Four weeks ago, former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D-CO) was anywhere between eight and 20 points behind incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet.* His campaign was broke and focused mostly on sniping within the Republican Party. But since then, Romanoff has surged. He was endorsed by Bill Clinton (a thank you for his support of Hillary), automatically making him a credible contender. He sold his house to supplement his bank account and began to whack Bennet with negative ads, some of them misleading.
But when a Denver Post poll showed Romanoff leading by a few points, it was Bennet who hit his stride. He had been carefully and diligently campaigning across the state, trying to make a personal connection with voters who didn't really know him, or knew him only through headlines. Then he got angry, and his campaign ran ads blasting Romanoff for misleadingly claiming that he was a tool of Wall Street.
On Friday, the New York Times, using a Romanoff fundraiser as a protagonist, ran a piece questioning Bennet's stewardship of Denver Public Schools. The article suggested that because of Bennet's choices, Wall Street would profit off the backs of students. Romanoff immediately threw up an ad. Bennet blasted back, bemoaning Romanoff's decision to go negative and pointing out that Romanoff's clean campaign stance was not as white as it seemed.
Now it's a classic slugfest, which has the advantage of driving up turnout and potentially energizing the Democratic base enough for them to hold onto the seat in the fall, when the Democratic nominee will need to match the enthusiasm generated by Republicans. Colorado's large, grassroots progressive infrastructure has lain moribund because it's been disappointed with Washington. Romanoff's surge and Bennet's sense of fight are kindling mechanisms, regardless of who wins.
What of President Obama? The race is more of a referendum on the length of his political coat tails, which we know are short. He's endorsed Bennet, participated in a teleconference for him, and appeared in ads for him. Romanoff's supporters like Obama, and Romanoff carefully separates Obama's actions as a campaigner ("Washington") from the man himself. Bennet's team is using Obama's voice on radio ads to target certain groups of voters, but Obama is not currently appearing in his ads. A win for Bennet is not a win for Obama; the Obama Democrat brand is not in vogue. It's a Washington brand, one associated with Obama's inability to change the culture of the city. But Romanoff's team believes that Obama remains a net positive.
*NB: Bennet is the brother of James Bennet, editor of The Atlantic.