Ken Buck on a Tea Party binge -- and consultant thinks Jane Norton is running scared

At around 1 p.m. today, toward the end of a Tax Day Tea Party event on the steps of the Capitol that's just getting underway at this writing, Weld County district attorney and Republican senatorial candidate Ken Buck will step into the spotlight.

He'll do it again at Tea Party events in El Paso County and Pueblo scheduled for later today. And he's already earned front-page treatment in today's Denver Post thanks to the endorsement of South Carolina Senator (and Tea Party hero) Jim DeMint, whose organization is reportedly ready to spend more than half a million dollars on ads to tout Buck.

Granted, the Post headline still dubs Buck a "long shot" in his challenge to Republican fundraising frontrunner Jane Norton, who announced on Tuesday that she's foregoing the rest of the caucus process to petition her way onto the primary ballot. But Buck general consultant Walt Klein isn't so sure that label fits.

"I'd much rather be sitting where I'm sitting today than I would having a seat over at the strategy table at the Norton campaign these days," he says.

Klein, who's played key roles in the successful campaigns of statewide Republican candidates such as Bill Armstrong, Bill Owens, Hank Brown and Wayne Allard, insists that he doesn't want to get too optimistic. But the DeMint endorsement, which was confirmed to Buck over the weekend in advance of yesterday's announcement, is huge, earning positive press in the national as well as the Colorado blogosphere -- and the commercial buy comes as a hefty bonus.

"Allison said it was $600,000," Klein says, referencing Post reporter Allison Sherry, "and I sure hope she's right!"

In the meantime, Buck's own fundraising efforts have improved a great deal since he bested Norton in the mid-March caucus straw poll.

According to Klein, Buck collected only about $40,000 in the previous quarter. However, in a report due later today, he'll confirm that he's collected more than five times that amount in the latest one -- approximately $217,000. Moreover, Klein notes that Buck will have $417,000 worth of cash on hand -- probably about two-thirds of what Norton boasts. To put it mildly, that's an enormous improvement.

Klein sees these developments as the culmination of Buck's efforts over the past eight or nine months, most of which have taken place below the radar.

"I think when the history of this campaign cycle is written, there'll be a short, maybe somewhat painful chapter that ends on March 16 -- the date of the straw poll. "Money froze up, and we were operating on a small budget -- not spending much, but powered by the strength of Ken as a grassroots candidate. And we knew things were moving in our direction with the base with the grassroots people. There'd been dozens and dozens of grassroots forums and debates, and at every one of them, one thing was clear: Ken was doing great, and while Jane Norton was doing all right, she just wasn't connecting with the grassroots voters.

"Up until March 16, the press had been covering the race by watching FEC reports showing how much money people had raised. Nobody was out covering these events, and if they had been, I think the press storyline would have been different earlier."

Norton's decision to petition onto the ballot rather than participate in the May 22 state convention came in the wake of her narrow loss to Buck in the straw poll. But in the interview with Westword linked above, Norton spokesman Nate Strauch insisted that the move was being made in response to Senator Michael Bennet's petitioning strategy. "Michael Bennet's decision to start taking petitions changed the game," he said, "This is about talking to 300,000 people rather than 3,000, and we can't cede him that advantage."

That's bunk, in Klein's opinion.

"I've been at many events where Jane was praising the heck out of party activists and telling them how important they are," he maintains. "And now, with the events of the last two or three weeks, she's now decided they aren't important after all.

"I don't think anybody bought the baloney about what a masterful stroke of political strategy it was to give up on the caucus and convention process. Everybody knows why she's doing this, which is that she hasn't been able to build the base she was told in September that she could build.

"People know that nobody has ever been elected senator or governor on the Republican side by getting to within a month of the state assembly and then announcing, 'I'm going to do something different. I'm going to pay a petition firm -- pay people five or six dollars a signature to get my name on the primary ballot. And then I'm going to win the primary, and then I'm going to win the general election.' I don't know where they got the idea in their head that this is a successful path. The people I've worked with went to the assembly and earned their place on the primary ballot by getting at least 30 percent support, and usually a lot more. Then, they went forward to build on that to win a primary, and then went on to win the general election.

"I think what Norton doesn't understand is it's an almost illogical statement to say, on the one hand, 'I'm going to abandon the grassroots Republican base,' but on the other hand, 'They're all going to get behind me so I can win the primary.' I think she's in for a very rude awakening."

The Norton approach would seem to transform the state assembly into a Buck valedictory, but Klein emphasizes that "we don't see it as any kind of coronation. There are still at least three other candidates who say they're going to the convention, and we're going to work harder than we've ever worked before to make sure we make a good showing. No one's taking anything for granted."

That's a message Buck will reiterate at least three times today. Tea Party on.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts