Despite polling showing Ken Buck with a lead or within the margin of error (in Democratic-leaning polls) since the primary in August, it appears that appointed Sen. Michael Bennet stands a strong chance of being elected to a full term. He currently holds a 7,000 vote lead, though this would still be close enough to trigger an automatic recount.
At least for the U.S. Senate race, three factors appear to have allowed Bennet to close a gap in the final days of the campaign. A social media induced storm of commentary starting on the left side of the blogosphere reintroduced a non-story that gave Bennet a key wedge to attack Buck with that targeted women: a refusal to prosecute a weak rape case that even the female Boulder county DA said was unwinnable. That happened in 2005, but a progressive group “shopped” the story, and finding no takers in the mainstream media, allowed the left-leaning Colorado Independent to publish the story–and put it into the “mainstream.” That citation was eventually used in attack ads that pounced on “Buck doesn’t care about women” meme that the Bennet campaign pushed since August. If Bennet ultimately wins, it will be because Buck lost with women by a large margin. Buck inadvertently compounded the story by asserting that being gay was akin to alchoholism, all within the same week.
Second, the fractured Tea Party movement, having seen its gubernatorial candidate implode, eroded Republican cohesion and a unified GOP ticket. That helped draw down momentum from the Buck campaign, introducing upstream voter apathy about the U.S. Senate race as the governor’s race devolved into a two party conservative split between nominal Republican candidate Dan Maes and American Constitution Party candidate and former Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo.
Finally, the get-out-the-vote effort installed by the “Colorado Model” and Democratic donors ahead of the 2004 election may have saved the day for Bennet, turning out Democratic voters in a tough political environment and allowing the party to stay just ahead in key battleground counties in the suburban Denver metro area that provided a counter to Republican strength elsewhere. The vote margins were small–there were no blowouts in the counties outside of the Boulder-Denver corridor, but leads of a few thousand votes in places like Adams, Arapahoe, Jefferson and Larimer counties appear to be the key to Bennet retaining his seat.
Republicans will also mull over the potential reasons why so many polls–and strong favorable partisan early voting returns–failed to produce a victory. Very few polls showed Bennet in the lead, though he managed to stay with the margin of error, but appeared to indicate that Buck could eke out a narrow 1-2 percent victory. Even after the rape case and gay gaffe broke during the first week of early voting, Republicans showed strong early returns as the partisan ballot advantage appeared to be playing heavily in their favor. Ultimately, concerted Democratic messaging appears to have swayed women voters and independents in suburban Denver, eliminating the polling advantages that Buck enjoyed earlier in October.