GOP Senate Hopefuls Fighting "Insider??? Label

Jane Norton is trying to shed Establishment Candidate image in Colorado GOP Senate race.

Poor Jane Norton. She’s the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for Colorado Senate, she’s raised money hand over fist, and she’s leading her GOP rivals in every poll. She also tops Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in virtually every hypothetical Election Day match-up.

So why are Norton’s supporters standing in front of grocery stores, clipboards in hand, trying to gather enough signatures to get her name onto the August primary ballot? Her campaign insists it’s because she wants to mingle with the average voter instead of colluding with party muckety-mucks, but the fact is there’s a real possibility she wouldn’t garner enough delegate votes at Saturday’s state Republican Assembly to qualify for the ballot.

Norton is wrestling with an image problem. On the surface she seems to be everything state Republicans would want in a candidate: deep Colorado roots, a conservative platform, no hint of scandal, and the perfect blonde coif to boot. But she’s been branded the Establishment Candidate in a year in which the establishment, both Republican and Democrat, is taking it in the shorts.

It’s an odd charge given that she’s only held one elective post, that of lieutenant governor during the second term of Gov. Bill Owens. Norton’s guilt as an insider comes by association: Her sister Judy is married to Republican heavyweight Charlie Black, who’s a close associate of Sen. John McCain. The National Republican Senatorial Committee appeared to be in Norton’s corner from the start—one report says the NRSC registered domain names for her campaign—and the McCain-Black connection has given her entree into top Republican fundraising circles.

None of this has gone over well with the party’s anti-Washington wing, which regards McCain as an amnesty-loving RINO and sees Norton’s candidacy as a Washington-sponsored cram-down. The chief beneficiary of the anti-Norton mood has been Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, a border-security hawk who’s expected to win enough delegates at the state Republican Assembly to take the top line on the August primary ballot.

Norton has taken some heat for side-stepping the party process instead of trying to win over the delegates, but she has reason to be wary. For one, the assembly isn’t exactly representative of the average Republican voter. The delegates tend to be more activist, more political and more suspicious of Washington. There’s also a real risk for candidates in that they must receive 30% of the delegate vote in order to qualify for the ballot, which can be tricky in a field with more than three contenders. What’s more, candidates who receive less than 10% of the vote are forbidden from petitioning onto the ballot.

Recent history also suggests that delegates are not above indulging in the occasional game of "Let’s embarrass the frontrunner." Ask Ken Salazar. In 2004, he was the clear favorite for the Democratic Senate nomination, with tons of money, near-universal name recognition and a favorability rating that went through the roof. A no-brainer pick to win the most votes at the Democratic Assembly, right?

Wrong. Salazar placed second to one Mike Miles, an educator running on a staunch anti-war platform. That meant that Miles received the top line on the Democratic primary ballot; Salazar’s name came second. The worst part, however, was that for the next few weeks, Salazar had to endure endless chatter and speculation about whether he’d lost his political mojo in the face of his surprising defeat.

The same thing happened that year with Republican favorite Pete Coors, who garnered just 39% of the delegate vote to former Rep. Bob Schaffer’s 61%. In the long run, it didn’t matter: Salazar trounced Miles in the Democratic primary, and Coors defeated Schaffer. But politicians without Salazar’s and Coors’ resources can hardly be faulted for breaking out their clipboards and trotting down to the nearest 7-11.

Democrat frontrunner Bennet is actually having it both ways: He’s gathering the signatures and hustling for delegates at the state Democratic Assembly, which is permitted under Democratic but not Republican Party rules. His campaign acknowledges that he’ll likely finish second to former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, although Bennet is expected to garner enough votes to win a spot on the ballot.

Bennet’s dilemma is that he’s viewed as both an insider and an interloper. He was appointed to replace Salazar, who’s now heading the Interior Department, over other Colorado Democrats, including Romanoff, who were seen as more deserving. The assembly is stacked with Romanoff supporters, but polls show Bennet has actually increased his lead over Romanoff in recent weeks among overall Democratic voters.

Meanwhile, Norton is fighting the insider label, saying that Buck deserves it instead as a result of support he’s received in the form of ads from an independent-expenditure committee. She also points out Buck served as best man at the wedding of Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, which isn’t exactly in keeping with his regular-fella image.

In the end, Norton may have the last laugh. The Republican assembly ends Saturday afternoon. That night, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is scheduled to speak in Denver, and rumors are flying that she may use the appearance to endorse Norton.

Hey, sometimes it pays to be an insider.