Jane Norton leads tough Colorado Senate battle 

Former Colorado Lt. Gov. Jane Norton faces one of the toughest political fights in the country: A hotly contested U.S. Senate race in the battleground state of Colorado.

She’s still the Republican most favored to unseat Democrat incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet in November, but Norton is fighting an uphill primary battle with several challengers trying to outflank her on the right.

One, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, edged her in Round 1, the March 16 nonbinding state caucuses, besting Norton by two-tenths of a point.

Then, Norton found herself in a death watch for her critically ill father. Walter “Bus” Bergman, 89, a decorated World War II hero and hall-of-fame athlete and coach, died Sunday.

While Republican voters still outnumber Democrats, the past three elections have seen Colorado change from red to blue as a handful of millionaire Democrats financed a successful effort to capture both houses of the state Legislature, two key U.S. House seats and both U.S. Senate seats. National political consultant Dick Morris rates the Colorado race as one of five Senate seats most likely to go to Republicans.

Restive voters seem to view Washington, D.C., “insiders” with deep suspicion and prior political experience almost as a liability. Bennet also was edged in the March caucuses by a Democrat challenger, former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. But it’s questionable that Buck and Romanoff have the financial wherewithal to make it down the stretch.

President Barack Obama came to Colorado to stump at February fundraisers for Bennet — breaking a 50-plus-year tradition, according to the Romanoff campaign, of White House neutrality in party primaries.

Political newcomer Bennet is the former Denver superintendent of schools who was appointed in January 2009 by outgoing Democratic Gov. John Ritter to fill the unexpired term of Sen. Ken Salazar when Obama picked Salazar for secretary of the Interior.

Norton was a regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and then director of the state Department of Public Health and Environment before serving from 2003 to 2007 as lieutenant governor under Republican Gov. Bill Owens. Norton’s husband, Mike Norton, is a former U.S. attorney now in a private practice.

Primary opponents have challenged Norton’s conservative credentials, citing her tacit support of controversial Referendum C, a voter-approved lifting of restrictions on state spending in 2005 under a state law called the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

That’s a stretch; at worst, it’s a sin of omission for not actively opposing the measure. Owens said all credit or blame should go to him.

“I was the governor and had cut taxes 43 times,” he told The Examiner. “If you’re going to blame Jane Norton for Ref C, you also have to then give her credit for cutting taxes 43 times. And if you compare the dollars we saved through 43 tax cuts to the dollars that were raised by Ref C, we cut taxes three times as much as Ref C would arguably have raised.”

While Buck and two other significant Republican contenders — former state Sen. Tom Wiens and businessman Cleve Tidwell — draw much of their support from anti-establishment activists, El Paso County tea party Chairman Cherie Ofner is firmly in the Norton camp.

Ofner made clear that her support for Norton is strictly personal, not official. She said attacks from the right, especially radio ads depicting Norton as a Republican-in-Name- Only and a closet liberal because of Referendum C and her relationship with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are uncalled for. Norton was McCain’s state chairman during his unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid.

“That was after he won the nomination,” Ofner said. “It was like all of us — we voted for McCain because he was better than Obama. But that doesn’t mean she’s owned by McCain.”

Norton said she’s a fiscal conservative who supports a balanced-budget amendment and has pledged never to support earmarks. “We could use something similar to TABOR on the federal level,” she said.

“What I’m hearing from voters is that we need principled conservative leaders who will return our party and our country to its roots of fiscal responsibility and personal freedom, and that’s exactly what I intend to do,” Norton said. “My focus will be on jobs, the economy and reining in spending, which begins with the repeal of Obamacare.”

Jim Pfaff, host of the Jim Pfaff Show (KLZ 560 AM, Denver) and a veteran grass-roots organizer and political consultant, said Norton is in a “precarious” position, but he expects her to ultimately prevail.

“What she has to do if she wants to win is to break away from the traditional mold that she has been placed in,” Pfaff said. “She is a conservative. There are those calling her a liberal, and that’s just flat-out false. She’s not a liberal, but she is the establishment candidate right now, and in this election cycle the establishment candidate does not have the upper hand, as in previous election cycles.

“So, she’s got a lot of work to do.”

Examiner contributor Steve Adams is a veteran freelance journalist living in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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