Former state Rep. Joe Salazar, one of the first Colorado politicians to endorse Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential bid, is considering mounting a challenge against U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in the 2022 primary, Colorado Politics has learned.
The Thornton Democrat and executive director of the anti-fracking organization Colorado Rising said in an interview that he's a long way from making a decision and is weighing numerous factors — including the results of this year's redistricting, which could yield a new congressional seat — but he made clear he thinks Bennet's trademark centrist approach is out of step with the state's increasingly progressive electorate.
"He is so wishy-washy and so middle-of-the-road that we don’t know which road he walks on," Salazar said. "Colorado is trending progressive. We’re not the moderate state that Sen. Bennet seems to be stuck in the mud over.
"This is a Bernie state. People need to come to accept that. He can’t even compel himself to think in a progressive way because he thinks Colorado is a purple state, when we're not. We’re solid blue."
Sanders won Colorado's last two Democratic presidential nominating contests — carrying the 2016 caucuses with 60% to Hillary Clinton's 40% and finishing in first place in a crowded 2020 primary field with 37% of the vote — and the state has tilted decisively toward the Democrats in recent elections, with the party holding all but one statewide office and Joe Biden winning the state by 13.5 points.
Colorado was one of four states won by Sanders last year on Super Tuesday, the night Biden effectively sealed the Democratic nomination with wins in 10 others.
A former school superintendent appointed in 2009 to fill a vacancy, Bennet ran a long-shot campaign for president last year. He's won election twice to the Senate seat, by 1.7 points in 2010 and 5.7 points in 2016.
Bennet survived a primary challenge from the left in 2010, winning the nomination by 8.4 points over former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who also ran in last year's Democratic Senate primary against former Gov. John Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper won the primary by 17.3 points and went on to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in November.
"Michael is focused on working with the Biden-Harris administration to make real progress for the American people," Bennet campaign adviser Craig Hughes told Colorado Politics in a statement.
"The first priority must be COVID relief, which is why Michael was so gratified to see the childhood tax credit included — a measure he wrote with Sen. Sherrod Brown that could cut childhood poverty by 50% in the first year."
A civil rights lawyer and one of Colorado's members of the Democratic National Committee, Salazar lost a close 2018 primary for attorney general to Phil Weiser, who went on to win the general election. The following spring, the Colorado Democratic Party named Salazar its "Democrat of the Year."
"People have been asking me to run," Salazar said. "I have been considering it, but to go after an incumbent is a very heavy task. I’m going to be very deliberate in my thought process and think things through."
He added: "No one wants a bloodbath in the Democratic Party. That’s what we’re seeing in the Republican Party, so you better have real good policy reasons."
Salazar said the contrast was stark between Sanders and Bennet during the presidential primary, with Bennet routinely cautioning against moving the party too far to the left, arguing it that risked losing key states to then-President Donald Trump.
"If I wanted to challenge him right now, I have a list of things that are different between the two of us, but I do want to see how he handles being in the (Senate) majority," Salazar said.
"But if he still continues to pull his hogwash — ‘I need to play the moderate’ — over the next few months, it’s going to be more than likely he’s going to get a primary challenger," Salazar said. "We are sick and tired of the moderates of the world making decisions that affect working families. 2021 is the year of the moxie — if these moderate Democrats can’t show moxie, then we’re going to see people looking for some substantive changes in our elected officials."
Bennet's positions on health care drew particular criticism from Salazar.
"Sen. Bennet has really failed a lot of working-class Americans because he wants to moderate away basic human rights, such as health care," Salazar said. "The things that he said to Bernie Sanders on the presidential stage about having a 'Medicare for All' system — he just buys into the Republican talking points on this. He’s so weak-spirited. He doesn’t even try to fight back against them, and we’re really sick of that."
Stumping in the presidential primary just over a year ago, Bennet blasted Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's "Medicare for All" proposal as an unrealistic plan that would never get out of the Senate, based on numbers Bennet called "simply not believable."
"Voters are sick and tired of politicians promising them things that they know they can’t deliver," Bennet said, pointing instead to a public option plan he's sponsoring called Medicare-X, which Bennet contends, "is the best way to give families a choice, cover everyone in three years, and lower costs. And it doesn’t cost a cent in new taxes."
Salazar dismissed Bennet's plan as insufficient to deal with "the horrors of not having health care" faced by working-class Americans, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He also took issue with Bennet's stance on climate change, an issue central to Salazar's job running Colorado Rising.
"The guy couldn’t be any more worthless on the environment than he is now," Salazar said. "The world is begging us to move over to clean, green, renewable energy, but he refuses to have those conversations."
Bennet, with a lifetime score of 89% from the League of Conservation Voters — just 2 points behind Sanders' 91% lifetime score — is a member of the bipartisan Senate Climate Solutions Caucus.
“We need enduring solutions – ones that won’t whipsaw back and forth with changing political winds,” he said when he joined the caucus. “We need to build the same broad consensus in Washington to address the climate crisis that exists across the country.”
Salazar stressed that his disagreements with Bennet aren't personal.
"These aren’t knocks on him as a person, they’re knocks on him as an elected official and how he deals with policy," Salazar said. "I've known Sen. Bennet for years, and he’s such a nice guy, but we’re at a point in America where we don’t need nice guys, we need someone who’s going to fight for Americans. I hope he shows some moxie as a U.S. senator, but I don’t think the tiger’s going to change his stripes."
The state's progressives have time to decide whether to challenge Bennet, Salazar said.
"Progressives running in the state of Colorado are not running from scratch," he said, adding, "The thing we have to watch out for as progressives is we don’t load the field with 18 progressives running. We have to back one person moving forward."