In an election year dominated by a desire for change in Washington, voters in Colorado and Connecticut on Tuesday nominated a trio of Senate candidates who positioned themselves as political outsiders. But Colorado's results proved there are limits on how much change voters actually want, a telling sign that November's pivotal midterm elections may be even more unpredictable than polls suggest.
In Colorado's hotly-contested Democratic Senate primary, Sen. Michael Bennet fended off a challenge from former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. Bennet, who was appointed to the seat two years ago, repeatedly cast himself as a political change agent even though he was backed by President Obama and Democrats in Washington. Romanoff, meanwhile, got an endorsement from former President Bill Clinton and even sold his house to fund his upstart Senate campaign. While Romanoff seemed to have momentum in the final weeks of the race, Bennet still held on—a sign that Democrats, at least, aren't yet willing to toss incumbents aside.
In the state's Senate GOP primary, local district attorney Ken Buck narrowly defeated former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in a race that was seen as a microcosm of the Republican Party's internal ideological struggles. Both candidates were backed by factions of the so-called Tea Party, even though Buck tried to distance himself from the groups late in the primary. But Norton was also backed by the GOP establishment, including Sen. John McCain, who stumped on her behalf last weekend.
In Connecticut, former World Wrestling Entertainment chief Linda McMahon soundly defeated former Rep. Rob Simmons in the state's GOP primary. Simmons initially suspended his campaign in May only to make a last minute push for the nomination. McMahon, who has spent more than $22 million of her own cash on the race, faces the state's Democratic attorney general Dick Blumenthal this fall.
So what now? With results suggesting voters are still spooked by the economy and unhappy with Congress, all three candidates will no doubt continue positioning themselves as a fresh face that will counter the status quo in Washington. On the Republican side, both Buck and McMahon will no doubt cast their Democratic opponents as "insiders" but, aside from that, the two look to run very different anti-incumbent messages.
McMahon has largely focused on her experience as a businesswoman and has not been forced to talk much about immigration reform or other issues pushed by the tea party activists or social conservative groups. And that will help her against Blumenthal. Connecticut is a liberal state and the race is likely to be decided by moderates and swing voters. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, indy voters are now evenly split between McMahon and Blumenthal, though the Democrat has yet to attack his GOP opponent in any substantial way.
Buck is likely to push a far more conservative plank in Colorado, where the issue of immigration has been a driving force in elections for years. He's also come out against same sex marriage and abortion—two issues that will play big with evangelicals in the state. Still, while Buck's rise has been driven by Tea Party support, it was largely a marriage of convenience—they wanted anyone but Norton—and in recent weeks he's tried to focus more on issues like taxes and the economy and less on issues that might alienate moderates. He recently trashed some tea party activists as "dumbasses" for bringing up the question of whether Obama is really a U.S. citizen, and he supports hate crimes legislation. One likely target for Buck: Bennet's vote for health care reform, which Buck opposes and has made a central plank of his campaign.
In the end, Buck and McMahon now face the same challenge as scores of other 'outsider' candidates running in swing districts from South Carolina to California: how to retool their anti-incumbency message to appeal to the swing voters and moderates who will decide the November elections. That challenge may be more significant this year than in years past.
After all, while primaries generally attract the most passionate, most committed voters from both parties, partisan passions are running particularly hot in 2010. And there seems little reason to believe they will cool off with the weather.
(Photo of Bennet by AP/Ed Andrieski)