Earlier this year, Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet seemed to be one of the most vulnerable of all U.S. Senators up for re-election.
During a campaign appearance yesterday at Metropolitan State University of Denver, Bennet could not have seemed more relaxed if he'd been sprawled out in a lawn chair while sipping from a frosty mug.
Bennet insists that he isn't taking the results of the November election for granted. "Somebody told me once that the only way to run for office was unopposed or scared," he said toward the end of the event. But no fright was in evidence as he strolled into the Tivoli Student Union alongside Denver mayor Michael Hancock...
...for what his handlers termed a "walk-through" of the on-site tap house.
Even though this didn't exactly qualify as a high-profile media event (the most prominent journalists on the scene were Metro students), Hancock cranked up his charm anyhow. He thrives in such settings, greeting everyone in his path with the sort of exaggerated bonhomie that he honed during his youth as Huddles, the most ridiculous Denver Broncos mascot ever.
Bennet's style is much more low-key, but surprisingly effective. While his outfit didn't qualify as authentically college-casual — he paired a well-worn Patagonia jacket with dress pants — his shambling conversational style immediately put the taphouse patrons at ease.
They reacted to him as they might to a professor they were surprised to discover was a regular guy, as opposed to viewing him as a glad-handing back-slapper.
Indeed, the conversations between Bennet and the customers dragged on for longer than his handlers had planned, especially given that the candidate had arrived at the Tivoli a few minutes late.
Eventually, they had to shoo him out the door and around the building, toward the common-area spot where he was scheduled to speak.
But Bennet wasn't in a rush.
He happily posed for a selfie with Hancock and three students....
...and engaged another student who announced that he was supporting Bennet even though he's a Republican.
It was an encounter so perfectly attuned to the campaign's message that it might have seemed staged had it taken place with a gaggle of TV crews in tow, as opposed to a Metro journalist with a camera she could hold in one hand.
Finally, Bennet was herded into the speaking area, and after brief introductions from a pair of students and Hancock, he launched into a series of talking points modified for the audience of fifty or so college-agers who formed a half-circle around him.
He began and ended with admonitions to vote, with tangents to emphasize the unconscionable cost of higher education and the need to do something about it, as well as references to immigration reform that focused on his membership in the Gang of Eight, which collaborated on a 2013 compromise measure that has never gotten a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Along the way, Bennet noted that a journalist (Mother Jones's Matt Connolly) had likened each member of the Gang to performers in the Wu-Tang Clan; Bennet was dubbed Masta Killa. The reference didn't get as large a response as Bennet seemed to expect, probably because the Clan's seminal album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), came out in 1993, a good five years before many of those in the crowd were born. More tellingly, though, Bennet name-checked the Republicans in the Gang, including John McCain and Marco Rubio, as a way of signaling that he found demonizing the GOP to be a counterproductive waste of time.
Afterward, Bennet conducted a pair of sidebars with student journalists before giving yours truly a few minutes. On the topic of whether he feels safe when it comes to his re-election chances, he stressed that "we've worked hard over the last year to put us, I think, in a pretty good position. But we're going to run through the tape on election day. We're not taking anything for granted."
Nonetheless, Bennet didn't mention Glenn a single time during his address — a decision he attributed to the venue. "I guess I was just thinking about the students, really, more than anything else," he maintained.
Regarding his GOP rival, Bennet said, "I suppose we're fortunate here in Colorado, because we have a Senate race where the gap between his policy views and my policy views, and his suggested approach to the work and my approach to the work, I think may be bigger than any gap in the United States of America. And probably, from my point of view, that's defined by my bipartisan record."
Glenn, in contrast, has repeatedly stated that "the problem with Washington is that the Republicans have been too cooperative, too collaborative, and that he wouldn't support Mitch McConnell to be majority leader or minority leader, because McConnell had conspired somehow with President Obama," Bennet continued. "That's just not the way most people from Colorado think about this. What they want is principled bipartisanship. What they're getting is unprincipled partisanship. The people of Colorado know what they want, and I don't think his arguments are going to hold up very well."
During an interview with Westword last month, Glenn rejected such bipartisanship claims, stating that Bennet voted with the Obama administration 98 percent of the time. This percentage has been disputed in many quarters, as Bennet noted. "I was in the debate the other night, and somebody said, 'You've got a 90 percent voting record [with Obama].' Then Darryl Glenn said, 'You've got a 97 percent voting record.' And now it's 98 percent. These are all kind of Washington math games. I have a record of bipartisanship that I would put up against literally anybody else in the Senate at this time of rank partisanship, and I feel very comfortable defending that record in this election."
On that topic, I mentioned the experience of my daughter, Ellie, who [disclosure] interned for Bennet's Washington, D.C., office during the period immediately following his vote in favor of the Keystone pipeline — a position that angered the environmental side of Bennet's base. After I confirmed that Ellie had gotten an earful of bipartisanship while speaking with angry callers, he laughed and said, "There it is, man. That wasn't a happy time to be answering my phones."
As for the Keystone vote itself, Bennet stands behind it. "There are a lot of very, very strong feelings on both sides of that vote," he acknowledged. "The reasons I voted the way I did — I had meeting after meeting, but I read the Congressional Budget Office report and the state department's report, and both reports concluded that the one piece of infrastructure that was tying into other infrastructure and ended up in the tar sands was not going to create a net increase in carbon by itself. But that's enabled me to go to the floor and defend the Clean Power Plan. [The Keystone vote] was hard and painful, and my supporters were angry with me — but when the science took me in another direction, I was willing to cast that hard vote. And now the science is leading me to say we need to support this climate plan, which my opponent does not support — and, by the way, neither does Donald Trump."
In other words, Bennet voted with Republicans on the pipeline, but his backing of the Clean Power Plan has allowed him to mend fences with environmentally minded Democrats — a pivot that might have appeared quizzical at the time, but now seems like a political master stroke.
Bennet is clearly eager for Colorado to weigh in.
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"Bottom line, we need everyone in the State of Colorado who has a right to vote to vote," he said. "We are so lucky to live in a state where people get mailed their ballots. I'm tired of being in a democracy where only 50 percent of the people vote. I think 70 percent should vote, or 80 percent should vote. So from my point of view, between now and election day, it's all about getting out the vote. That's what we're going to do, and I think that will lead to good things."
Spoken like a man who doesn't seem scared in the slightest.