Outside spending fuels negative ads in tight Colorado Senate race

Democratic US Sen. Michael Bennet trails GOP challenger Ken Buck by 3 points in a Colorado Senate race that has seen outside groups spend heavily on negative campaign ads.

Ed Andrieski/AP
Sen. Michael Bennet (D) talks with employees and customers at the in Lakewood, Colo., on Oct. 27.
Mike Sweeney/The Pueblo Chieftain/AP
Colorado Senatorial candidate Ken Buck speaks with supporters, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2010, at his Pueblo, Colo., headquarters.

At $32 million in spending and counting, Colorado’s US Senate race between appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D) and tea party-backed challenger Ken Buck (R) has attracted more aggressive spending by outside groups than any race in the nation.

With outside groups more willing than candidates to go toxic with their campaign ads, it’s produced a continual negative stream of campaign ads. They have dubbed Mr. Buck an extremist and insensitive to women and painted Mr. Bennet as a mere appendage of the Obama administration.

“We’re at least at $40 million, including candidate funding – a completely over-the-top record for Colorado,” says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based independent pollster.

"It’s led to saturation advertising on every possible medium: radio, television, blogs and websites – lots of social media. It’s battled the race to a standstill, and at this point it is now down to things that money helps a little but not too much.”

With control of the Senate in the balance, all Senate races are drawing attention from outside groups across the political spectrum, but as one of the closest Senate races for months, Colorado has drawn special attention.

It’s also a prize for conservative groups, because Bennet, appointed to fill the seat held by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, is viewed as especially close to President Obama, who helped Bennet in a contested primary.

Bennet quickly established a clear fundraising advantage, raising $11.5 million to Buck’s $3.8 million. But conservative outside groups helped level the playing field for Buck. As of Monday, outside groups had contributed $16.5 million for political ads and other activities to support Buck, $10.8 million of which was used for ads opposing Bennet.

The pro-Bennet groups used a similar formula, spending $14.7 million in the Colorado Senate race, $10.7 million of which to oppose Buck, according to the Sunlight Foundation, which is tracking outside money in the 2010 campaign. The race has received more outside money than any other in this election cycle, it found.

“Our suspicion is that there will be more and more outside groups formed after the election, and that 2012 is just going to be wild, wild wild West,” says Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation.

Despite a string of verbal gaffes, Buck, a tea party favorite, is up 3 percent, according to an average of recent polls by RealClear Politics.com. While the national news media was quick to lump him in the same category with less-prepared tea party candidates, Republican leaders say he has mainstream support as well.

“Ken was never a tea party phenomenon, he was a respected district attorney with a real resume and substantial support in our party,” says Dick Wadhams, Colorado Republican Party chairman. “Democrats have shamelessly misrepresented his record.”

Campaigning in Colorado Springs, Buck tries to reassure veterans that his calls to rein-in government spending will not hurt veterans and seniors. “I am not talking about privatizing social security," he says, "but if we do not change the system, it’s not sustainable. We have an immigration policy that encourages illegal immigration and is not sustainable.”

“Ken Buck is more ideologically extreme than Republicans would have nominated in a typical year, but this isn’t a typical year and he’s still competitive,” says Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.

Speaking at the end of a 72-hour bus tour in Denver on Sunday, Bennet told supporters in a Mexican restaurant and, later, the parking lot of a strip mall, that the money doesn’t count any more: what counts is getting out the vote.

“We are facing here the closest Senate race in the United States of America right here in Colorado,” he said. “We have a chance to send a message to say that the last thing we are interested in is in going back to the old policies that drove this economy into a ditch.”

Other races headed to the wire in Colorado include:

  • Denver mayor John Hickenlooper (D) is leading former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo, who entered the race late as the American Constitution Party candidate, but has been closing the gap in recent week to 5.8 percent. Tea Party candidate Dan Maes won the Republican nomination by campaigning against politicians in Washington. But he but quickly dropped to single digits in approval ratings, after a weak campaign marked with controversy -- most recently news that the candidate turned over $72,000 of campaign funds to his own family.
  • Three-term Rep. John Salazar (D) has been trailing challenger Scott Tipton (R) most recently by 4 points, in Colorado’s third congressional district. He is on an energetic tour throughout this vast, rural district to reverse that trend, but his votes with the Obama administration, including a vote for health-care reform, don’t play well with center-right voters in this district.
  • Freshmen Rep. Betsy Markey (D), too, is under the gun in Colorado’s fourth district for her votes with House Democratic leaders that are unpopular in this district. Despite a troubled campaign, GOP challenger Cory Gardner is up three points.
  • Two-term Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D) is in a dead heat with GOP newcomer Ryan Frazier, who has the support of House Republican leaders. This race ranks No. 1 as a target for ads from outside groups not required to report their contributors.
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