This Tuesday night, August 10th, we will undoubtedly be watching most Washington, D.C. political reporters and pundits trying to tell America what the Democratic Senate primary election results in Colorado mean. No doubt, there will be a ton of disinformation coming from a national press corps that, for the most part, can barely pick out Colorado on a map. So, for purposes of clarity, let's examine what the Beltway will inevitably say, and then put it up against what those of us on the ground here in Colorado know the results would actually mean -- whether the winner is appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D) or former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D).
At a top-line, meta level, it's clear that Michael Bennet has positioned himself -- in his corporatist votes on key economic issues, in his campaign's reliance on big money, and in his branding with Obama himself -- as Barack Obama. Considering that, and considering Bennet massively outspending his opponent and amassing almost 100 percent establishment Democratic support, the fact that the primary is nonetheless so close says something very important about how rank-and-file voters perceive President Obama and his promise of "change."
In the past, it was enough for a Democratic candidate to get the support of a Democratic president -- and to not really take on the status quo. You could, in other words, be a Michael Bennet and expect to coast to victory in a Democratic primary while casting votes that help big banks protect their profits and that help insurance companies continue profiteering. Indeed, that was the path Bennet himself assumed was available, as evidenced by his votes, by his refusal to debate his opponent and by what the Denver Post called his "Rose Garden strategy."
But things have changed -- never before in recent history have voters been so aware of how a corrupt Washington effects their economic lives, and never before have voters been willing to defy a president of their own party if it means forcing a change in that corrupt status quo.
Some are wondering why Obama isn't finding stronger enthusiastic support from Democratic voters despite having passed, for instance, a health care bill and a Wall Street bill? Bennet, who voted for and campaigned on those bills, provides the answer. Having taken among the most campaign dollars from the corporate interests those bills purport to challenge, and having then voted for those bills, Bennet effectively proves that those signature pieces of legislation do not fundamentally challenge power at a time when that's what Americans most want. After all, if those bills really challenged corporate interests, why would corporate interests give so much money to a senator who voted for them? They wouldn't -- but they would give that cash to that senator if he was, in fact, voting for bills that aided them.
This has been the underlying argument of Andrew Romanoff's campaign -- and specifically, its focus on Bennet's campaign warchest. By highlighting that and tying it to specific votes, Romanoff's campaign themes are exposing the corrupt system for what it is.
Regardless of the election's outcome, the fact that this Democratic Senate primary is so close, then, suggests that A) a large chunk of Democratic voters implicitly understand that the Obama agenda has not fundamentally challenged power and that B) a large chunk of Democratic voters are willing to reward Democratic politicians who defy the Obama administration by pushing to fundamentally challenge the status quo.
This, of course, will most likely not be the narrative from the Washington press corps on Tuesday night. What you will see is self-serving distractions and obfuscations that attempt to hide this core point. So in the interest of promoting the actual, demonstrable truth, here is a side-by-side of what you can expect to hear from the national press corps on Tuesday and what the truth really is. The first section looks at what will be said if Bennet wins and what the truth really is, the second section looks at the same if Romanoff wins.
D.C. vs. TRUTH IF BENNET WINS
- BELTWAY WILL SAY A BENNET WIN IS A BIG WIN FOR OBAMA: Without fail, a Bennet win will be portrayed as a huge victory for President Obama, who indeed invested a huge amount of political capital (read: fundraising, campaign appearances, OFA-led GOTV for Bennet, etc.) in this race.
- TRUTH: IT'S A STUNNING NEAR-LOSS FOR BIG MONEY: Bennet's victory would a Pyrrhic victory for the political operation of Obama - and the term "political operation" is by and large a euphemism for money. Lots of it. The Obama team has helped Bennet become one of the top recipients of corporate campaign cash in the Congress in just 17 months. Not surprisingly, according to the Denver Post, Bennet's spending "exceeds all previous spending records in Colorado Senate primaries." By the end of the race, Bennet will have outspent Romanoff by somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-to-1, if not more. To outspend an opponent at that rate and barely win, isn't so much as a win for Obama and Big Money as it is a shocking near-loss for those forces, exposing a very real weakness in their ability to buy elections.
- BELTWAY WILL SAY A BENNET WIN IS A BIG WIN FOR THE ESTABLISHMENT AND REJECTION OF PROGRESSIVES: Bennet has been aggressively supported by almost the entire national and Colorado Democratic Party establishment in the form of fundraising and endorsements. And, he has received the aggressive backing of the largest newspaper in the state, The Denver Post. Thus, the D.C. media will portray a Bennet win as a huge boost to that establishment. Additionally, a Bennet win will also be portrayed as some sort of rejection of the Democratic Party's progressive base. We will hear that this is allegedly yet more proof that progressives are fringe, and that "moderate" voters still rule the day.
- TRUTH: THE FACT THAT THE RACE WAS EVEN CLOSE IS A REPUDIATION OF THE ESTABLISHMENT: Considering all the money, establishment support and media backing of Bennet, the fact that this race was even a serious contest - much less close - is a damning commentary on the weakness of establishment forces (and particularly President Obama's political machine) and strength of an ascendant progressive base at this chaotic moment in history. As the Associated Press rightly reported a few days ago, here in Colorado "elites have lost control of the nominating process" - and the fact that this was even a race proves that, regardless of whether Bennet wins.
- BELTWAY WILL SAY BENNET WIN PROVES THAT "POSITIVE" CAMPAIGN CAN BE VICTORIOUS: Washington will likely say that Bennet ran an entirely "positive" campaign, despite his harsh criticism of Romanoff in the final stretch-run of the campaign.
TRUTH: A BENNET WIN WOULD BE A SAD COMMENTARY ON LOCAL JOURNALISM: In March, the tiny Cherry Creek News reported the details of Bennet's involvement in the DPS/Wall Street deal and the rest of the local Colorado media all but ignored it. Only until 4 days before the election - when many mail-in votes were already cast - did the New York Times write a story about it, finally forcing local news outlets to cover the issue. Tellingly, when the Denver Post was forced to cover the New York Times' piece, it packaged it as a "Romanoff attack" - rather than a dispatch from one of the most respected Pulitzer-Prize winning business reporter in America, Gretchen Morgenson. Had the story been thoroughly covered in local media campaign coverage much earlier, it is likely more votes would have broken away from Bennet.
- BELTWAY WILL ASSERT A BENNET WIN IS GOOD FOR DEMOCRATS IN THE GENERAL ELECTION: We will be told that Bennet's win is good news for Democrats who want to hold the Senate seat in the general election, because Bennet is supposedly the more "electable" candidate in the general election.
- TRUTH: BENNET'S WIN WILL WOULD MAKE IT HARDER FOR DEMS TO RETAIN THE SENATE SEAT IN THE GENERAL ELECTION: Bennet having such a difficult time winning a Democratic primary with every single institutional force in his favor is a terrible sign for his general election candidacy. Additionally, the damning stories that came out - both about his time working for Phil Anschutz and his time working at DPS - will undoubtedly be used against him by the Republican nominee.
- BELTWAY WILL ASSERT ROMANOFF'S LOSING PRIMARY CHALLENGE HURT THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY: Finally, we will hear that Romanoff should never have run in a contested primary, and that by doing so, he weakened Bennet's general election candidacy because so many devastating stories about Bennet came out in the primary process.
- TRUTH: WHAT CAME OUT IN THE PRIMARY WOULD HAVE COME OUT IN THE GENERAL NO MATTER WHAT: Contested primaries exist, in part, to test the mettle of potential nominees and subject those potential nominees to a kind of electoral background check. They are particularly important in the case of an appointed candidate like Bennet, who had never run for office and therefore has never been subjected to any kind of public due diligence. That process has likely made him a stronger more battle-tested candidate, if he is the nominee. Additionally, if you believe that if there had been no Democratic primary the Republicans would never have been aware of the DPS or Anschutz story (both of which had already been published by the Cherry Creek News here and here), then I've got some sub-prime mortgages to sell you.
D.C. vs. TRUTH IF ROMANOFF WINS
- BELTWAY WILL SAY A ROMANOFF WIN IS A BIG LOSS FOR OBAMA: If Romanoff wins, political reporters will first and foremost say that this is a categorical rejection of President Obama - and most powerfully, by Democratic primary voters (aka. the voters he should have the most sway over).
- TRUTH: A ROMANOFF WIN IS A REFERENDUM ON BOTH OBAMA AND THE BEHAVIOR OF HIS POLITICAL TEAM: While it's certainly true that a Romanoff win would be a symbol of swing-state weakness for Obama among what should be his most reliable voters, that's not the whole story. Part of the backlash fueling Romanoff's campaign has been against the perception that the White House is trying to meddle in states and elections that it has no business meddling in. Especially out in the more independent-minded west, lots of voters don't like the idea of entitled Washington elites trying to coronate primary winners in a race featuring two qualified candidates. For his part, Romanoff has made the White House's big-foot behavior a part of his own campaign's anti-Washington message, telling the New York Times this weekend: "I know a lot of people in Washington were not keen on this exercise in democracy, but I am not running to represent them - I am running to represent Colorado (and) Coloradans are quite capable of making up their own minds."
- BELTWAY WILL SAY A ROMANOFF WIN IS ONLY PROOF THAT NEGATIVE ADS WORK, BUT NOTHING MORE: Beltway reporters will almost definitely try to write off a Romanoff win as "proof that negative ads work." As proof, they will cite the ads Romanoff ran comparing Bennet's campaign money with Bennet's senate votes, and the ads examining Bennet's time as a corporate raider for right-wing billionaire Phil Anschutz and his time cutting risky Wall Street deals at DPS.
- TRUTH: THE ADS WORKED BECAUSE THEY HIGHLIGHTED A DEEPER BACKLASH...OH, AND IT WASN'T JUST THE ADS: Ads only work if they tell a deeper story about both a candidate and what that candidate represents. The Romanoff ads have been so powerful because they highlight the true outside-versus-inside, Colorado-versus-D.C., progressive-versus-conservadem dynamics that have come to (rightly, IMHO) dominate politics right now. Additionally, we can know this election did not turn only on ads because for most of the campaign, Romanoff - who refused to take PAC money - didn't have enough money to be on the air. Instead, he organized a massive grassroots campaign that managed to keep him in the race even as Bennet had the airwaves entirely to himself. And should he win on that grassroots campaign, it would say to every future Democratic candidate in Colorado and nationally that there are other ways to win an election than simply succumbing to the conservative-themed, win-the-ad-war Big Money/Establishment model of campaigning.
- BELTWAY WILL SAY A ROMANOFF WIN DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING FOR PROGRESSIVES BECAUSE ROMANOFF AND BENNET WERE "VIRTUALLY THE SAME" ON ISSUES: We've heard this for months, most recently from the New York Times which over the weekend said Bennet and Romanoff campaigned on "common policy themes." That's a regurgitation of Bennet's new spin - faced with plummeting poll numbers, he has started pretending he's pushing the exact same platform as Romanoff. And if Romanoff wins, we will be hearing it again from a Beltway media that has a vested interest in pretending the race has no positive ideological implications for the progressive movement.
- TRUTH: HUGE IDEOLOGICAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN BENNET AND ROMANOFF MEAN A ROMANOFF WIN IS A BIG WIN FOR THE PROGRESSIVE AGENDA: Romanoff's ads, stump speeches and media appearances have all hammered home very concrete ways he and Bennet differ on key issues. As just a few examples, Romanoff has said he would have voted for cramdown, for repealing tax breaks for oil companies, and for ending the "too big to fail" policies that bail out big banks. Romanoff also campaigned in support of single-payer health care and hit Bennet for refusing to push a public health care option. These are positions in contrast with Bennet's own votes and actions - and they are positions that played a central role in the election as part of a progressive critique of Bennet for being way too close to corporate interests. Thus, if Romanoff wins, it's ludicrous to argue that his victory has no implications for the progressive agenda. On the contrary, it is a ratification of that agenda by Democratic primary voters - and a shot across the bow of other Democratic politicians who defy that agenda.
- BELTWAY WILL SAY A ROMANOFF WIN IS LAMENTABLE PROOF THAT POLITICS IS UNDULY "POLARIZED": Again, there should be little doubt that Washington pundits and reporters will try to use Romanoff's win to turn Bennet into a sympathy case (just as they did with Joe Lieberman when Ned Lamont won the Democratic primary in Connecticut in 2006). They will lament Bennet's loss as allegedly further proof that earnest, Washington-connected statesman-like "moderates" are the unfortunate victims of vicious, ultra-partisan maniacs who supposedly determine Democratic primary outcomes in those crazy locales in Flyover Country.
- TRUTH: ROMANOFF'S WIN HAS TO DO WITH TRANSPARTISAN FRUSTRATION AGAINST A CORRUPT WASHINGTON: As a former Colorado House Speaker, Romanoff can hardly be labeled some fringe crazy (though no doubt some will try to do that). More important, the grassroots structure of his campaign, the progressive themes he ran on, and the anti-corruption/anti-establishment critique he aimed at his opponent is hardly "polarizing" in America. Sure, it may be "polarizing" in Washington, D.C., but not in the country at large. Poll after poll after poll shows that voters in both parties believe politicians are too tied to money and that Washington is corrupt. Bennet's corporate connections, his massive PAC-funded warchest, and his life as a Washington insider made him the walking representation of what the country is disgusted with.
- BELTWAY WILL SAY A ROMANOFF WIN IS A VICTORY FOR BILL CLINTON OVER BARACK OBAMA: The Wall Street Journal is the latest to make this absurd argument, but it's an argument that Washington reporters have been making ad nauseam since Bill Clinton endorsed Romanoff a few weeks ago.
- TRUTH: COLORADO'S DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH BILL CLINTON - AT ALL: The idea that the Colorado Senate race became a proxy battle in voters' minds between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama is so absolutely ridiculous it's hard to even take the claim seriously. Clinton's endorsement was a two-day story, if that. It had positively nothing to do with the themes of the race - or the outcome.
- BELTWAY WILL SAY A ROMANOFF WIN IS BAD FOR DEMOCRATS' GENERAL ELECTION CHANCES: Finally, Washington will likely insist that Romanoff will be a weaker general election candidate than Bennet - both because he's allegedly "too liberal" and because his refusal to take PAC money means he will face fundraising problems.
- TRUTH: ROMANOFF IS MOST LIKELY A FAR STRONGER GENERAL ELECTION CANDIDATE: The Colorado general election is going to be tough for any Democratic Senate candidate, but general-election matchup polls have shown that Romanoff is a stronger candidate than Bennet. Additionally, because Obama invested so much in trying to defeat Romanoff's primary candidacy, Romanoff in a general election will be able to intensify his anti-Washington message, separating himself from an Obama brand that may hurt a Democratic candidate in a swing-state like Colorado in 2010. As for the claim that refusing to take corporate PAC money is somehow a liability for a candidate in a general election in this anti-Wall Street/anti-Washington climate - that's just ridiculous on its face. If Obama proved anything in 2008, it is that there is an individual fundraising base to be tapped - it just takes the right candidate and the right campaign themes.