Colorado Senate Primary History

Hello, all. Today, I am going to look at a history of contentious primaries for Colorado Senate seats, the candidates involved, and the elections that resulted from them. I chose this topic ahead of the 2020 Senate Primary here in Colorado this June, which will pit former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives Andrew Romanoff against former Governor of Colorado and Presidential candidate John Hickenlooper. It has all the trappings of a close race with lots of money thrown in, and who knows what could happen after Romanoff had a surprise runaway victory in the caucuses earlier this month.

With that in mind, let’s look at some past primaries and how those candidates fared afterwards. We will start with the most recent and work our way backwards.

2010 Colorado Senate Primary and General Election

In 2010, Colorado’s Class III Senate seat came up for re-election and faced a tough primary between the incumbent Senator Michael Bennet and former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives Andrew Romanoff. Michael Bennet had been appointed to the seat by Governor Bill Ritter in 2009 after Senator Ken Salazar was chosen by President Barack Obama to be the United States Secretary of the Interior. Andrew Romanoff, on Governor Ritter’s shortlist for the appointment, decided to contest the primary after not receiving the appointment.

Bennet received the endorsement of President Obama, Senator Mark Udall, and much of Colorado’s representation in the United States House of Representatives, while Andrew Romanoff received the blessing of former President Bill Clinton. Bennet was a relative newcomer to politics, having formerly been Superintendent to Denver Public Schools with a mixed record and working in the private sector before that. This was a contrast to Romanoff, whose political career extended back to working with Colorado Governor Roy Romer in the 1990s.

After a contentious and closer-than-expected race, Michael Bennet managed to pull ahead of Romanoff and win the primary. His 8.3% victory was driven by his strength in the Denver suburbs and in the Western Slope counties, while Romanoff carried Denver and Boulder (Romanoff had represented part of Denver while in the Colorado House).

For the general, Michael Bennet faced off against an opponent who had emerged from his own difficult primary. Ken Buck, Weld County District Attorney, had begun the Republican Primary as an underdog with little cash against Jane Norton, the former lieutenant governor of Colorado. However, Buck received money and endorsements from outside groups and managed to win in the Tea Party surge of 2010, becoming the de facto Tea Party candidate of the Republican Senate Primary despite some disparaging remarks Buck made about the movement. In fact, Buck made many gaffe remarks during his campaign, which did him no favors.

The general election between Bennet and Buck became one of the most expensive in the country, with more than $30 million spent by outside groups on the race. This was part of an attempt by Republicans to capitalize on the anti-Obama momentum of 2010 and take back the Senate, which Democrats held with a 59-seat majority. In Colorado, Republicans ultimately fell short as Ken Buck was unable to overcome the fundraising prowess of Bennet and his embarrassing remarks helped do him in. Michael Bennet remained Senator by a narrow margin.

Following the 2010 election, President Obama remarked Bennet “perfectly reflects the qualities of the ruggedly independent state he has been chosen to serve.” Bennet would go on to carve out his own unique brand in the Senate, and be easily reelected in 2016, outrunning Hillary Clinton and winning the most votes in Colorado electoral history. Capitalizing on his success, Michael Bennet threw his hat in the ring for the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary.

Bennet was the second Colorado Democrat to do so, joining his friend John Hickenlooper. Bennet advanced several plans including his “Real Deal”. Ultimately, however, Bennet was never able to carve out a path for himself against the titan frontrunners of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. While he would hang on until the New Hampshire Primary in February 2020, Bennet would ultimately drop from the race. As of this writing, Bennet has not endorsed anyone in the Presidential primary since dropping out.

1992 Colorado Senate Primary and Election

When Senator Timothy Wirth did not run for Colorado’s Class III Senate seat in 1992, two Colorado political titans entered the arena for the chance to win the seat and keep it in Democratic hands.

In one corner was former Governor Richard “Dick” Lamm, a three-term Governor of Colorado who was infamously nicknamed “Governor Gloom” for his support of physician-assisted suicide and his quote “we have a duty to die”. Despite this, he had been a popular enough Governor to be elected three times and was courted by Colorado Democrats in hopes of running for Senate as early as 1990. It wouldn’t be hard to see why he’d be considered a frontrunner.

The biggest candidate against him was Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Born and raised in California, Campbell had perhaps one of the most eccentric lives of Colorado’s politicians. Following the death of his mother, Campbell had been placed in an orphanage at a young age by his alcoholic father. He later joined the US Air Force for the Korean War before heading to Japan to practice Judo ahead of the 1964 Olympics held in Tokyo, the first to feature judo as an Olympic sport.

Following this, Campbell returned to the United States and bought a ranch in Ignacio, Colorado, in La Plata County. He spent time after Japan connecting with his heritage as a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and earned the name Nighthorse, while also becoming a jeweler. Some time after all this he was convinced to run for office in the Colorado House of Representatives and, a fervent campaigner, won.

Rising through the ranks, Campbell was elected to the United States House of Representatives in the western 3rd district in 1986, defeating incumbent Republican Mike Strang. Campbell represented this mountainous and rural district from 1987 until the Senate primary against Lamm in 1992.

Campbell ran a strong campaign and proved to be the better campaigner as he always did, beating out the former Governor by 9.29% when the primary rolled around. This gave Lamm his first electoral defeat and sent Campbell on to the general with Bill Clinton at the top of the ticket.

In the general election, Campbell campaigned as a maverick and focused on his unique life story as he ran against Republican State Senator Terry Considine. The election wasn’t even close, with Campbell winning by 9.07% on the same day that Bill Clinton beat Bush by 4.26% in Colorado. Campbell notably won on his strength in Western Colorado, winning all but two counties inside of his House district.

In the Senate, Campbell earned a reputation for voting his values and not his party, voting with Bill Clinton about 78% of the time according to a study in 1995. Perhaps most infamously, this attitude would help lead to Campbell switching parties that very year, becoming a Republican to add to the woes of the Democrats who had lost control of the Senate. The reasons for Campbell’s switch are debated, and beyond the scope of this article. In his own words, Campbell found he was just voting with republicans more and more often, and so decided to stick with them. However, at the same time, he assured President Clinton he would still give his support for programs he already supported.

Campbell would indeed prove to be a political maverick, caring about issues that mattered to him above all others such as Native land and water rights and police officer safety to name a few. He became the first Native American to chair the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, being the first Native American to serve in the Senate since Charles Curtis of Kansas in the 1920s. Campbell voted to support Roe v. Wade, in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, and against the Federal Marriage Amendment, further staking his reputation as a someone in the center who took his own path. He also continued his reputation as a go-getter, passing more public laws during his time in the 106th Congress than any other Senator.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell was reelected to the Senate in 1998 by the widest margin in the history of Colorado Senate races, 27.47 points. He chose to retire in 2004 rather than run again, citing his distaste with the Senate. He returned to Colorado where a lake in La Plata was named for him, Lake Nighthorse, and where he continues to make jewelry.

1974 Colorado Senate Primary and General Election

The year was 1974, and the nation was in a fallout from the Watergate scandals and Nixon’s resignation. In this environment emerged a man named Gary Hart, who would emerge from a little-known Senator to a household name and subject of an entire film whose career in national politics would extend all the way to 2017.

With the country reeling from Watergate and in an anti-Republican mood, Democrats looked to increase their Senate majority even further and Colorado was one of those states. The primary for the chance to face off against incumbent Senator Peter Dominick was crowded, featuring Gary Hart, State Senator Herrick S. Roth, and District Attorney Marty Miller, once the youngest DA in Colorado history.

Gary Hart was the most notable of the bunch, however, especially when it came to primaries. Though he had not held office before, he had been particularly notable for his work on the McGovern campaign during the 1972 Democratic Party primaries and caucuses. Hart had been McGovern’s national campaign director when the McGovern Campaign worked to use the new primary and caucus system to their advantage and overcome the party bosses to win the nomination out of a crowded field. Though McGovern would go on to lose in a landslide to Nixon, Hart still emerged as a whiz kid under McGovern, and showed his organizing prowess.

Hart ended up winning a plurality in a very contested primary, taking just under 40% of the primary vote but still 7.05% more than Roth, his closest rival. Hart managed to win through carrying support in the primary all over Colorado rather than being concentrated in any one area. From there, he advanced to the general to run agains the aging Senator Dominick.

While liberal Republican Dominick was a formidable opponent on paper, having won in 1968 by 17.11%, the Senator had vulnerabilities. For one, there were concerns about the Senator’s age, and even more importantly the Republican Senator was a supporter of Nixon even after Watergate, when the national mood had shifted hard against Nixon. Capitalizing on the anti-Nixon fervor, Hart ran a powerful campaign that carried him to a wide victory in Colorado, winning by more than 17% himself.

Thus, Hart became one of the “Watergate babies”, like other Senators Patrick Leahy, Dale Bumpers, and John Glenn. A rising star, Hart carved out a unique brand of politics for himself in the Senate, seeking compromises and new solutions in politics rather than taking one of the old paths. he was particularly notable on his proposed solutions for the military and on his views of Silicon Valley, which in his second term earned him the moniker of “Atari Democrat” along with fellow Senator Al Gore. He also became popular for giving out “issues papers”, papers that Hart wrote out on just about every issue that came to mind, from reindustrializing America to reforming the military. He did this out of opposition to typical campaigning like bumper stickers and buttons. They proved massively popular and other campaigns clamored for them. To this day, it’s rare for any candidate to not have a dedicated issues page on their website, a sign of Hart’s lasting legacy.

In his second term in 1984, Hart would run for President, joining a field dominated by powerful politicians like Walter Mondale, John Glenn, and Alan Cranston. Hart began as the underdog, but aggressive campaigning in states like New Hampshire gave him surprise primary wins and catapulted him into the front of the race. While Mondale would eventually win, it forced the race to go all the way to the convention, the most recent time a Democratic primary has done so. Hart proved he was a political force to be reckoned with and represented a new force of younger Democrats with woads of new ideas.

Going into 1988 Hart was seen as a frontrunner, but an affair broke and turned his campaign completely around. His poll numbers dissolved and Hart eventually withdrew from the race. he would at one point attempt to re-enter the race, but his poll numbers never recovered his frontrunner status and he would eventually drop out while Michael Dukakis would go on to win the primary and lose to Bush.

Still, Gary Hart’s political legacy looms long, even to his ambassadorship to Northern Ireland from 2015 to 2017 and his endorsement in the Colorado Senate Primary to this day. He’s one Hart you won’t leave behind.

1972 Colorado Senate Primary and General Election

Ben Nighthorse Campbell isn’t the only party-switcher to have been a Colorado Senator. Before him, there was Floyd Haskell and the year was 1972. Nixon was at the height of his popularity and McGovern would go on to lose Colorado to him by 28%. Yet, Floyd Haskell wasn’t one to let that stop him from trying to oust incumbent Senator Gordon L. Allott.

Floyd Haskell was a recent convert to the Democratic Party. He had served as the assistant majority leader in the Colorado House of Representatives as a Republican, but left the Republican Party in 1970 in protest of Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, which was objectively the correct thing to do. Thus, he decided to run in 1972 in hopes of defeating the longtime Senator in what was promising to be a difficult year. This after he had, in his own words, decided to never run again.

The primary turned out to be a tough one. Running against him was State Senator Anthony F. Vollack, who would go on to become the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. With an impressive campaign, Haskell would emerge the clear victor with a 17-point lead over Vollack in the primary, sending him to the general against Allott.

Allott, who had won his previous term by 16%, was the easy favorite going into the race, and Haskell’s narrow victory of 1.04% was shocking at the time. This made Haskell the “accidental” Senator, a liberal in a moderate state who had just eked out a win in a four-way race that had also included candidates the Independent American Party and La Raza Unida.

Haskell would go on to act as a tax reformer and an environmental activist in the Senate, fighting for public lands and even experimental uses with solar energy. He was defeated for reelection in 1978 against a well-funded conservative opponent in a very Republican year out of backlash against Jimmy Carter. Haskell later went on to be a lobbyist and serve on the watchdog group Common Cause.

1956 Colorado Senate Primary and General Election

The 1956 Primary for Colorado’s Class III Senate seat is not quite as interesting for who won, but rather for who lost.

The winner, John A. Carroll, is someone whose legacy is a footnote in Senate history. Carroll represented the first Congressional District in Colorado during the 1940s, but passed on running in 1950. He then ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 1952 and 1954 in Colorado, losing narrowly each time. He was a special assistant to the Truman administration in the 50s and so used his political clout to keep his career alive despite the losses and so when 1956 rolled around Carroll once again ran for the Democratic nomination to try and win the open Senate seat.

Against him, however, was someone far more interesting. Running in the same primary was Charles Brannan, the former United States Secretary of Agriculture in the Truman Administration. Brannan was known for advocating the Brannan Plan as part of Truman’s Fair Deal program, which would guarantee farmers income while letting the free market determine the price of commodities. The plan was shot down by the Republican-controlled congress, but needless to say Brannan was a big force in American politics and policy at the time and a venerable titan running for office. After Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected President in 1952 and assumed office in 1953, Brannan left Washington and became the general counsel for the National Farmers Union.

Going into the 1956 Senate Primary, he must have seemed like a clear frontrunner in the race, but Carroll obviously had a better operation as the former Congressman managed to narrowly beat the former Secretary of Agriculture by the narrowest of margins. Brannan, to no surprise, was very strong in the agricultural areas of Colorado while Carroll won the cities and the Latinx areas where it counted.

Carroll would then go on to face Governor Daniel I. J. Thornton in the general election for the Senate seat. Thornton, known for his stetson hat and pipe, was an influential governor who was responsible for bringing the US Air Force Academy to Colorado Springs. He had even been on the shortlist for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Vice President, but lost out to Richard Nixons. Thornton, Colorado, the sixth-largest city in Colorado today, is named after him. To put it lightly, he was an opponent to be reckoned with.

Yet, Carroll managed to beat the odds once more and build a coalition spread across Colorado—from east to west to north to south—and eked out a win by less than 1% against the Governor. This at the same time that Eisenhower was winning Colorado by almost 20 points. Even though the seat would be retaken in the next election by a landslide, Carroll had made his mark and that was what counted in politics.

Thank you all for reading. This is my first major series of maps that I have done and I am happy with it. I hope this is well-received and if y’all like it then I will do more like this. Thank you and take care, all of you.