CAMPAIGN 2010:

Tea party challenger aims to unseat Salazar Senate heir

Tea party politics has caught fire in Colorado, where Sen. Michael Bennet (D), the Democratic successor to former senator and now-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, is being pushed to the brink by GOP challenger and tea party favorite Ken Buck.

Bennet, a Yale-educated lawyer who has never won elected office -- he was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter (D) to finish Salazar's Senate term -- believes the government must act aggressively to reduce greenhouse gases and drive the expansion of renewable energy through tax subsidies and the use of federal land.

Such positions, which largely mirror the Obama administration's policies, stand in stark contrast to Buck's small government, and some say anti-environmental, rhetoric. Among other things, Buck has openly challenged the science behind global climate change and believes the federal government should keep out of state energy policies.

"I just think we have a lot of people who don't like the federal government right now," said Steve Belinda, energy policy manager at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

But the outcome of the Bennet-Buck contest could have wide-ranging implications not only in Colorado -- which has one of the nation's strongest renewable energy standards -- but across the West, political observers say. Some say it could even serve as referendum on the Obama administration's energy and public lands policies, which have been largely shaped by Salazar's Interior Department.

Recent polling shows Bennet trailing Buck by a narrow margin, and the Sierra Club announced this week that it would mobilize staff members in the state to aid in Bennet's election effort.

"In many of these races, there is a clear choice between a candidate with a strong environmental record and a candidate who sides with polluters rather than with the public," said Ken Brame, chairman of the Sierra Club political committee, in a statement announcing the group's new push in 29 tight races nationwide. "Sierra Club's thousands of volunteers will be pounding the pavement, working the phone lines, and talking with their friends and neighbors to help get environmental champions elected" (E&ENews PM, Oct. 4).

Sue Brown, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund, the political arm of National Wildlife Federation, said the Colorado Senate race could be pivotal to the Obama administration's policy momentum going forward. "If Michael Bennet is not re-elected, and if there is a major overhaul of the leadership in the Senate, many conservation and clean energy issues are not going to see any action at a time when we really need action."

Clean energy vs. jobs

But supporters of Buck say such policies reflect a federal bureaucracy run amok. A winning tea party campaign theme, particularly in the resource-rich West, is that the federal government wields too much control over public lands and that states should assert their rights to determine how such lands are used.

Buck has called for measures that would wean the United States off foreign oil, and he argues the path to "energy independence," at least in the immediate future, is to increase development of domestic fossil fuels.

"We can't meet our energy demands with windmills and solar panels and other alternatives in the near term. We may get to that point in the next decade or two, but we're not there today," Buck wrote on his campaign website. "For now, we must continue to depend on our traditional sources of energy -- coal, oil and especially natural gas."

A spokesman for Buck's campaign did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Such positions have won Buck friends in the oil and natural gas sector, which has poured more than $33,000 into Republican campaign coffers as of mid-September, according to data compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics.

Buck also has stressed the oil and gas industry remains a major employment sector in Colorado and creates thousands of high-paying jobs. A dramatic shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy could lead to an erosion of oil and gas jobs and place even greater stress on already suffering rural economies.

For his part, Bennet refutes claims that he wants to weaken traditional energy sectors like oil and gas, even mirroring some of Buck's comments on using natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to longer term alternative energy sources.

"We are not going to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil through investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency alone," he wrote on his campaign's website. "I believe we should prioritize the development and export of Colorado's vast natural gas resources as one way to help our country steer clear of foreign oil."

Tony Massaro, senior vice president for political affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, said Buck is presenting Colorado voters with "false choices" about energy development and job creation.

Massaro noted that Colorado's recently revised renewable energy standard requiring that 30 percent of the state's electricity come from renewable sources by 2020 is a powerful incentive for both alternative and conventional energy firms to invest in new facilities and hire additional workers.

Overall, "green jobs" in Colorado grew by 30 percent between 1995 and 2007, helped by more than $796 million in venture capital investment and $300 million in federal stimulus funds, according to a study from Headwater Economics, a nonprofit research group in Montana (Greenwire, June 17).

For example, the Danish firm Vestas Wind Systems A/S has located both wind turbine and wind tower factories in Colorado, with projected employment of more than 1,200 by the end of 2010. At the same time, major oil and gas firms -- including Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips Co., Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Valero Energy Corp. -- have signed on as sponsors of the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels to help advance renewable fuels technologies.

But "green energy" themes appear not to be resonating with Colorado voters, said Rutgers University political scientist and former Brookings Institution researcher Ross Baker, because voters do not see such developments easing the short-term pain of a down economy.

"The green jobs idea is still seen by people as something that's far in the future and doesn't address their problems now, and they're dealing with some pretty big problems right now," he said.

Tightening race

Meanwhile, campaign polls show Buck gaining support among Colorado voters.

The results of a Denver Post/9News-sponsored SurveyUSA poll of 647 potential voters released last Sunday found that 48 percent of respondents support Buck, with 43 percent for Bennet, according to the newspaper.

A McClatchy-Marist poll released last week found that 50 percent of 527 potential voters surveyed said they support Buck, compared to 42 percent for Bennet.

A third poll, released this week by Public Policy Polling, found Bennet holding a slight edge, with 46 percent of 824 prospective voters supporting Bennet compared to 45 percent for Buck, according to the Huffington Post.

Bennet continues to hold a sizeable lead in campaign contributions, however, raising a total of $7.7 million, compared to only $1.2 million for Buck, according to the latest federal campaign contribution data published on the Center for Responsive Politics website.

The top donors to Bennet are lawyers, law firms and liberal-leaning groups like ActBlue, a Massachusetts-based Democratic political action committee.

Buck, meanwhile, has garnered his largest contributions from contractors, conservative PACs, and the oil and gas sector. Among his largest contributors are contracting giant Hensel Phelps Construction Co., of Greeley, Colo., and the Senate Conservatives Fund of Arlington, Va., chaired by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

"The purpose of the Senate Conservatives Fund is to help elect strong candidates who are overlooked by the Washington establishment," DeMint said in a statement. "I believe Ken Buck is a conservative standout who will fight the establishment in both parties when he gets to Washington."

Pushing forward

Yet even with the tightening race, Bennet has continued to push for clean energy legislation that Buck and his tea party allies could use to rally supporters.

Last week, Bennet introduced a measure that would establish a competitive grant program at the Energy Department that would allow states and local governments to carry out clean energy and carbon-reduction actions. The cost of the grant program would be offset by ending tax incentives for oil companies (Greenwire, Oct. 1).

While such proposals have slim prospects given Congress's small window for completing bills after November's election, they may burnish Bennet's reputation among conservation-minded voters.

LCV awarded Bennet a perfect 100 on its 2009 voting record scorecard for consistently supporting efforts to promote renewable energy, such as extending renewable energy tax credits. In formally endorsing Bennet in January, the group noted that the senator "supports efforts to pass comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation that will create jobs, reduce carbon pollution and increase energy independence."

By the same token, LCV brandished Buck with an anti-endorsement, recently adding the candidate to its "Dirty Dozen" list of office-seekers who oppose environmental protection policies. Buck is joined on the list by fellow tea party favorites Rep. Michele Bachman (R-Minn.) and Delaware GOP Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell.

"Michael Bennet is going to be looking out for the clean energy economy and environmental issues in Colorado," said Brown, the NWF Action Fund executive director. "Ken Buck is in the pockets of big oil and will do anything big oil wants when he gets into office."

Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.

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