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In Colorado primary, two Jewish Democrats square off on special interests

Two Democrats with Jewish roots, challenger Andrew Romanoff, left, and incumbent Michael Bennet, are squaring off in a Colorado primary fight for the U.S. Senate. ()

Two Democrats with Jewish roots, challenger Andrew Romanoff, left, and incumbent Michael Bennet, are squaring off in a Colorado primary fight for the U.S. Senate. ()

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Andrew Romanoff and Michael Bennet, each vying for the Democratic nomination for Colorado’s junior spot in the U.S. Senate, seem to be running identical campaigns with identical biographies: Jewish scions of East Coast public service families, Yale educated, drawn to the Centennial State as ambitious young politicos.

They say they stand for the same thing: Government reformers running in an anti-incumbent year pledging to bash the big bucks bad guys.

President Obama has endorsed Bennet, who was appointed to the seat after the president named Ken Salazar, the then-incumbent, interior secretary. Romanoff also has the backing of a president — Bill Clinton, payback for the tyro’s support for Hillary Rodham Clinton during the presidential primaries in 2008, when Romanoff was speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives.

But there is a difference, and by default it has become the crux of what has become a bitter campaign: Romanoff has sworn off political action committee money, and he has tried to make the race about Bennet’s refusal to do so.

"He’s been very good at raising money from some of the most powerful interest groups," Romanoff told JTA in a scratchy cell phone call while touring high Colorado ground in his attempt to blanket the state.

The single wedge has filtered down into the state’s influential Jewish community, 80,000 strong, where each candidate has the backing of top figures.

Chad Asarch, a fund-raiser for Bennet and former lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said Romanoff’s jeremiads against organized political giving would nip causes that Jewish Americans favor — Israel, church-state giving, abortion rights — in the bud.

"I don’t agree with the rationale for his race," said Asarch, who is now a real estate developer. "We have groups of people who are interested in a cause, people should be encouraged to participate — that should be how it’s set up, and that’s how it works."

Ken Gordon, a former state senator who mentored Romanoff, says issues of ideology and belief would benefit from the absence of big money.

In the absence of big giving, "they all have to make their arguments based on the merits, not on the money," Gordon said. "You’re not going after special interests, just getting rid of the bribery."

Romanoff only foreswore such funding for this campaign; as a state legislator he accepted PAC money. Gordon says the difference is that such money has a much more corruptive effect in Washington.

Both men have deep Colorado connections.

Romanoff, 43, paved the way to Colorado’s purple state status by leading the party to two consecutive victories for the first time in decades. He worked with Republicans to wrest the state from an economic crisis. Bennet, 45, earned high marks as Denver’s school superintendent from 2005 to 2009, when the schools were turned around.

Neither of them, however, is Colorado born or raised. Coincidentally, both men spent formative years in Ohio — Romanoff was raised in Columbus, and Bennet launched his political career after college, in 1993, working with then-Gov. Richard Celeste.

Romanoff, who was born in Washington, is the son of a judge and a social worker. Bennet was born in New Delhi, India, to Douglas Bennet, then a U.S. diplomat who went on to lead National Public Radio, the U.S. Agency for International Development and Wesleyan University. Both candidates are graduates of Yale — Bennet of its law school and Romanoff earned his bachelor’s degree (as well as a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Public Policy and a law degree from the University of Denver).

Neither is shy about his Jewish background, although Bennet was awkward until recently in its acknowledgment. His office turned down repeated JTA requests for clarification after his 2009 appointment. Now he has publicized that his mother is a Holocaust survivor and that he was brought up in both Judaism and Christianity. As far as his current practice, he will only say he believes in God.

Romanoff, who makes much of his immigrant grandparents in pitching to Colorado’s Hispanic community, has been boning up on Israel, traveling to the region twice in the past 18 months — with the Aspen Institute, an influential think tank, and as a Wexner Foundation fellow.

He ably talks the pro-Israel talk.

"I believe a nuclearized Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel and a profoundly destabilizing force to the region and the world," Romanoff said. "I don’t think we need to be weak kneed or fainthearted from preventing that threat, or preventing Iran from attaining nuclear capability."

Bennet, whose staff did not return requests for an interview, backed the recent congressional Iran sanctions package.

"Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons are a threat to our national security and the security of our allies, and these sanctions should make Iran’s leadership think twice and think hard about the consequences of pursuing a nuclear weapon," he said in a statement.

The candidates are aware of the importance of the state’s active Jewish community: Romanoff will show up at functions major and small, including a Saturday morning coffee klatch, while Bennet’s first talk as a senator was to a Jewish group.

Israel ties loom prominent in the state. Gov. Bill Ritter, who last year picked Bennet for the Senate seat at Obama’s behest, shunting aside the presumed favorite Romanoff, is leading an economic mission to Israel this week.

Since being passed over by Obama, Romanoff has been working the state hard, and he has racked up victories in the first three preliminary votes in the state’s complex primary system ahead of the Aug. 10 primaries. Such wins in the past have not guaranteed a victory in the primary — a function of the loyalties of the day-to-day faithful vs. the broader considerations of registered Democrats who vote on Aug. 10.

It remains to be seen whether Romanoff’s anti-incumbent campaign will translate into a broader sweep. Bennet has much more money, and he has been able to run TV ads early. Romanoff’s first ad, depicting the Capitol as a casino, hit TVs just last week.

Romanoff is the better orator. Bennet, who is less comfortable in a crowd, runs an ad emphasizing the challenges he overcame as a dyslexic who failed second grade. He comes across as a dogged everyman.

Bennet’s backers echo a longtime argument of many pro-Israel donors in defending their choice: If the incumbent is good on your issues, stick with the incumbent.

"I see no reason to have a primary challenge," said David Foster, a campaign fund-raiser who has served on the boards of several local Jewish groups. "I support him because he is the incumbent U.S. senator and in the time he has served he has made me proud to support him."

Like other Bennet supporters, Foster makes a point of expressing his affection for Romanoff.

"I will support him in just about any other job he chooses to run for," Foster said.

Elliott Husney, a Romanoff fund-raiser and a former chairman of the local Jewish Community Relations Council, suggested the incumbent rule may be past its due date.

There is a national swell against special interests, Husney said, adding that "It’s resonating throughout the country and it will come to the fore at the ballot box.”

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