Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and his Republican challenger Ken Buck met for the third of six debates in Pueblo, Colorado on Thursday. In a hard hitting exchange Buck attacked Bennet on the Healthcare Reform law Bennet voted for earlier this year. "I would repeal the healthcare bill and I would do if for two reasons," Buck told the audience, "The first reason is that it was passed in a fundamentally corrupt way. The second reason is I don't believe in centralizing authority in the federal government."
Bennet replied that the law was good for the country overall, while acknowledging it had flaws that he had tried, and would continue trying to fix. "All of my amendments had to do with reducing costs. All of them had to do with transparency," Bennet said as some in the audience jeered. "You can laugh if you like, one of my amendments was the only amendment that passed with 100 votes in the U.S. Senate. We need to work together to improve this legislation."
Bennet was appointed to his Senate seat by Colorado Governor Bill Ritter when Senator Ken Salazar was picked to become Secretary of the Interior. (One would imagine that Salazar regrets changing jobs at this point. Salazar was fairly popular and well regarded in Coloradan during his time as the state's Attorney General and then as Senator. As Interior Secretary he has received a flood of criticism over his handling of the Gulf oil spill.) When Senator Bennet defeated a tough challenge from former Speaker of the Colorado House Andrew Romanoff in the Democratic Primary, it was the first time he had ever won and election. It was however, an election he wished he could have avoided, "Well I would much rather have spent the money in the general election rather than in the primary, but guess what, it wasn't up to me to decide whether there was going to be a primary or not. And I'm glad that we came out of the primary with the margin we did and we're ready to fight in the general election."
His opponent this time is Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck. Buck rode a wave of Tea Party support to capture the Republican nomination, defeating former Colorado Lt. Governor Jane Norton who had the backing of the party leadership in Washington. That leadership is now solidly behind Buck, a candidate who has criticized them nearly as much as he has the Obama administration, to raise money for his battle against Bennet. As Buck points out, "They still have a strong interest in gaining a majority in the United States Senate and they're willing to support me for that reason. They will not have as cohesive a caucus as they once had. There are a number of candidates that are going to win who are going back to Washington, D.C. with a completely different message. I have made absolutely clear to them that I will not be part of the establishment when it comes to spending and the programs that I disagree on."
Not surprisingly, the Bennet campaign works hard to portray Buck as a wild eyed extremist. In one Bennet approved TV ad a female doctor warns, "Ken Buck would ban common forms of birth control, and Ken Buck wants to make abortion illegal, even in cases of rape and incest. But that should be a woman's decision, not a politicians. As far as I'm concerned Ken Buck is just too extreme for Colorado."
The Buck camp portrays Bennet as part of the national political establishment. Buck says in one TV spot, "What's unfair to Colorado is Michael Bennet's record of over-spending, over-regulating and over-taxing. A rubber stamp for his friends in Washington, Bennet is legislating unemployment, spending money we don't have on programs we don't need."
In addition to the advertising paid for by the respective campaigns, outside groups including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Karl Rove backed American Crossroads have flooded the Colorado airwaves with attacks ads. According to the Sunlight Foundation nearly $4-million in outside money was spent on Colorado's Senate race in the first six weeks after the August 10 primary. The Colorado amount was second only to the $4.12-million spent by outside groups in the Pennsylvania Senate race. It is an indication of how important the national parties view this seat.
Despite the money being spent and acrimony of the race, most polls since the primary have remained stable, with Buck leading anywhere from 3% to 8%. The lack of change in the polls does not bode well for Senator Bennet according to political pollster Floyd Ciruli, "You're still 5 points or 8 points behind at this point and we're now into the sprint before early voting, you have got to be concerned. Because clearly the Democrats have thrown out their best argument, 'The opponent is extreme,' as you know they're making that argument in numerous races around the country and it hasn't taken here in Colorado."
The majority of Coloradans are expected to vote by mail in this election, and those ballots go out October 12th. The Bennet campaign has scheduled an Obama visit for October 14th, the day most most of those ballots will reach voters' mail boxes. Interestingly, it is not President Obama who will be here for the event. Polls show his popularity in Colorado is below the national average. Rather, it will be First Lady Michelle Obama trying to give Senator Michael Bennet a much needed boost before the campaign home stretch.