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Who Will Face Bennet?

Appointee Could Get Challenger

After now-Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) was appointed last month over several more seasoned Democratic politicians, one of the lawmakers whom Bennet leapfrogged may be looking to challenge him in a Democratic primary next year, according to political insiders in the state.

Andrew Romanoff is the well-known former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives who made his interest in the Senate clear when then-Sen. Ken Salazar (D) was tapped as Interior secretary by President Barack Obama. Romanoff attended newspaper editorial board meetings, made use of a statewide network of supporters and did about as much as one can do to campaign for an appointed position.

There is no doubt that he had a significant following by the time he was passed over by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) in favor of Bennet in early January.

In the weeks since Bennet took office, Colorado Democrats continue to keep an eye on Romanoff — who left office in January because of term limits — to see whether he will challenge Ritter’s hand-picked successor.

Romanoff could not be reached for comment Monday, but multiple Colorado sources said there has been increasing chatter in political circles that Bennet will not make it through the 2010 primary without a serious challenge.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was a primary against Bennet,” said Steve Welchert, who heads up a Denver-based Democratic consulting firm. “It would shock me if he wasn’t challenged.”

Although as head of the Denver public school system Bennet was known as a policy innovator and creative thinker when it came to city issues, his political vulnerabilities are clear. He lacks elected politics experience and has low name recognition outside of Denver.

That issue was on stark display over the weekend when Bennet gave a speech to about 40 Democrats at a local party meeting in Jefferson County. The new Senator gave a short speech on the current federal stimulus plan before taking a question from a woman in the back of the room. According to a report on a Colorado political blog, the woman said: “I’m sorry, I like some of what you’re saying, but who the hell are you?”

According to an individual who was at the meeting, the woman may have been confused by an unclear introduction for the Senator.

Bennet’s campaign team, which he put in place within days of his appointment, is certain that Coloradans unfamiliar with the new Senator will soon see how effective he can be and why he impressed Ritter so much during his years working in Denver.

“Michael Bennet is focused on being the best Senator he can for Colorado and that will ultimately lead to his re-election,” said Bennet adviser Craig Hughes, a former senior adviser to Obama’s presidential campaign in Colorado.

One Colorado Democratic insider said a Romanoff candidacy would set up an intriguing primary dynamic.

Two months ago, Romanoff — who was mentioned as a possible candidate for the 2006 governor’s race — was seen as the man who would have had the party machine at his disposal. But with Ritter’s appointment, the balance has shifted dramatically.

“The outsider would be the insider and the powerhouse Speaker of the House would be the underdog” in a potential Romanoff- Bennet matchup, the insider argued.

But Romanoff is still well-connected in Denver and across the state. Some evidence of the breadth of that support has been on display in recent weeks.

In mid-December, Ritter asked Coloradans to e-mail him with their thoughts on who should be nominated for the Senate seat. The governor’s office received more than 3,000 e-mails from Coloradans. Last month, Ritter released about 10 percent of those after a request from the Associated Press. Those e-mails showed that Romanoff received about twice as much support as any other potential nominee.

In a primary, Bennet would presumably have Ritter’s machine backing him and he will have to rely heavily on fundraising in Denver, where he’s known the best. If Romanoff does throw his hat into the ring, it will be interesting to see how much the former Speaker will cut into Bennet’s cash flow in Denver and whether Ritter’s support can be offset by Romanoff’s connections elsewhere in the state.

Bennet supporters are certain that with Ritter and the national party’s support, the appointed Senator would win the fundraising battle with Romanoff handily.

Meanwhile, Republicans, who are eagerly eyeing the 2010 race, would be pleased to see Bennet in a tough primary fight.

“Any time the Democrats are facing a divisive primary, particularly when it is a competitive open seat, that benefits Republicans,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said Monday. “The reality is Mr. Bennet is untested and unknown, and that makes him vulnerable, regardless of who is facing him on the ticket.”

On the GOP side, ex-Reps. Bob Beauprez, Scott McInnis and Tom Tancredo have been mentioned as possible candidates in 2010.

A spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee argued that Bennet is doing everything that he needs to to position himself for victory in 2010.

“All early evidence indicates Sen. Bennet has hit the ground running and is doing very well,” DSCC Communications Director Eric Schultz said. “He’s being well-received by voters across the board, and we’re getting great feedback from around the state.”

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