DENVER — For months, Republican Ken Buck held a clear edge in his bid to win a key U.S. Senate seat away from the Democrats in Colorado.
Now, in the final days of the campaign, Buck was on the defensive as he met with a friendly group of Republican businesswomen in a Denver office building on a crisp autumn evening.
"I'm not taking your birth control. I'm not taking your Social Security. I'm not taking your student loans," he said. "If I was the person in that commercial, I wouldn't vote for that guy. It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen."
Ridiculous or not, Buck's once-solid lead over Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet is shrinking. As in several other Senate races around the country, Democrats here are cranking up President Barack Obama's get-out-the-vote machinery from 2008, working to paint the Republicans as extreme, energizing some of their own base voters and drawing closer in polls.
The result is that in a handful of states — Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — the Democrats now have at least a fighting chance to hold Senate seats that looked lost in September. If they succeed, they greatly increase their odds of retaining control of the Senate, even as they still appear likely to lose control of the House of Representatives.
"It now appears that the long advantage that the Republicans and Mr. Buck had has dissipated," said Floyd Ciruli, an independent Denver pollster.
There are two key reasons, Ciruli said. First, the Democrats are targeting messages to women on issues such as abortion and rape, and to older women on Social Security. "The base is coming together, and they're probably picking up some unaffiliated voters," he said.
Second, Ciruli said, Buck has made controversial comments on social issues, such as likening homosexuality to alcoholism, providing a target for Democrats and deflecting attention from his successful attacks on the Democratic economic agenda in Washington. "He made some serious faux pas," Ciruli said, "getting into social issues and reinforcing the Democratic message that he's too extreme."
Buck, a county prosecutor, won the Republican Senate nomination by tapping into a grass-roots, tea party-inspired backlash against the political establishment. He surged to a lead over Bennet by indicting the Obama-Democratic agenda on such things as soaring federal spending and debt, bailouts for Wall Street and the sweeping new health care law.
The message appealed to Lucy Tucker, a Democrat who voted for Obama in 2008. Laid off from her job as a nurse practitioner, she sees nothing in all the federal spending that's helping her.
"I don't like Michael Bennet," she said of the incumbent appointed two years ago to fill a vacant seat, who's now seeking a full term. "Take the stimulus. What has it changed? I read that we're getting money, but I'm not sure where it's going."
Two years after he was nominated in Denver, a year after he signed the economic stimulus bill in Denver, Obama's deeply unpopular in Colorado. Just 39 percent approve of the way he's doing his job, while 56 percent turn thumbs down, according to a recent McClatchy-Marist poll.
With energetic support from conservatives and swing voters, Buck led by a solid 8-point margin weeks ago, 50-42 percent in a McClatchy-Marist survey.
Then the Democratic campaign kicked into gear just as ballots were mailed for the start of early voting last week.
First, the Democrats turned to a massive voter file built over five years with records from every election in the state, from city council races to the 2008 presidential election.
"We're watching every single ballot as it gets reported so we know who's voted and who hasn't," said Pat Waak, the chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party.
Then they turned to their list of volunteers, also built over the years and boosted by such things as sign-up cards at Invesco Field at Mile High when Obama gave his nomination acceptance speech there, and at a recent rally when Bill Clinton spoke. Those volunteers write e-mails, knock on doors and call anyone thought to be a Democratic voter who hasn't yet mailed in his or her ballot.
Although Obama isn't scheduled to appear in the state — he hasn't been here since before the August primary — he and the White House are working to rally core Democratic voters across the country, such as minorities, women and the young.
Among the White House efforts:
- Reaching out to African-Americans in interviews with African-American radio stations and newspapers.
- Meeting with Hispanic media and staging a White House ceremony this week to highlight an Obama push for better educational opportunities for Hispanics.
- Releasing an official National Economic Council report this week on how the administration's policies are helping women, underscored in TV appearances by top aide Valerie Jarrett.
- Taping an interview with "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart to air before the election. "It's a great way to appeal to a younger voter audience that is a big part of the president's base," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.
In Colorado, Democrats are hitting Buck on social issues, including the comment on NBC last week likening homosexuality to alcoholism.
To someone such as Deborah Stone, a small business owner from Denver who has a gay son, that was enough to turn her opposition to Buck into aggressive work to defeat him. She's contacting friends to urge them to vote against Buck.
"It had a great impact on me," Stone said. "I do think it has changed the tide. Buck was ahead. Now Bennet is within the margin of error, and I do think Bennet will pull ahead."
At his appearance with the businesswomen, Buck said the Democrats were trying to steer attention away from such issues as the economy and federal spending, and that he'd stick to an economic agenda in the Senate.
"They don't want to talk about health care. They don't want to talk about the stimulus. They don't want to talk about bailing out auto companies. ... They're doing the same thing in every state. They're trying to tighten these races up," he said.
As soon as he invited questions, Buck used the opportunity to address whether he's anti-gay. He stressed his work prosecuting as a hate crime the murder of an transgender 18-year-old in Greeley, the first such prosecution in the United States. "We prosecuted the heck out of that as a hate crime," he said. "The conclusion is, Ken Buck is willing to do the right thing."
"We're not going to change Roe versus Wade," he assured the Republican women. "But if we don't change $13 trillion in debt, we're in serious trouble. ... We're not going to be debating birth control anytime soon on the Senate floor. We are going to have to deal with spending."
Buck acknowledged that he's paid a price, but he thinks that his economic message will get through in the final days.
"He froze our numbers with those commercials," he said. "Well, they're not frozen anymore."
He added in an interview, "Everything tightens at the end, but not enough for them to pull ahead."
"He has made some mistakes," said Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams, a veteran of several close Senate races around the country. "Some Democrats may be coming home, but the fundamentals of this race remain the same."
Bennet, who's never run for public office, refused requests for an interview, as he did during his primary campaign.
Both camps — and their allies in outside groups — are talking through television ads. Outside groups have poured money into Colorado to influence the Senate race, spending more there so far than in any other state, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The majority of the $27 million they've spent has bought negative ads, with $8.3 million in ads slamming Democrats and $7.9 million in ads attacking Republicans.
Regardless of what happens on the airwaves, Republicans aren't ceding the get-out-the-vote drive to the Democrats. They have an edge in the number of early ballots requested: 557,000 for registered Republicans and 504,000 for registered Democrats.
"We're in Election Day right now," Wadhams said.
SOME CLOSE RACES:
Close races for Senate seats now held by Democrats. Numbers are an average of public polls compiled by the website RealClearPolitics.
Colorado: Sen. Michael Bennet, Democrat, 45.3 percent; Ken Buck, Republican, 46.3 percent.
Illinois: Alexi Giannoulias, Democrat, 39.5 percent; Rep. Mark Kirk, Republican, 41.3 percent.
Nevada: Sen. Harry Reid, Democrat, 45.2 percent; Sharron Angle, Republican, 45.6 percent.
Pennsylvania: Rep. Joe Sestak, Democrat, 43.5 percent; Pat Toomey, Republican, 46.3 percent.
West Virginia: Gov. Joe Manchin, Democrat, 45.8 percent; John Raese, Republican, 44.3 percent.
Washington state: Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat, 49 percent; Dino Rossi, Republican, 46.8 percent.
ON THE WEB
For more on spending from the Center for Responsive Politics, Outside Spending
For more on the Bennet campaign, Bennet for Colorado
For more on the Buck campaign, Buck for Colorado
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2010