Part I of III.
Battle ‘10 talked in an exclusive interview to Ken Buck, the Weld County district attorney who bested an establishment favorite for the GOP nod to vie for U.S. Senate against Colorado’s incumbent, appointed Sen. Michael Bennet.
For Buck, the road over the last 16 months really came down to his campaign’s organization and, perhaps most importantly, the strong “anti-establishment, anti-incumbent, anti-Washington” sentiment permeating the country.
“I think the contrast with Jane [Norton] worked out well given this anti-establishment sentiment that is in Colorado,” said Buck. “A lot of things came together, a lot of support from grassroots organizations, Tea Parties, 9/12s, liberty groups.”
Buck has been reluctant to discuss the circumstances of the reports from August 2009, which suggested that his campaign shut down last year following news of former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton’s entry into the primary. The news, broken first by local bloggers, that Norton’s entrance was tacitly endorsed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee gave Buck pause, he said.
“I took stock of it, I wanted to evaluate where I was and where I was going and what was best for the Republican party–how do we beat Michael Bennet–and so I hit the pause button on the VCR,” said Buck. “Not too many people have VCRs any more,” he chuckled. “But that’s what I did and took a weekend and thought about it and came back on Monday and called the staff together and said we are going [to continue the campaign].”
The campaign stayed afloat over the rest of 2009, and began 2010 with a new resource: assistance from outside groups like Campaign for Liberty and eventually Americans for Jobs Security, offsetting Buck’s own fundraising struggles.
But the tide was not simply a matter of money–the momentum was building even before Colorado’s byzantine caucus process in March. For Buck, the grassroots energy was palpable, and the night of March 16 provided the turning point. Ultimately, perceptions of RSCC involvement prompted a backlash in Colorado which allowed Buck to tap into resentment towards D.C. in the primary.
“It was caucus night. We felt comfortable that we were going to make a good run,” said Buck. “We didn’t know if we were going to win or come close, but either way we were going to win because we weren’t the establishment-backed candidate. We didn’t have the money. Our message was being heard real well, but we knew that people were going to take notice caucus night, and in fact, we won. And if you look at it, dollars per vote, it was a landslide. It was a one-percent victory but dollars per vote it was impressive.”
Buck still needed to navigate his way onto the Aug. 10 primary ballot. Norton decided to petition on, by collecting signatures from each of Colorado’s seven Congressional Districts, eliminating a showdown at the state assembly in May where Buck (and several other candidates) sought the “top line” and a secure spot in the primary.
Buck easily closed out the other hopefuls at the Republican assembly with 77 percent of the vote. Though a scheduled appearance by Sarah Palin the same night as the assembly looked to usurp some of Buck’s limelight as many observers expected a Palin endorsement of Norton–it never came–Buck had already begun to close the polling gap between himself and the establishment frontrunner, setting the stage for a raucous summer primary battle.
Buck felt that Norton’s decision to bypass the state assembly and petition onto the ballot cost her support at a critical time, putting her at a disadvantage in the head-to-head matchup.
“Huge. It did hurt her and it did help me, because it’s a zero-sum game in some ways and it was huge,” said Buck. “It was a big mistake for her to do that.”
Buck soon found himself riding high, buoyed by a stunning 16 point lead in the polls by late June. But he soon found himself nearly brought low by a string of verbal missteps and a series of attack ads in July that appeared to cut into his lead.
Buck shrugged off suggestions that his statements were purely hurtful to his campaign and, in fact, may have provided a measure of “authenticity” to his message.
“Those [comments] cut both ways. There are a lot of people that came up to me and said, ‘You know what, you are who you are and I respect that about somebody,’” said Buck. “There’s a saying ‘you are comfortable in your own skin.’ I kept hearing those things over and over from women and men. When the negative commercials were out, and the ‘gaffes’ were being talked about, I don’t think it was a net plus in terms of votes but I don’t think it was much of a net negative either. I think that people appreciate authenticity. I’m not one that’s ever ducked an interview or a meeting or anything. I’m happy to talk to people.”
Buck did not believe that the campaign made the decision to go negative in the primary, and instead place the blame on Washington handlers.
“My sense was that a lot of these decisions were being made out of DC, and that Josh [Penry, Norton campaign manager] was carrying out orders and he was better at carrying out the orders than his predecessor. I didn’t get a sense that Josh was deciding to go negative.”
The Norton campaign could not be reached for comment.
Now with the nomination secured, Buck looked to continue the message of fiscal responsibility while Norton herself helped bring post-primary unity by endorsing her former opponent and reaching out to her supporters to do the same.
“Jane [Norton], unbeknownst to me, has been calling her supporters and thanking them and having conversations with them about how they need to support me. She is a classy person and that’s a classy move,” acknowledged Buck. “I’ve been getting a lot of calls from her supporters after they get a call from her–they’re saying ‘Jane’s right, I need to support you and you’re a great candidate and what can we do to help?’”
As far as party “unity” was concerned, Buck asserted, “I don’t think we need a rally to do that. Republicans are afraid of what’s going on in D.C. and afraid that Michael Bennet is a rubber stamp and we will unify pretty naturally.”
To Buck, the Democrats’ rally was nothing but show. “I don’t know what their purpose is, all I know is that most of the people I talk to don’t buy into their message and they can massage it all they want, it’s still some sore muscles there,” said Buck.