Two Senate primaries that were supposed to be tranquil affairs have turned into roaring Rocky Mountain shootouts that could provide the best test yet of how deeply anti-establishment, anti-Washington sentiment is running this year.
With the outcomes set to be settled on Tuesday, independent analysts and party operatives say the contests between the Republicans, Ken Buck and Jane Norton, and the Democrats,Michael Bennet and Andrew Romanoff, are close, making it uncertain who will be left standing to compete in November for a seat that appears up for grabs.
It was not supposed to be this way.
Mr. Bennet, the incumbent who was appointed last year to fill a Senate vacancy, and Ms. Norton, a former lieutenant governor, were blessed early on by their parties’ hierarchy. They were supposed to breeze to their respective nominations by virtue of the fund-raising help, as well as the stature, the White House could give Mr. Bennet, 45. Ms. Norton, 55, stood to gain the same benefits from the imprimatur of leading national Republicans and the United States Chamber of Commerce.
But Mr. Romanoff, 43, a former Colorado House speaker, and Mr. Buck, 51, a veteran prosecutor, could not be dissuaded from challenging the favored choices. Now they find themselves with a chance to win.
Should they triumph, it would represent a stinging repudiation of the Obama administration and of the Washington Republicans who coalesced around Ms. Norton.
“It would be a huge slam in both cases on the respective establishments,” said Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster in Denver.
Policy differences in the races are subtle. Mr. Buck and Ms. Norton both promise to cut federal spending, repeal the new health care law and get tough on immigration; Mr. Bennet and Mr. Romanoff pledge to help create jobs, aid struggling families and push alternative energy sources. Given the common policy themes, the insurgent-versus-establishment narrative has loomed large.
Mr. Buck has built his campaign around the notion that he is the outsider, playing that card to the hilt as he traveled the state to meet with Tea Party activists and like-minded groups while castigating Congressional Republicans as well as Democrats for the nation’s economic straits.
He notes that Ms. Norton has been endorsed by most sitting Republican senators; got fund-raising help from the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee; is the sister-in-law of Charles R. Black, a top Republican consultant in Washington; and was encouraged to join the race by Senator John McCain of Arizona, who appeared with Ms. Norton over the weekend.
Mr. Buck has been endorsed by Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina conservative who has split with party leaders on backing challengers this year. But unlike other fire-breathing conservatives who defeated Republicans embraced by party heavyweights in Kentucky, Nevada and Utah, Mr. Buck is no newcomer to politics.
Born in New York and educated at Princeton, he served as the lawyer for Dick Cheney, then a congressman, during the Iran-Contra hearings and worked three years for the Justice Department. He served 14 years in the United States attorney’s office in Colorado before being elected district attorney of Weld County, north of Denver, in 2004.
“I am not saying I don’t have a lot of connections,” Mr. Buck said in an interview at his Denver campaign office. “I am saying I am not the candidate of Washington, D.C.”
His extensive government résumé is not lost on Ms. Norton, who scoffs at her opponent’s efforts to claim the outsider mantle and points out that he is married to a former co-chairwoman of the state party.
“It is a clever thing to brand yourself as,” Ms. Norton said at an appearance at a picnic for Arapahoe County Republicans in this conservative bastion outside Denver. “But he has been a government lawyer for how many years? I am the only native-born Coloradan, the only one in this race on both the Republican and Democratic side who isn’t an Ivy Leagueattorney.”
Mr. Buck attended Princeton, Mr. Bennet and Mr. Romanoff were schooled at Yale, and neither Democrat was born in the Centennial State, though they have put down roots there. Mr. Romanoff won four terms in the state legislature, rising to speaker, while Mr. Bennet served as Denver’s school superintendent.
In a twist, Mr. Bennet, though technically the incumbent, is the only one of the four candidates who has never won election to public office. His appointment by Gov. Bill Ritter to fill the seat vacated by Ken Salazar when Mr. Salazar became interior secretary was a surprise, but he has come to be highly regarded by his Democratic Senate colleagues.
The White House has made it a priority to elect Mr. Bennet to a full term. President Obama traveled to Colorado to raise money and endorse him — a moment replayed in Bennet television ads — and even participated in a telephone town-hall-style meeting last week. Over the weekend, workers at the Democratic National Committee set up a phone bank on Mr. Bennet’s behalf.
But neither the concerted party push for Mr. Bennet nor the prospect of an administration job deterred Mr. Romanoff, who last month sold his residence to generate money for his final campaign blitz. (The White House has acknowledged that a top official had suggested a possible administration job to Mr. Romanoff to get him not to challenge Mr. Bennet.)
“I know a lot of people in Washington were not keen on this exercise in democracy,” Mr. Romanoff said of his decision to challenge Mr. Bennet, “but I am not running to represent them. I am running to represent Colorado. Coloradans are quite capable of making up their own minds.”
He has erased Mr. Bennet’s substantial early lead in polls, partially with an endorsement from former President Bill Clinton and the help of a very tough ad titled “Greed,” which claims that a firm that was managed by Mr. Bennet “looted” a struggling movie theater chain in a financial deal.
On Friday, Mr. Romanoff began running a new ad citing a New York Times article that raised questions about financing deals Mr. Bennet engineered while he was the school superintendent in order to close a pension shortfall.
Mr. Bennet has hit back against Mr. Romanoff and the Times article, saying both were off base. As for the business deal attacked by Mr. Romanoff, Mr. Bennet said that he did the right thing in rescuing a distressed chain of theaters. He said that if anyone were an outsider in his race, it would be him, given his lack of previous political experience.
“I spent my entire life outside of politics and never ran for office before,” he said in an interview on Sunday. “I bring a perspective that is different from what a lot of people in Washington bring to the job and what Andrew would bring.”
Mr. Buck and Ms. Norton have engaged in an intense back and forth as well, with Ms. Norton essentially challenging Mr. Buck’s manhood for allowing an independent group to run television commercials attacking her on his behalf.
In a retort that was caught on video, Mr. Buck said Colorado voters should back him because “I do not wear high heels.” That sparked ads and accusations from the Norton campaign that he was making sexist aspersions. A Norton sign at the Republican picnic featured a pink high-heeled pump with the message “The Buck Stops Here.”
Mr. Buck was also captured on video disparaging proponents of the anti-Obama “birther” movement who attended his campaign events, drawing more criticism from Ms. Norton. Both events may have slowed the momentum of the Buck campaign after he appeared to be pulling ahead this summer.
But even though she has establishment backing, Ms. Norton is not campaigning that way — characterizing Washington as out of control and joining the other candidates in disparaging the capital culture.
“All four of them are trying hard to figure out how to get as far away from Washington as they can,” said Kenneth Bickers, head of the political science department at the University of Colorado in Boulder, “even though they all want to get elected to go to Washington.”