Political whirlwind harks back to ’04

Author: - January 9, 2010 - Updated: January 9, 2010

By Jody Hope Strogoff

As Colorado’s political world was being rocked this week by the seismic announcement that Gov. Bill Ritter would not run for reelection, numerous after shocks were being recorded in the days to follow.

Those involved in politics six years ago remember weathering another firestorm after Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell surprisingly called a halt to his safe reelection efforts in 2004.

Attorney General Ken Salazar, center, warmly embraces Rep. Mark Udall, left, on the steps of the state Capitol after Udall graciously bowed out of his two day-old campaign and endorsed Salazar for the open U.S. Senate seat in 2004.

Democrats faced a chaotic challenge back then. Most had presumed that Campbell would easily win his reelection bid and hadn’t looked to their “A” team for a challenger. An open seat, on the other hand, presented a whole new opportunity to wrest control from the Republicans.

If politicos think this week’s topsy turvy political scene has been crazed, what happened roughly six years ago will put things into perspective.

Literally the night before Campbell’s surprise announcement, his campaign manager, Sean Tonner, was taking extreme delight in needling Rutt Bridges, a self-made millionaire who had recently anounced his candidacy against Campbell.

According to Tonner, he received a phone call at 7:10 the next morning during which Sen. Campbell told him he was backing out. “He was just tired,” Tonner recounted. The prospect of flying back and forth to Washington, D.C. for six more years was daunting to the 70-year-old Republican, who had been hospitalized twice in the last month for chest pains stemming reportedly from stress.

Tonner didn’t mention it, but there was also the mounting scandal in Campbell’s Senate office involving his recently resigned chief of staff and an alleged kickback she acknowledged accepting. Campbell had turned the controversial matter over to the Senate Ethics Committee for investigation, but here at home, Colorado Democrats were pushing for an official Justice Department probe of the incident.

The Senator’s withdrawal announcement, made two and a half months after he officially opened his campaign headquarters amidst much fanfare, sent reverberations throughout the political community.

“He was arguably the most popular politician Colorado has had,” Tonner said at the time.

Campbell’s stunning decision to forego another term reminded Republicans in Colorado of a decision by another U.S. Senator not that long before. Hank Brown, the popular Republican officeholder who easily could have won reelection to a second term, surprised most people when he decided not to run.

Likewise, many Democrats recalled being stunned when U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth also decided to not seek reelection in 1992.

Jim Carpenter, Ritter’s current chief of staff, was working for Wirth at the time. When he heard about Campbell’s surprise decision in 2004, he e-mailed Tonner and commisserated with him over how emotionally crushing such an unexpected experience could be.

What ensued over the next few days was an exhaustive, quickly changing political landscape. On the Republican side, Gov. Bill Owens was deemed the strongest candidate. With his known penchant for wanting to go to Washington someday, Owens seemed like the natural successor to Campbell.

Suddenly faced with having to get into the race or watch a golden opportunity slip by, Owens surprised pundits and supporters alike. At a press conference in his office at the Capitol, Owens announced his decision to stay put. He cited family reasons — he was currently separated from his wife at the time — as well as his desire to oversee unfinished business of the state, as his main reasons.

From that point on there was a steady progression through Republican ranks as the floodgates opened. One by one, GOP “potentials” looked at the Senate race and decided against it.

Bob Beauprez,the freshman congressman from the newly created 7th District, mulled it over for a few days against a backdrop of national encouragement to run for the Senate.

He opted out soon afterwards.

“At some point in the future I may feel compelled to serve in the U.S. Senate or some other statewide office,” Beauprez said. “But this is not the right time for me, my family or — most importantly, my constituents in the 7th District.”

Shortly afterwards, CD?4 incumbent Marilyn Musgrave, who earlier cited encouragement by supporters to run for the U.S. Senate, bowed out of the race she had never officially entered.

That was followed by the subsequent announcements of Colorado Congressmen Scott McInnis and Tom Tancredo that their futures, likewise, lay elsewhere.

Like Beauprez, McInnis said he’d been urged by White House advisor Karl Rove to run for the Senate.

During a hastily called press event at the downtown offices of his new employer, the Hogan & Hartson law firm, McInnis delighted in telling about how Rove had called him just as he was shampooing his hair in the shower.

Rove’s personal encouragement, however, could not convince McInnis to get into the Senate race.

Other well known Republican names were being talked about — Lt. Gov. Jane Norton and former RNC?Chairman Jim Nicholson were in the mix. But it was Bob Schaffer, the congressman from the 4th District, who first announced his intentions to run for Campbell’s seat.

Schaffer’s entrance into the race would set off another round of intra-party recruiting to challenge Schaffer, A handful of other Republican names were tossed into the fray. Schaffer ended up in a hard fought primary with Pete Coors, winning that race but losing in the general election to the Democratic nominee.

No easy route for Democrats, either

The political activity on the Democratic side had been equally unsettling, perhaps even more so. With the entrance of think tank owner Rutt Bridges into the race when Campbell was still the GOP standard bearer, it appeared that the field had been established.

It was a welcome turn of events for most Democrats who had been hoping all along for a candidate with a lot of money to square off against the popular and well financed incumbent.

While Bridges’ name id wasn’t particularly high, he was a self-made millionaire who wasn’t adverse to putting some of his personal wealth into a spirited race against Campbell.

Bridges would join longtime candidate Mike Miles of Fountain, Denver attorney Brad Freedberg, Boulder attorney Larry Johnson, and software owner Liz Baker as the field of five.

Campbell’s announcement meant all bets were off, however.

Congressman Mark Udall, Democrat from CD 2 who had looked at the race earlier but decided against it, was now a likely entrant.

The well-liked congressman with a long tradition of public service in his family would make a very credible candidate, Democrats thought.

But so would Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, the twice elected statewide official with political ambitions of his own. Just a few weeks before, Salazar successfully recruited Rutt Bridges into the race and attended his candidate announcement three days earlier.

A messy and divisive primary among Democrats was sure to dilute the party and possibly weaken prospects to win the seat in November.

The political posturing had already begun.

At a meeting of the Denver Forum that week, Udall said indicated that he was definitely interested in running.

According to Alan Salazar, chief of staff for Udall at that time, Udall and Salazar began talking about the race after Salazar said that he, too, was interested.

It had been widely speculated that Salazar would run for governor in 2006 when Owens retired due to term limits. So, it came as somewhat of a surprise to Udall that the attorney general was potentially interested in the federal race, especially after Salazar had recently endorsed Bridges.

“Mark’s closest friend in politics was Ken,” explained Alan Salazar at the time, so there was a lot to consider. The two officeholders convened for a face to face meeting at a north Denver Mexican restaurant on Monday night to discuss the potentially dicey situation.

Salazar reportedly told Udall that he had been encouraged by state and national party leaders to run for the U.S. Senate.

Udall listened, according to Alan Salazar who was also at the meeting, and empathized with (Ken) Salazar. Udall acknowledged that the turn of events represented a great historic opportunity for Hispanics since so few had ever served in the U.S. Senate. He also learned that Bridges would supposedly exit the race should Salazar become the candidate — but would not do so if Udall entered the race.

Udall made a strong case for his own candidacy. The two men exchanged hugs and departed as friends with an agreement to keep their lines of communication open. Udall went to his congressional campaign headquarters and began making phone calls.

Bill Owens’ decision to forego the Senate race was now public.

Udall and Salazar continued to talk, and shortly later Udall informed Salazar that he planned to go forward. He announced his candidacy.

Udall and Salazar had one more face to face meeting, each trying to persuade the other that the race would be clearly easier without an intraparty contest for the nomination.

On Wednesday, Salazar scheduled a press conference where he intended to announce his own candidacy.

Udall then called Salazar and a final meeting was scheduled at Salazar’s home. For two hours, the two talked in private.

Udall’s staff was waiting at his campaign office, not sure what the conversation would yield. Would Udall emerge with his Senate candidacy still intact? Would there be a primary?

According to Alan Salazar, a number of people thought Udall should go forward with his plans to run; there were others not so sure.

Udall then made the toughest decision a politician could make.

He called (Ken) Salazar on his cell phone but had to leave a message. Political consultant Mike Stratton revealed that there would be numerous officials gathering to endorse Salazar at his candidacy announcement, including Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and former Gov. Roy Romer.

Just as important for Salazar, Bridges was planning to drop out of the race and likewise endorse Salazar.

In that singular moment, Udall realized, Democrats could clear this as a winnable seat. But only if they were united.

Salazar walked to the west steps of the state capitol with Udall and Bridges at each side. The crowd erupted into exuberant cheers.

Notables in attendance included Hickenlooper, Denver City Attorney Cole Finegan, Senate and House Minority Leaders Joan Fitz-Gerald and Andrew Romanoff, state Rep. John Salazar (Ken Salazar’s older brother and also a candidate for Congress in District 3 that year), former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm and first lady Dottie Lamm, former state Treasurer Gail Schoettler and former gubernatorial candidate Rollie Heath.

Udall, Salazar and Bridges raised hands at the podium.

Bridges was the first to speak.

“It’s been quite a week, and it’s only Wednesday,” he remarked.

“I got into this race for the good of Colorado, and today I am steping aside for the good of Colorado,” Bridges continued. “You rarely get to exit a roller coaster at the top of the ride, but that’s where we are today,” he said.

Udall then approached the podium.

“I think maybe this has been the shortest campaign in history,” he said with a smile as the crowd laughed with him. Using an analogy of hiking and what the future would hold for the upcoming Salazar campaign, Udall concluded, “I’ve got my pack ready and we’re going to put him on the summit.”