to regard [Colorado] as an opportunity given the right candidate.”

But Cornyn was hesitant to name names when asked who that candidate might be.

“Some of that is self-selected, but we’ll also be doing some active recruiting and we’ll be turning our attention to Colorado,” he said.

For now, popular state Attorney General John Suthers (R) has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Senate seat along with former Reps. Bob Beauprez, Scott McInnis and Tom Tancredo. McInnis lavishly praised Bennet in an interview with the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel over the weekend. Former University of Denver President Marc Holtzman’s name has also been floated as a possible Republican candidate, but he’s more likely to take on Ritter in 2010.

In a brief interview outside Salazar’s office on Monday, Bennet — who was on Capitol Hill to work on transition issues with Salazar and his staff — brushed off talk that Republicans were licking their lips at the prospect of taking him on in 2010.

“I’ve never run for office before, that’s quite true,” he said. “I have been involved in a lot of other people’s campaigns. And if I didn’t think I could hold the seat, I certainly wouldn’t have accepted it. I think we’re going to impress a lot of people.”

Bennet has spent three years as a reform-minded superintendent of the Denver schools, and he’s won national praise from both parties for increasing test scores, particularly for minority students. He reportedly was a finalist to become President-elect Barack Obama’s secretary of Education.

Prior to his time as superintendent, he served for two years as the chief of staff to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who also was reportedly a finalist for the Senate appointment.

One Colorado political insider who has worked with Bennet in Denver said Monday that one of the reasons Ritter picked Bennet is because “he has one of the best political minds. Not political in the traditional slimy ambitious sense, but political in the sense of truly understanding how things work.”

The operative added that Bennet “will not need coddling” nor will he allow himself to be pushed into doing something he doesn’t believe is right.

Bennet said he’s currently working to put together “a world-class political operation.”

“There are a lot of incredibly capable people both in Colorado and outside Colorado who do this work well, and a lot of them are friends of mine,” he said.

On Monday afternoon, a few details about his political operation began to be made public.

Overseeing Bennet’s political team is Craig Hughes, a former senior adviser to Obama’s presidential campaign in Colorado. Hughes has worked at the Denver-based RBI Strategy and Research since 2000 and is currently director of research for the firm. He previously served as Eastern political director in the Clinton White House from 1998 to 2000.

“We’re moving at lightning speed” to build a campaign team, Hughes said Monday.

Handling press for Bennet is Matt Chandler, who previously served as press secretary for Obama’s Colorado campaign.

On Monday, Rep. Diana DeGette (D), who took herself out of the running for the Senate post on Dec. 31, praised Bennet’s choice of Hughes to lead his political team.

“Craig Hughes is a very talented political operative, and he knows what to do,” DeGette said. The Congresswoman added that she has also worked with RBI Strategies and praised the firm because it is Colorado-based but plays on the national level.

“We clearly need to hold this seat in 2010, and frankly there’s going to be a bull’s eye on Michael’s back from Day One,” DeGette said. “The good news is he has a two-year head start on the race … and I think that the Democratic activists in Colorado were surprised by the appointment, but I think there is a willingness out here among the activists to help out.”

She added that Bennet’s low initial name-ID statewide may also be less of a liability than the GOP would like to believe. When Ritter ran for governor in 2006, he was a district attorney who was little known outside Denver.

“But by really putting together a strong campaign organization and getting out there and talking to people [Ritter] was able to put together a successful campaign for governor, and I think Michael will be the same way,” she said.