Bennet bucks massive red tide in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

After a late night awaiting results from four of Colorado’s largest counties long after polls had closed, Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet claimed victory over Republican Ken Buck in a contest that lived up to its billing as the closest Senate race in the country.

Bennet, a political novice appointed to the seat 22 months ago, won his first general election with 47.7 percent of the vote to Buck’s 46.8 percent. At press time, he held a lead of roughly 15,000 votes out of more than 1.6 million cast, comfortably outside the margin that would trigger an automatic recount.

Sen. Michael Bennet declares victory in the Colorado Senate race on Wednesday at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Standing with him are his daughter Caroline, left, his wife Susan Daggett, Sen. Mark Udall, and daughters Anne and Halina.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Sen. Michael Bennet hugs his wife, Susan Dagget, during a press conference declaring victory in the Colorado Senate race on Wednesday at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, as Sen. Mark Udall, right, applauds.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Sen. Mark Udall, center, savors the moment with Gov. Bill Ritter, left, and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb after a Wednesday press confer- ence at which Sen. Michael Bennet declared he had won the close Colorado Senate race. Ritter appointed Bennet to the seat 22 months ago.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Susanne Bennet, the senator’s mother, embraces her granddaughters during Sen. Bennet’s speech.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Adrianne Marsh, deputy campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, left, shares a moment with Bennet’s wife, Susan Daggett.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Governor-elect and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, center, bestows a victory kiss on Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak at the same time a supporter’s puppy dog kisses Halina Bennet, daughter of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“This morning, the prognosticators and pundits are spending a lot of time dissecting this election, dividing this country into red and blue, winners and losers,” Bennet said at a press conference called to declare victory at noon Wednesday outside the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. “They will go state by state, arguing who deserves blame and what the results mean for the next election. And when they get to Colorado, let me tell you, they’re not going to know what happened.”

Buck conceded the race and offered his congratulations in a phone call to Bennet at about 3 p.m. Wednesday, Buck’s campaign said. Noting that the “final margin in the race is very small,” a Buck spokesman said that “Colorado voters have spoken and he wishes Senator Bennet well.”

“My Senate campaign has been the experience of a lifetime,” Buck said in a statement released by his campaign. “I will be forever grateful to the thousands of Coloradans who helped make this grassroots journey possible.”

With 97.9 percent of precincts reporting, Bennet had 799,072 votes to Buck’s 783,426. County clerks must certify results by Nov. 19 and the Colorado Secretary of State will post official results a week later.

Bennet didn’t just dodge a bullet, he sidestepped a shotgun blast that took out Democrats across the country and up and down the ballot in Colorado.

The nail-biter — along with an easier win by Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper in a race against a fractured Republican Party — tempered a powerful Republican wave that shifted control of the House of Representatives, governors’ mansions and statehouses nationwide. In Colorado, voters handed Republicans two congressional seats, two statewide executive offices and control of the state House.

“This is definitely a race for the record books,” Bennet said at the Wednesday press conference.

It was a race defined by superlatives.

The razor-thin margin — which wasn’t firm until around dawn the morning after polls closed — made it the closest Senate election Colorado has seen in more than five decades, as well as the most competitive one in the country this year. With spending by the candidates and outside groups nearing $40 million, it was also the most expensive election of any kind in state history. That sum also made it the priciest U.S. Senate race anywhere this year.

After both sides had battered each other for months with a seemingly endless torrent of television commercials — Bennet’s ads painted Buck as an extremist on a number of policies and third-party ads labeled Bennet a rubber-stamp for the Obama administration and massive deficit spending — the candidates spent the days leading up to the election criss-crossing the state while massive voter turnout machines chased ballots.

That’s what sealed Bennet’s narrow win — “about 5 votes per precinct, so this goes down as one of the all-time close ones” — campaign manager Craig Hughes said the day after the election.

“Getting the message out at the door was the margin of victory,” Hughes said. “There were so many TV ads from all the different races — Senate, congressional, gubernatorial — that the door-to-door, face-to-face contact, delivering the message that the voters want to hear, about moving past the old political games with new leadership, made all the difference.”

Thousands of volunteers and staffers combed the streets throughout the state on Election Day, urging hundreds of thousands of voters to drop off mail ballots or make it to the polls, Hughes said.

After a quick round of televised interviews meant to compel last-minute voters to the polls, Bennet spent election night surrounded by family, staff and top supporters in a hotel suite high above the election night party down below. Along with other Democratic candidates, Bennet and his entourage occupied rooms on upper floors at the City Center Marriott in downtown Denver while more than a thousand Democrats celebrated wins, lamented losses, and chased returns in the ballroom downstairs.

Bennet, the former Denver Public Schools superintendent, and Buck, the Weld County district attorney, both survived expensive primary challenges and then spent nearly three months locked in what pre-election polls portrayed as a neck-and-neck contest. Except for a couple of surveys released by Republican-leaning outfits — showing Buck opening up a lead outside the margin of error the week before the election — most polls showed the race in a statistical dead heat.

Results after the polls closed on Tuesday mimicked the surveys, as the two candidates traded narrow leads through the night. At about 10:30 p.m., Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak took the stage at the Marriott to warn the boisterous crowd the Senate race might not be decided any time soon. As she began speaking, strains of the Bon Jovi song “Living on a Prayer” were still echoing in the hall.

After midnight, both campaigns promised outstanding returns from El Paso, Boulder, Denver, Arapahoe and a passel of rural counties would be enough to tilt the election their way.

Bennet campaign spokesman Trevor Kincaid climbed the podium before a nearly empty ballroom in the Marriott basement just before 2 a.m. to say the numbers showed his candidate would wake up a winner.

“With the ballots that remain, we are confident that when all the ballots are counted, Michael Bennet will remain the senator from Colorado,” Kincaid said. At that time, Buck held a reported lead of between several hundred and several thousand votes, depending on which late results were showing up on which tallies.

But that lead would vanish, Kincaid said. There were still roughly 15,000 votes to report from Denver, where Bennet was winning 3-to-1, and a whopping 32,000 votes left in Boulder, where the Democrat was leading 2-to-1, according to the Bennet campaign. That was enough to render it impossible for Buck to make up the difference with an estimated 5,000 votes unreported from El Paso County, where Buck was winning by a smaller margin, Kincaid said.
Describing the previous night as “a huge rollercoaster,” Susan Dagget, Bennet’s wife, recalled on Wednesday that the couple finally went to sleep at about 3 a.m., when official returns still had the Democrat trailing narrowly. But there were enough votes still unreported from Democratic strongholds, she said, she was confident she would wake up with Colorado’s next senator. “We went to bed down, and we got up up,” she said with a weary smile later that afternoon.

At about 8 a.m. The Denver Post was the first to call the race for Bennet, concluding his several-thousand vote lead would only grow as more returns rolled in. It did, and other news organizations followed suit through the morning. The gold standard — a declaration by the Associated Press — didn’t arrive until mid afternoon, a couple hours after Bennet declared victory and about a half hour before Buck called Bennet to concede the race.

As his mother, Susanne, his wife and their three daughters, Caroline, Halina and Anne, stood alongside, Bennet celebrated his election in the face of a Republican head-wind. A phalanx of Democratic elected officials flanked the family, including governor-elect and current Denver Mayor Hickenlooper, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter, and Gov. Bill Ritter, who named Bennet to the Senate seat when Ken Salazar took an appointment as secretary of interior.

“This election, and our campaign, were never about sending some sort of political message,” Bennet said. “It was never about the latest poll or attack ad. This election was about all of you. It was always about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work rebuilding our state and our country.”

Bennet, whose campaign consistently railed against a “broken” Washington and a dysfunctional Senate, sounded the same themes now that he was no longer campaigning: “This election was about fixing Washington and rebuilding our politics so that it’s worthy of the aspirations we all share.”

Even though Buck wouldn’t concede the race for another couple hours, Bennet extended praise toward his former foe.

“I want to say a word about my opponent, Ken Buck, who fought hard in this race,” he said. “I congratulate him on his race, and I honor him on his commitment to public service.”

But then he warned against drawing the wrong conclusions after so tough a battle.

“Because our differences were stark and the race was very close, some will read into this outcome that Coloradans are deeply divided. I can tell you that that would be a mistake,” Bennet said. “What I've heard over and over is that the aspirations we all have for our families and our communities are so much more shared and so much more powerful than the trivial issues and false choices politicians and TV talking heads try to divide us with.”

Acknowledging the voter anger that has swept the country, Bennet suggested a middle path: “People don’t want to eliminate government, and they don’t want big government,” he said. “They want an efficient, effective government that works hard for them or gets out of the way.”

After Bennet spoke, an ecstatic Ritter told The Colorado Statesman he was happy voters had endorsed his pick.

“I think the thing that I saw from the very beginning about Michael Bennet, over time a lot of people in this state came to understand,” Ritter said.

Noting that Colorado is “a purple state, at best, under the most difficult of political circumstances,” Ritter gave the credit for Bennet’s win to the candidate and his campaign.

“This kind of race was lost by Democrats in a lot of other places in the country, maybe the exception of Nevada,” Ritter said. “The people of Colorado bucked that trend. They did that because Michael worked harder than any other candidate I’ve ever seen. He had a great field game. At the end of the day it came down to who you’re going to get out to vote. His campaign got all the right people the people they needed to get to the polls.”

Waak, who mentioned she hadn’t gotten any sleep the night before and was “running on adrenaline,” echoed Ritter’s assessment.

“This has been a tough year in Colorado because of the national climate” she said,” but in the end Coloradans come through with their common sense and make good decisions, and Michael Bennet is a good decision.”

At about the time polls closed in Colorado, the national media proclaimed Republicans had taken over the House of Representatives — the only question remaining was whether it would be a historic landslide for the GOP. (When the dust settled, it turns out it was a nearly unprecedented swing in power, with Republicans taking a net 60 seats from Democrats, the biggest mid-term shift since 1938.)

But by the time the Buck-Bennet race was creeping past midnight — still too close to call — it was clear control of the Senate wouldn’t depend on the Colorado results. By posting wins in Delaware, Connecticut, West Virginia and Nevada, on top of projected wins in California and Washington, Democrats went to sleep confident they hadn’t lost their Senate majority. Republicans, for their part, kept it close by taking close races in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Wisconsin, on top of expected wins in Florida, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.

That knowledge didn’t ease the tension one bit at the Democratic gathering in Denver.

Shortly before 11 p.m., a misplaced finger on a computer keyboard threw the race into a tizzy that took about an hour to set right.

Boulder County posted results from early voting that showed Bennet with 55,106 votes, leading Buck by about 2-to-1 in the heavily Democratic county. But when the new numbers were entered into a new database, instead of showing Buck with 24,185 votes, the Republican’s total showed up as 64,185 — a 40,000-vote difference that was enough to catapult Buck into a commanding lead, at least as far as viewers and web-surfers were concerned.

Suddenly, the race seemed to have turned on its head. Late-night television news commentators gamely pontificated that Buck was finally finding his votes, just as polls had been predicting. The Democrats at the Marriott visibly deflated when the totals flashed on the giant monitors. But it wasn’t to last.

Within minutes, Kincaid was busy assuring reporters the numbers weren’t right, and that the error had been traced to a typo in the Boulder results disseminated by the Associated Press. Before long, television anchors were telling viewers the numbers they were showing were probably wrong, but they didn’t know what the right numbers were.

The spectacle continued for a while even as bloggers pointed out the error — and the absurdity of Buck jumping out in front based on a big win in Boulder. Eventually, televised totals and website results updated with the accurate numbers, and the race was bunched up again, where it would remain for hours.

While that temporary error was the fault of news agencies, otherwise slow reporting out of Boulder came as little surprise — it was the third election in recent years that Boulder’s vote count held up statewide results — but nonetheless vexed observers.

“They seem year after year to have a problem getting their ballots counted,” Waak said the day after the election.

But it wasn’t just the ballot count in Boulder that was drawing the party’s scrutiny, Waak said. The day after the election, Pueblo County still had 3,300 uncounted mail ballots that had been dropped off at polling places right before polls closed, she said, and there remained concerns about thousands of provisional ballots, cast by voters on election day when their names don’t appear in the poll book. County clerks plan to report the provisional ballot count by sometime next week, but those numbers aren’t expected to affect any statewide races or local races decided by decisive margins.

Bennet won the three Front Range bellwether counties — Jefferson County by about 4,500 votes, Arapahoe County by about 5,500 votes, and Larimer County by just short of 2,000 votes.

Bennet racked up his biggest share in Denver, where he got 71 percent of the vote. The Democrat did almost as well in Pitkin County with 69 percent and performed just slightly below that level in Costilla County. Though some ballots were still out at press time, 67 percent of Boulder County voters went with Bennet.

Buck only got those kind of margins in a handful of smaller counties. He did best in sparsely populated Rio Blanco County on the Western Slope, where he took 74.5 percent of the vote, followed by Cheyenne County on the Eastern Plains, with a hair below that share. Buck won Washington County — where Bennet filmed an ad during the primary comparing the plains county’s common-sense attitudes to Washington, D.C. — with 72.5 percent of the vote.

Republican strongholds El Paso, Douglas and Mesa counties handed Buck solid wins, but at roughly 60 percent of the vote in each, he didn’t bank enough votes there to overcome slim losses in swing counties or more commanding Bennet wins in Democratic vote troves.

After the votes were counted — or at least enough of them to declare a winner — Dagget said she was excited about the challenges ahead, as well having “some sense of relief” the long campaign was finished. The family, she said, could finally turn attention to some pending matters.

“We’re going to start looking for a puppy — we really are,” she said with a laugh.

On the campaign trail, Bennet regularly told stories about his promise the girls would get a dog after the election, win or lose. In the last month of the campaign, as attack ads flooded the airwaves, Bennet said one of his daughters warned she would run a negative commercial against him if he doesn’t get the family a dog.

Dagget said the family plans to adopt a rescue dog through Colorado Cell Dogs, also known as the Prison Trained Dogs Program. Inmates in the program, run through Colorado Correctional Industries at eight prisons across the state, train dogs found in shelters and then offers them for sale. Inmates also board dogs that have homes for intensive, four-week training sessions.

“We got online, there’s some cute dogs on there, we need to meet them,” Dagget said.

The family will probably get a dog that’s about a year old, she said. “I’m sure the kids would love a baby puppy,” she said, “but I’m not sure I’m at a point in my life where I can raise another baby.”

The girls haven’t settled on a breed, though one of them has allergies, which will limit the possibilities. “Otherwise,” Dagget added, “medium size, needs to fit through the dog door.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com