Late in the afternoon of Jan. 22, Michael Bennet will officially have served in the Senate longer than anyone elected from Colorado in the last 50 years, the equivalent of two full terms.
On that date in 2009, Bennett was sworn in as the junior senator from Colorado by then-Vice President Joe Biden, filling the seat vacated by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. He's been re-elected to full terms twice since, most recently in 2016.
Bennet's tenure at that point will be a milestone for the Denver Democrat and for the state, which currently holds an unhappy distinction in the Senate.
Colorado, it turns out, has gone the longest of any state without having elected a senator to a third term — in a legislative chamber where seniority matters less than it used to but still matters.
That's right — through the 1970s, the '80s, the '90s, whatever the first decade of this century was called, and the just-completed Teens, Colorado voters have sent senators to Washington for one term and some for a second term, but none for a third term.
When the next Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3, 33 states will be represented by a senator elected to serve three or more terms, while the other 16 states — not including Colorado — have also enjoyed the clout that comes with that kind of longevity across recent decades.
The last Coloradan to win a third term in the Senate left office on Jan. 3, 1973. That's when Democrat Floyd Haskell was sworn in after denying Republican Gordon Allott a fourth term in the 1972 election.
Bennet, who mounted an unsuccessful 2020 White House bid, has the chance to run for a full third Senate term in 2022, and by nearly every indication that’s what he's doing.
Rumors swirled earlier this year that Bennet was a likely pick for a Biden cabinet, possibly creating a Senate vacancy like the one he filled a dozen years ago, but the chances of that are vanishingly slim.
In addition, Bennet has spent his Senate career diagnosing the Senate's dysfunction, including devoting a passionate floor speech to the topic almost two years ago and writing a 2019 book about it. During his presidential campaign, Bennet routinely talked about how Washington is broken, leaving close observers confident that he intends to try to stay in the Senate to fix it.
Bennet's campaign, also, started sending out fundraising emails this month, exclaiming that national election forecaster Sabato's Crystal Ball predicts Bennet's re-election run "could be one of the most competitive Senate races in 2022!"
That's a bit of a stretch, since what the Crystal Ball said — in its admittedly "(very early) Senate assessment" — was that Senate races in seven other states will likely be competitive and that the cycle could be quite difficult for Democrats if Bennet looks like he's in any trouble.
"The Democratic trend in Colorado is obvious, and Bennet may be able to hold on even in a 2014-style environment, particularly if he does not draw a strong opponent," the Crystal Ball's Kyle Kondik wrote.
Bennet has yet to draw an opponent, but if recent history is any guide, Republican challengers will start to emerge in the next few months.
At this point, all eyes are on U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, who lost a run against Bennet a decade ago but has won every race he’s run since — re-election to a third term as Weld County district attorney in 2012, followed by a 2014 primary win before election to the first of four terms he's won in Congress. Almost two years ago, Buck also won a close race for Colorado GOP chairman, a move that insiders said was intended to prepare for a Bennet challenge.
Buck made it official Thursday that he isn't seeking a second term helming the state party. Potential Republican candidates are lining up to run for Buck's 4th Congressional District seat if he makes a jump for the Senate.
Insiders tell Trail Mix that Buck hasn't yet decided whether to challenge Bennet, but they emphasize that he holds the keys to a series of potential tumbling dominos. Along with setting off a gold rush for his congressional seat, a Senate run likely wouldn't clear the field entirely, but it'll thin out the GOP Senate primary considerably.
Other potential Bennet challengers include Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams, state Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, state Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, and 2016 GOP nominee Darryl Glenn, who lost a bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn in a 2018 primary.
There could also be late entrants — in the 2016 race against Bennet, most of the top candidates, including four of the five who made the primary ballot, didn’t announce until less than a year before the election — but running a serious campaign against increasingly Democratic-trending headwinds requires plenty of money, so whether Buck bites or not, the field will likely start growing by the time the second quarter rolls around in 2021.
Political rules are seldom hard and fast, but an enduring one that describes what Coloradans do when they elect a senator held firm this year and could help discern the 2022 race.
Going on nearly 50 years, Colorado has only elected members of Congress or candidates who have already held statewide office to the Senate.
The last time the state elected a senator who didn’t fall in one of those two categories was 1974, when Denver attorney Gary Hart, fresh off running Democrat George McGovern’s presidential race, unseated two-term Republican Peter Dominick in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
Since then, almost every Colorado senator has stepped up from the House of Representatives — Bill Armstrong, Tim Wirth, Hank Brown, Ben Campbell, Wayne Allard, Mark Udall and Cory Gardner — and the other two held statewide office: then-Attorney General Ken Salazar and former Gov. John Hickenlooper. The only one with an asterisk is Bennet, who held statewide office — by appointment — for two years when he ran for his first full term in the Senate.
Satisfying one of those criteria isn’t enough on its own to guarantee a Senate seat, however. Nominees who ran and lost during the stretch since 1974 included House members or veterans Ken Kramer and Bob Schaffer, as well as then-Secretary of State Mary Estill Buchanan. Others who made it to the finals but didn’t win include two county commissioners, a real estate magnate, a lawyer-lobbyist, a newspaper columnist and a beer mogul.
Before the turnovers that resulted in Udall and Gardner losing their bids for second terms, the last time Colorado voters were in a mood to send their senators packing was in the simultaneously tumultuous and mellow 1970s.
While that tie-dyed decade had its particularities — from shag carpet and leisure suits to “Disco Duck” and macramé — it was a time when Americans were losing their faith in government and institutions, and fearful their standing in the world was slipping, when leaders sounded the alarm over a disappearing middle class and imminent global environmental catastrophe, as protests for racial equality rocked the nation’s cities.
Against a decade-long backdrop of unprecedented economic upheaval, politicians accused entire political parties of failing to stand up to the Russians and the Chinese, all while Colorado’s vital energy economy swung from boom to bust.
During all that, Colorado gave three of its senators pink slips — Allot falling to Haskell, Hart beating Dominick and Armstrong ousting Haskell.
Bennet's second-term win in 2016 was bracketed by Udall's loss in 2014 and Gardner's loss this year, but if Colorado voters want to oust a third senator this time around, they could have another chance in 2022.
Note: This article has been updated to correct when Gordon Allot left office.