In 2007, Chyrese Exline met Andrew Romanoff and got his backing in her unsuccessful bid for the Colorado Springs School District 11 board. Romanoff, who was then speaker of the Colorado House, stepped up for her again in 2008, when she tried to follow his lead and become a state legislator.
Now, again running for the school board, Exline struggles to describe the dynamic of a Democratic Senate primary race that pits Romanoff against Sen. Michael Bennet, the former Denver Public Schools superintendent who was unknown to much of the state before landing the plum political appointment in January.
"I think there's a little bit of war between loyalty and ..." Exline says, trying for a few moments to find the right word before giving up.
Exline's statement points to the uncertainty that has reigned since Romanoff leaped into the race Sept. 16 to take the job that many believe Gov. Bill Ritter should have given him in the first place. Exline and others who've long labored for the party see Romanoff as the charismatic champion who traveled the state and helped build an enduring Democratic majority in the House.
John Morris, former chair of the El Paso County Democratic Party, says he believes Romanoff could win in a statewide election against anybody, "hands-down."
But Bennet has racked up endorsements from some big names, including President Barack Obama. And the unknown in a Democratic primary is how much the party has changed in the months since Obama was elected, Romanoff was term-limited from office and Morris stepped down as party chair.
"Older party people are much more aware of Romanoff," Morris says. "An awful lot of people who came in with Obama are not as acquainted with Andrew."
Morris is talking about the wave of interest that inundated the party during caucuses in February 2008 and carried Obama to victory over Hillary Clinton, who was then still the favorite for the party's nomination. Previously, a statewide turnout of 10,000 for election-year caucuses would have been respectable, but close to 130,000 showed up last year, remembers Pat Waak, the state's Democratic Party chair. Even without a presidential race in 2010, Waak expects attendance at party caucuses March 16 could reach 40,000.
Some are casting the Senate race as the grassroots against Washington, a portrayal that Obama may have stoked with his endorsement the day Romanoff got in the race. But Waak, who is tasked with keeping the state party apparatus neutral in primary races, says Bennet has impressed many Democrats with his performance to date, adding, "I don't think anyone should underestimate the level of support for Sen. Bennet."
Craig Hughes, Bennet's campaign manager, goes further, calling the grassroots-against-D.C. characterization "annoying and insulting."
"We're running a very grassroots campaign," Hughes says, pointing out Bennet has met with voters in all 64 Colorado counties since taking office.
Obama's endorsement could help Bennet, but the Denver Post and other newspapers have printed editorials calling the move premature, warning that an apparent coronation from the party establishment could backfire.
Whether it will sway last season's Obama fans is also uncertain: Mike Maday, who became a prominent El Paso County campaign volunteer last fall, says that he, for one, is "completely neutral." He adds that the organizational challenges of running in a primary could help the winner: "I think it will be good for the party, frankly."
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