Less than a month after becoming the longest-serving U.S. senator from Colorado since the early 1970s, Democrat Michael Bennet finds himself in the catbird seat.
While he hasn’t made an official announcement yet that he’s running for a third term, Bennet’s campaign operation is dusting itself off and starting to kick into higher gear.
There’s less dust than usual, since it was just a year ago Bennet dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary after a poor showing in the New Hampshire primary, capping a nine-month run.
Appointed in early 2009 to fill the vacancy created when Ken Salazar took a cabinet position in the Obama administration, Bennet has faced the voters twice since. Re-election next November would make Bennet the first Coloradan to win a third term in the Senate since Republican Gordon Allott accomplished the same feat in 1966. He went on to lose a bid for a fourth term to Democrat Floyd Haskell in 1972.
As this column noted last month, Colorado has gone longer than any other state without having a three-term senator in Washington.
The way things are shaping up, Bennet might also be going longer than any other recent Colorado senator without drawing a serious challenger.
As of Jan. 28, not a single Republican has declared a run for Bennet’s seat — and none have been testing the waters or building up buzz for a race, either.
By this point in the last cycle, half a dozen Democrats had already launched their campaigns for the nomination to challenge Cory Gardner — including one who went on to make the primary ballot, former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff — with an equal number making noise and fueling speculation about a run.
Six years ago, an El Paso County commissioner named Darryl Glenn had started roving around the state touting his uncompromising brand of conservatism as the ticket to take on Bennet in 2016. Glenn made it past numerous better-known and better-funded candidates to win the nomination, and he went on to lose to Bennet by a closer-than-expected 5 points.
In the two previous Senate cycles — 2014, when Democrat Mark Udall was preparing to run for a second term, and 2010 when Bennet was fixing to defend the seat he had recently occupied — Republicans had begun circling this far out, and a couple had even made their campaigns official.
The difference this time around — albeit 21 months before the election — is that Bennet’s Senate seat appears to be solid blue, safely in the Democratic column.
That’s the consensus, at least, among the leading national election forecasters — the Cook Political Report, Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales and Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
The analysts are also in agreement that four Democratic-held seats and either four or five GOP-held seats will be competitive, though they differ slightly on whether a couple of states fall in the truly competitive category.
They diverge a bit over whether the seats currently held by Republicans who’ve said they won’t seek re-election in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio — Pat Toomey, Richard Burr and Rob Portman, respectively — will be toss-ups or lean toward a Republican hold.
But in any case, they peg between eight and 10 battleground Senate races — in the three above states plus Wisconsin and Florida, all currently in the Republican column; and Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire and Nevada, currently in the Democratic column.
With a 50-50 Senate, flipping even a single seat could either cement the majority for Democrats, who have the tie-breaking vote because they hold the White House, or hand it back to the Republicans.
Colorado’s isn’t completely off the map the way some longstanding red or blue states’ Senate seats are — its electorate has been trending blue, but the state’s purple past is still fresh in memory — but both major party’s national Senate campaigns will have their hands full playing defense and offense, likely leaving little money to finance a barnburner in Colorado.
As we reported this week, Bennet could have more to worry about from his party’s left flank.
Joe Salazar, a former state representative from Thornton and member of the Democratic National Committee, told Colorado Politics that he’s giving thought to challenging Bennet in a primary if the more centrist Democrat disappoints the state’s progressives in the coming months.
An early and prominent supporter of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns, Salazar lost a nail-biter of a race in 2018 for the attorney general nomination. He noted that he isn’t the only candidate the progressive wing of the party could run against Bennet, though it sounds like he’ll have a right of first refusal if the state’s Sanders-aligned Democrats decide to mount a challenge.
The news prompted vigorous debate on social media over whether Colorado is as progressive of a state as Salazar maintains.
It’s true Sanders won Colorado’s 2016 caucuses by a wide, 20-point margin over Hillary Clinton and finished first in last year’s Democratic presidential primary, though with only about one-third of the total vote.
But a glance at years of Colorado primaries suggests that the state’s voters might not be as ready to dump a more moderate incumbent.
Both major parties have plenty of experience with primaries pitting their more extreme wings against more centrist, establishment types, but in the modern era, only Republican primary voters have handed the nominations for competitive seats to the more hardline candidates.
Just last year in the June primary, former Gov. John Hickenlooper trounced Romanoff —making another run at winning a Senate nomination from the left — and went on to unseat Gardner.
The same night, first-time candidate Lauren Boebert, running from the right, surprised U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, handing the five-term Republican incumbent a defeat before she went on to win a seat representing the 3rd Congressional District.
In addition, both times Bennet has appeared on the ballot, he faced Republicans who won the GOP nomination running from the right against more establishment types — in 2016, when Glenn prevailed over four more moderate GOP hopefuls, and in 2010, when the then-Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck’s tea party-fueled longshot campaign beat former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton to win the nomination.
Buck, the current chairman of the Colorado GOP, was elected to Congress in 2014 and was considered a potential Bennet challenger next year, but on Jan. 28 said he won't run for the seat.
Until an opponent emerges — from within his own party or from across the aisle — Bennet can keep doing what an incumbent does best, racking up points in policy battles in Washington and raising boatloads of money.