In Colorado, a Mama Grizzly Fights the Tea Party

>The Republican primary for the Colorado's U.S. Senate seat currently held by Michael Bennet is a bellwether for several key trends within the Republican Party this season, most notably gender politics and Tea Party activism. Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, the only woman in the race, is facing off against top contender Ken Buck, a county district attorney with a large Tea Party following. Buck has gained steadily in the polls, and a Denver Post/9News survey from June showed him leading Norton 53 to 37 percent.

But a recent offhand comment has the potential to shake up the race. Buck was caught on tape telling voters that they should choose him because "I do not wear high heels ... I have cowboy boots. They have real bullshit on them." Norton's campaign has already released a TV ad replaying this comment, clearly targeting the female majority of Colorado's Republican primary voters.

This ad taps into gender tensions that have been popping up in other Republican primaries. In Georgia, Karen Handel heads into a gubernatorial runoff with an advantage over Nathan Deal, whom she accused of sexism when he asserted that "real women" supported his candidacy. Nikki Haley triumphed over Gresham Barrett in the South Carolina gubernatorial primary despite allegations of affairs. In fact, Jonathan Martin speculates that the rumors may even have "intensified her you-go-girl following among women while increasing support among men who thought such accusations were bad form."

A Republican operative told Mike Allen that Norton's ad "will go up statewide with a significant buy for the foreseeable future." Norton, who is backed by the national Republican establishment, raised more than twice what Buck did during the second quarter. Buck's campaign had a slight advantage in terms of cash on hand, but he's benefited from ads paid for by outside conservative groups.

Things began to shift in Buck's favor in May, when Sarah Palin spoke in Colorado and conspicuously did not endorse Norton. Palin had mentioned Norton just a week earlier in her speech praising the rise of conservative "Mama Grizzlies" and was expected to endorse her in Colorado. As Norton dealt with the embarrassment of Palin's slight, Buck was riding on his endorsement from key Tea Party figure Sen. Jim DeMint.

The grassroots support for Buck, a relative newcomer to politics, has fueled comparisons to Sharron Angle and Rand Paul. If momentum from the Tea Party wins in Nevada and Kentucky can overcome Buck's fundraising disadvantage and footwear gaffe, he will have a very good shot at landing in the Senate. A recent Rasmussen poll saw both Buck and Norton sitting solidly above Democratic contenders Michael Bennet and Andrew Romanoff.