Republicans on Tuesday night experienced the third leg of what is being pegged as the "Tea Party Triple Crown" when local Attorney General Ken Buck pulled off an upset over former Lt. Gov Jane Norton in the Colorado Republican Senate primary.
The headlines seemed to write themselves with visions of another Sharron Angle or Rand Paul seeping into the heads of the political commentariat. And, not surprisingly, opposition researchers quickly provided reporters with instances in which Buck echoed some of the more outlandish positions that have come to define his Kentucky and Nevada Republican counterparts respectively.
Buck's been a vocal critic of the Department of Education, arguing that policy decisions in this field should be left to local politicians. "We need to get the federal government out of education," he once declared.
He has also called Social Security a "horrible policy" that would "bankrupt" the country within a 10-to-25 year window. "I don't know that the federal government should be involved in a retirement plan," he said at a Constitutionalist Today Forum in March 2010. "It should be a plan that certainly, once people pay into it, they have an expectation of getting a retirement and they're entitled to that. But the idea that the federal government should be running health care or retirement or any of those programs is fundamentally against what I believe."
He's best known, perhaps, for his tough take on immigration policy. Buck has stated his support for the tough set of laws passed (only to be overruled) in Arizona. He has suggested that the 14th Amendment's right to citizenship for those born in the United States be modified to exclude children of illegal immigrants. And as the District Attorney in Weld County he made his name for the campaigns he launched to crack down on undocumented workers. Buck engineered a successful effort to get an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office opened in a local city ("the cavalry is coming!" he declared at the time) only to apologize to the Hispanic community for not consulting with them first. "I have made some serious mistakes," Buck said.
But for all the Tea Party planks in his policy platforms, Buck's rise to political prominence doesn't seem easy to distill into conventional definitions. While he has embraced the Tea Party label, his biography reflects more of an insider elitism than anti-establishment sentiment. He graduated from Princeton University, where he wrote his thesis on Saudi Arabian history. From there he was recruited to serve under then-Congressman Dick Cheney to work on the Iran-contra investigation in 1986. After that stint he essentially stayed on the taxpayer's payroll, working for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Colorado before he was a D.A.
"He has been a government attorney since 1988," Norton charged in a mid-July interview. "He's been in the system -- his wife was a vice chairman of the [state] Republican Party for eight years."
Having establishment ties isn't the only anti-Tea Party feature in Buck's personal resume. Though he doesn't go so far as to call for state-sponsored religion, Buck has called for a "much closer relationship" between church and state -- the type of social conservative red meat that could put him at odds with a sizeable chunk of the Tea Party crowd.
"I think that the general ideology of the Tea party is not a Christian one," David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and co-founder of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a faith-based nonprofit, told Pew Research surveys. "This kind of small government libertarianism, small taxes, leave-me-alone-to-live-my-life ideology has more in common with Ayn Rand than it does with the Bible."
Then there was the late primary snafu, when Buck, caught on a live mic, urged "those dumbasses at the Tea Party to stop asking questions about birth certificates while I'm on camera."
That these positions didn't end up hurting his standing within the movement isn't entirely surprising. The Tea Party isn't a monolithic entity. Nevada Republican Sharron Angle also has run on a religious conservative platform, going so far as to find divine meaning in her candidacy. And the vast majority of Tea Party members cringe at those who question President Obama's birth (arguing that it detracts from more substantive economic debates).
It didn't hurt, moreover, that Buck had the support of Tea Party luminaries such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Dick Armey's Freedomworks, among others. And it likely helped that he himself pledged to be a DeMint disciple once in office.
"[P]olitically the person I have talked to the most and the person that I admire the most is Senator Jim DeMint," he said, upon receiving the endorsement. "And one of the reasons I admire him the most is because he has the immense good sense to have endorsed me [laughter] But I also have a lot of respect for him because he feels very strongly about doing away with earmarks and not having earmarks in our system. He feels very strongly about having a constitutional term limit... Jim DeMint would be the person that I agree with the most."