Going back decades, the key to winning in politics was money. For lobbyists and political action committees, incumbents were the devils they knew, and they paid millions to keep them in office.
This year, things are different.
The idea that lawmakers are bought and paid for has inflamed tea partiers who accuse Congress of helping the rich at the expense of everybody else through government bailouts. Meanwhile, liberals allege that Congress buckled under pressure from insurance and pharmaceutical companies when it watered down health care reform.
So it seems that for the first time in a long time, big money is suspect.
Former State House Speaker Andrew Romanoff sure hopes so. In challenging incumbent appointee Michael Bennet for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, he's been out-fundraised 6 to 1. Not only does he want to jolt Washington by defeating Bennet, whom Mother Jones lists as one of "Big Finance's 10 Favorite Lawmakers" based on campaign contributions, he wants to inspire others without big bankrolls.
"A lot of Americans were repelled by the sight of this Congress cutting deals with drug companies to protect their profits," Romanoff says in an interview. "You can say with certainty these corporate interest groups wouldn't spend these millions of dollars if they got nothing in return. That's not credible. There's something unholy and grotesque and obscene about that system.
"It's hard to remember a time when so many problems conspired against us, and the mercenary nature of Congress was on such vivid display."
Romanoff says he's relying on an "organic" campaign in which more than 300 people will host house parties to promote him. His strategy looked good last month, when he captured 60 percent of the assembly delegates to take top line on the primary ballot. He also notes that 95 percent of his campaign contributors are from Colorado and "100 percent are human," a dig at Bennet, who has accepted more than $1.1 million so far from PACs.
But Romanoff admits money can buy name recognition, and that's a goal of the flush Bennet campaign.
"What [money] means is," Bennet's communications director Trevor Kincaid says in a statement, "we have the resources available to contrast Michael's story of solutions for Colorado with our Republican opponents who want to give back pre-existing conditions to kids, who continue to chant 'drill-baby-drill' despite what's happening in the gulf, and who want to stand with Wall Street against Main Street."
Bennet's $6 million and counting puts him in a better position "to tell people about Michael," Kincaid says, "because Michael's story is different than that of the trend you're seeing around the country." Bennet is a newcomer, plucked from the Denver Public Schools system when Ken Salazar was appointed as Interior secretary. Hence, Kincaid says, he can't be lumped with long-termers who are dropping like flies in primary races.
Political consultant Patrick Davis says the dirty word isn't money, it's "establishment," meaning incumbents or political insiders. That label does apply to Bennet, he says, and to two Republicans: former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, running for Senate, and former congressman and lobbyist Scott McInnis, running for governor.
Davis is working with one of McInnis' GOP opponents, Joe Gschwendtner, but it's the other one, Dan Maes, who delivered the shock of the season. The Evergreen businessman, with a mere $89,000 in campaign money, captured top line by outpolling McInnis at the May 22 assembly.
Maes' coup prompted a news item two days later in the Constitutionalist Today, a conservative newspaper, that observed McInnis handed out three campaign pieces and T-shirts at the assembly, while Maes gave out one piece and asked for a $10 donation for a T-shirt. "Dan grew up poor and he's still frugal ..." the writer said. "Who would you like to have handling your tax money?"
In an interview, Maes says the distaste for insiders and big campaign money represents a throwback.
"It's about following candidates that are working hard to earn their support like it used to be done," he says, noting he attends breakfasts, luncheons and even meets with voters in church basements. He says the fundamental fundraising premise has been resurrected: 100 checks for $10 each represent 100 votes. One $1,000 check is one vote. And "if your checks are coming from out of state," he adds, "they're zero votes."
In 15 months leading up to the assembly, he spent $70,000 versus McInnis' $1 million. That, he says, shows "the rules are completely different this time."
The reset button
In other words, it's cool to be an outsider. Which means, even the insiders are acting like outsiders.
El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who's overseeing McInnis' effort here and has been mentioned as a possible running mate, notes that although McInnis is a former legislator and congressman, "He's been out of office since 2005. He's been Citizen McInnis for an extended period of time." She even gave him a slogan: "The outsider with insider experience."
She chalks up Maes' assembly victory to the small number of delegates who make those decisions, and she doesn't apologize for McInnis' campaign funds.
"It takes money to communicate your message," she says. "You can't do it without the money and the experience and the ability to focus on the real opponent, the Denver mayor."
John Hickenlooper, the Democrat running unopposed for the gubernatorial nomination, has raised about $1.2 million.
Voter aversion to incumbents might also play a role on the Republican side of the Senate race, where Norton, a party stalwart, has raked in nearly $1.9 million but finds herself petitioning onto the ballot. It was Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, with $756,105 in declared donations, who coasted to top line at the assembly. (Of course, a campaign complaint filed by a Norton supporter claims Buck is getting help via unreported expenditures by political organizations.)
In the state attorney general's race, Republican incumbent John Suthers has raised around $350,000, his report filed Tuesday shows, more than three times as much as Boulder DA Stan Garnett, who, like Romanoff, refuses PAC money.
"Folks are upset that it appears special interests have been prioritized over the hardworking small business or middle-class family or the typical Colorado voter," Garnett's son and campaign worker, Alec, says.
The proof will come in August and November elections, but Davis, for one, predicts the shift isn't a blip: "I think we've reset politics back to the early '80s."