When Jane Norton, a former Colorado lieutenant governor, announced her Senate bid last year, the National Republican Senatorial Committee may have hoped for a cakewalk. Affable, noncontroversial, and pro-life, Norton was a known commodity and well-liked in Washington, especially by Sen. John McCain, who appreciated her work as state chair of his presidential campaign. According to the Denver Post, the NRSC went so far as to register a pair of websites in her name.
But while they didn’t constitute a formal endorsement, the websites stirred a “backlash” among party activists, explains Dick Wadhams, the state-GOP chair. Fed up with Washington minglers, many conservatives lost interest in the blonde-coiffed frontrunner. Capitalizing on their frustration was the Cinderella campaign of Ken Buck, a conservative district attorney from northern Colorado. Months later, propelled by tea-party fervor, Buck finds himself surging in the GOP primary.
Yet when I call him a “tea-party darling,” Buck balks. “I am a grassroots guy,” he says. “The tea-party people appreciate my message because, like me, they are fed up with Republicans and Democrats. But the tea party is just one reason, not the reason, my campaign is doing well. Conversing with conservatives in all 64 counties of this state is the reason for that. We’ve built a solid base.”
The Princeton-educated Buck first saw his campaign begin to gain major traction in March, when he won a state-GOP straw poll. Soon after, Norton skipped the state-party caucus. Critics say she was worried that she couldn’t capture the 30 percent of the caucus vote she’d need to get on the ballot, and felt safer doing so via petition signatures. She says she felt her time and effort was better spent interacting with people to collect signatures than appearing at the caucus.
Either way, with Norton on the sidelines, Buck was able to capture 77 percent of the caucus vote, earning top-line ballot status for August. “I just keep moving forward,” he says. “What happened at the state assembly was another example of our message being received.” Many convention goers, he adds, were “insulted” by Norton’s absence.
“This was supposed to be the presumptive nomination for Jane Norton,” muses a state-GOP official. “She avoided the assembly out of genuine concern that she wouldn’t pass the threshold to make the ballot. And she was probably right.” Still, as Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post observes, the caucus system in Colorado is a “very imperfect predictor of the eventual nominee,” since they’re “small-turnout affairs” controlled by an ideological cadre.
But as Buck, a former Justice Department attorney, has gained notice, the poll gap has narrowed. Norton now leads Buck by five points, 31 percent to 26 percent, according to a mid-May survey from Public Policy Polling. That’s a twelve-point drop from PPP’s March numbers, in which Norton outpaced Buck by a two-to-one margin. Tom Jensen, the poll’s director, notes that “Buck actually leads Norton, 34 percent to 30 percent, among Republicans who describe themselves as conservatives.” Buck, he observes, has also “seen a large gain in favorability” since the early spring, with 32 percent of primary voters viewing him positively, an eleven-point jump since March. Norton, meanwhile, has seen her popularity drop over the past couple months, from 41 percent to 34 percent.
Norton says she’s not worried about the slide. But she’s by no means comfortable with her slim lead. In April, she shook up her campaign, tapping highly regarded state senator Josh Penry, the Senate minority leader, as her new campaign manager. Rich Beeson, who served as a strategist on Scott Brown’s Senate campaign in Massachusetts earlier this year, has also joined her team. Chairing her campaign is her former statehouse partner, Gov. Bill Owens, who has begun to step into the fray to defend the Owens-Norton fiscal record — specifically “Referendum C,” a hotly debated, voter-approved lifting of restrictions on state spending in 2005.
“The insider label is unfair,” Norton laments. “It’s an unfounded accusation. I’m the private citizen in this race. The fact is that Ken Buck has been a lawyer working in government since the 1980s. While it’s in vogue right now to say you’re conservative, I’m the candidate who has walked the walk.” Buck, she complains, has been “besmirching” her for months, with “negative” attacks “against my character.” “We have strong grassroots support,” she argues. “We collected over 35,000 signatures to get on the ballot. . . . This is not a business as usual year, with the tea parties and the 9/12 movement.” Indeed.
Kenneth Bickers, the politics chairman at Colorado University at Boulder, says the differences between Buck and Norton are “mostly stylistic.” Buck, he says, is knowingly “playing up Norton as an insider, even though they agree on almost all of the issues.” Rep. Mike Coffman (R., Colo.) agrees. “There’s really not a dime’s worth of difference between the two on the issues,” he laughs. “Ken Buck comes across a little tougher.”
Come August, Bickers says, Buck’s strategy could backfire, “since a lot of his support is coming from unaffiliated voters who cannot vote in Colorado’s closed primary system.”
The money gap also remains a hurdle for Buck. Norton raised $816,000 in the first quarter of this year and has $600,000 on hand. Buck, meanwhile, raised just $218,000, a sum that includes a $100,000 personal loan, and has about $416,000 in the bank, waiting to be spent this summer. “We’ve been very frugal with our spending,” Buck says. “Remember, we don’t have D.C. lobbyists helping us out.” When presssed, Buck says he’s referencing Charlie Black, a lobbyist with close ties to McCain who hosted a fundraiser for Norton in Washington. Black also happens to be Norton’s brother-in-law.
Buck, however, has also benefited from Beltway friends and 527 organizations with deep pockets. The Campaign for Liberty, a group associated with Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, made a $350,000 ad buy for Buck. Americans for Job Security, a Virginia-based conservative group, has taken out more than $300,000 in ads for him. Unhappy with Buck’s out-of-state help, Norton’s campaign has filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission alleging improper coordination with outside groups. In a message to the FEC counsel obtained by Politico, Team Norton charges that Buck helped steer wealthy supporters toward groups outside of the campaign. At the time, Buck’s campaign called the claim “bogus,” an example of what “shaky candidates do when they can’t make the connection with voters.”
Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), the head of the Senate Conservatives Fund, has been a vocal Buck backer. He tells NRO that he admires how Buck has spent “months out on the road, working to attract grassroots voters, independents, and conservatives.”
“He didn’t go to Washington first, he went to the people of Colorado,” DeMint beams. “When I met him, I knew I was meeting a leader who wanted to be part of the American awakening in this country. I like that he’s not looking for Washington endorsements. It was my idea to step in, to highlight how the people of Colorado have a choice, and a real believer in core-conservative principles, in Ken Buck, a real solid alternative. . . . He’ll be an ally in the Senate. We could use four or five more Ken Bucks.”
Buck has also been endorsed by his former primary opponents, Tom Wiens and Steve Barton, as well as Erick Erickson of RedState.com, Brent Bozell’s Conservative Victory Committee, and numerous Colorado tea-party groups. “We’ve got to get this guy to the United States Senate, seriously,” Erickson says. “I hate to sound like Rush Limbaugh, but don’t doubt me on this one.” Norton, for her part, has been endorsed by the American Conservative Union, the Susan B. Anthony List, and the Family Research Council.
As in many GOP primaries across the country, immigration has become a central issue in this race. While serving as Weld County district attorney in 2008, Buck got his first whiff of the national spotlight when he led “Operation Numbers Game,” a county-wide effort to root out illegal immigrants. Raids were conducted on tax-return-help businesses that cater to Spanish-language speakers, and federal agents arrested more than 200 illegal workers at a meatpacking plant. Seizing thousands of documents, Buck allegedly found numerous instances of identity theft by illegal immigrants. For his efforts, he was roundly criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit against him. Ultimately, the Colorado Supreme Court, in a 4–3 ruling, deemed the initiative unconstitutional for violating the right to privacy.
Despite the Court’s decision, Buck stands by his work and says his “do-something” approach on immigration is well-received on the campaign trail. “There is reluctance on the federal level to do anything,” he says. “Coloradans demand action. We need to enforce the laws we have. People appreciate my strong position. Jane, however, has surrounded herself with amnesty types like John McCain for a long time. While she’s not in favor of amnesty now, that association hurts her credibility.” Buck adds that he’s in favor of an expanded guest-worker program for legal immigrants, once illegal immigration has been curbed.
Norton tells us that, like Buck, she’s a backer of Arizona’s new immigration law. Still, she calls Buck’s raids “troublesome.” “What bothers me about Ken Buck’s position is his ease in seizing private records,” she says. Challenging Buck’s record on the privacy front, and reaching out to Hispanic voters, she says, will be a “key part” of her campaign this summer.
So who is the better GOP candidate for November? Both, says Rasmussen. Its latest survey shows Norton and Buck leading incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet by the exact same margin, 48 percent to 41 percent. It also shows the duo leading Bennet’s primary opponent, former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff, by five points apiece. Bennet, predicts John Straayer, a political scientist at Colorado State University, would “be more vulnerable against Buck, since Buck on the stump is more aggressive and a more forceful persona, a real high-horsepower guy.”
Whoever wins the primary will have to woo Colorado’s large slice of independent voters, who constitute nearly one-third of the electorate. “I bring the same positive message to all groups,” Buck says. “I talk about the economy, jobs, immigration, and other problems we face. [Independents] know I’m running against the Republican and Democratic establishments.”
Regardless of who wins in August, “both of these candidates can win in November,” Wadhams says. “We have a lot of new faces and activists in the party and they’ll shape things. But when it comes to the issues, these two are almost identical, so I think we’ll be just fine. Sometimes a little excitement can be good.”
Especially if you’re bucking the party brass.
— Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.