Will the Colorado U.S. Senate Campaign Be Driven by Money or Issues?

In the hallway before the February 4 meeting of the Denver Democratic Central Committee there were expressions aplenty of frustration over Democrats' squandering their congressional supermajority: Remember the old days when a 51-vote majority was sufficient to carry a measure? When Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman would have been odd footnotes, not the whole story? Why not simplify health care reform and write a one-sentence bill extending Medicare-to-All, an easier, cost-effective means to the ends of universal health care? Ultimately, why not call Republicans' bluff, let them filibuster and be held accountable for blatant obstructionism?

Judging from the reception of U.S. Senate candidates by Denver Central Committee members, the election is about more than the media's portrayal of the candidate with the largest corporate contributions. Many of the members are 20-to-30 year veteran activists who favor the democratic process of an issues-centered campaign.

During allotted time for candidate addresses to the Committee, Michael Bennet's wife Susan Dagett was politely received as she spoke about Bennet's work in Washington, and his desire for passage of health care reform (which he had previously tepidly endorsed as "better than nothing". Even Bennet's belated endorsement of a very watered-down health care "public option" had the appearance of political posturing.)

However, the subdued crowd came to life when Andrew Romanoff bounded onto the stage to speak passionately to issues clearly close to the hearts and minds of many, prompting two standing ovations. Holding office should not be about retaining power, he observed. It is, rather about using power for the good of the people, not to benefit influence-peddling Washington lobbies. Romanoff sounded an urgent call to action to forestall climate change, to eliminate Wall Street excesses, and to achieve cost-effective comprehensive universal health care reform with a single payer model. He reiterated his vow to run a grassroots campaign, declining money from corporate interests.

Only two days earlier an e-mail to potential donors/ fundraisers announced a scheduled February 18 visit by Barack Obama at three fundraisers for Michael Bennet. "...the president has made the Bennet campaign a real priority, and is coming early in this election year to show his support," read the February 2 email, which coincided with reports that Bennet's campaign coffers have surpassed any other candidate's, growing by $1.1 million in the fourth quarter of 2008, and totaling over $4.7 million.

The email continued:

Democrats who have already contributed the maximum to Bennet can still donate...In order to maximize everyone's capacity to write/raise for this event, we have formed a joint committee with Bennet for Colorado, the Colorado Democratic Party-Coordinated Campaign, and the DSCC [Democratic Senate Campaign Committee], called Colorado Victory 2010...An individual who has not contributed anything to any of these entities to date, could in theory give up to $45,200 to Colorado Victory 2010. Individuals who have maxed to Michael may write to the committee and have the contribution count toward an entity that will help Michael.

To many of the rank and file, presidential fundraisers for Bennet beg the question why the president would not wait until after the primary - one of the few remaining opportunities for Colorado voters to have a voice - to fundraise for Colorado's Senate candidate. The party hierarchy's anointing of Michael Bennet as Colorado's senator in 2011 is viewed by many as a blatant attempt to trump choice by the people, and not incidentally, an effort to short-circuit democratic debate about issues. A number of resolutions to the Central Committee spoke to the issue, but lacking a quorum (another sign of Democratic discouragement), a vote could not be taken. Only one resolution was read, urging the Denver Democratic Central Committee to call upon the Colorado Democratic Party to provide equal opportunity in "fundraising and campaigning" to both Senate candidates. After all, official state party policy has been to remain neutral until after a primary elections.

Bennet's Web site entreaty to "Put People First in Our Democracy -- Not Corporations" and his expressed "concern about the implications [of the Supreme Court's decision permitting unlimited corporate spending for political elections]... for special interests to corrupt our political process" ring hollow. Considering that within his first six months in office, Bennet became the fourth highest recipient of campaign funds from donors linked to a combination of hedge funds, securities firms, insurance companies and real estate interests, there is at least the appearance of undue influence by the banking lobby on his vote against bankruptcy protection known as cramdown legislation that would permit judges to adjust first mortgages to a manageable amount so that homebuyers could remain in their homes. Cramdown is already applied tovacation or second homes.

It is unclear whether Bennet supports the Obama administration's proposed creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) to ensure that lenders act transparently and don't take advantage of consumers. The American Prospect reports that the Chamber of Commerce strongly opposes the measure and "is lobbying senators...termed 'the usual suspects over there on Senate Banking'...including... Mark Warner of Virginia, Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Jon Tester of Montana....all Democrats the Chamber expects will choose a more business-friendly approach over consumer interests."

Both Democratic and Republican Party hierarchies have sought to avoid primaries by throwing their weight behind selected candidates. Colorado Republicans raised the ire of tea party activists and party regulars alike with their preemptive selection of former Rep. Scott McInnis as gubernatorial candidate, depriving voters of one of the few choices available to them. Even before the anointing of McInnis as the party's chosen, he had refused to debate primary opponents, asserting that it would only provide ammunition to Democrats - still more mistrust of voters' choices and open democratic debate.

At its best, an election campaign should be a conversation with constituents, not an ordination or auction to the highest bidder.