When Jane Norton entered the U.S. Senate race last fall, everyone–from fearful Democrats to local Republicans irate about other candidates being shoved aside by Washington D.C. insiders–believed it was a game-changing moment, and that Norton would almost certainly emerge as the GOP nominee. With a long resume of favored appointments, and the backing of John McCain’s formidable nationwide campaign apparatus (not to mention help from the National Republican Senatorial Committee), Norton represented, to Democrats and her GOP challengers alike, their gravest threat.
Nine months later, Norton is trailing badly to upstart Ken Buck in GOP primary polls, Democrats are scrambling to adjust fire to Buck, and Norton’s campaign is a shrill chorus of over-the-top negativity–against both Buck and “the liberals.” Her recent “War on Islam” online ad campaign has taken much of the air out of the room that might be otherwise available for discussion of recent negative stories about Buck. But as our friends at National Journal’s Hotline report today, 9/11, more than the economy or Ken Buck, really is what Norton’s campaign wants to talk about:
Ex-CO LG Jane Norton (R) is promoting a hawkish stand on national security issues in an attempt to tap into a base vote that has gone overlooked amid a weak economy.
“Barack Obama’s retreatist tactics in fighting the War on Terror suggest a President more concerned with political correctness than with defeating the radicals, jihadists and terrorists who hate America and would harm us and our allies,” Norton writes on her website…
And though polls show voters care most about jobs and the economy, Norton’s team believes they benefit by changing the subject.
“We’re really trying to drive the conversation to discussion about the issues and how they’d govern,” said Josh Penry, Norton’s campaign manager. “These are questions that come up a lot. Jane’s opponent in the primary has been very much a generalist and approaches issues from a 30,000-foot level.”
An accompanying web video makes reference to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, featuring the sounds of a jet plane over a blank screen…
“In a very real way, we’re picking a fight with the left, because they’re wrong both on trying to change the vernacular and they’re wrong on the substance of policy,” he said. “We knew we were going to get flak from the left, and frankly, welcome it.”
Here’s the thing: it’s not that getting lefties up in arms is, in itself, a bad idea for firing up the right-wing base in kind, although Norton’s campaign may not have accounted for how broadly repugnant the actual content of this ad would be considered. If you’re going to take a controversial position, putting in a direct inference to something as universally condemnable as a “war on Islam” makes it almost certain that whole effort will backfire.
The real problem is how Norton’s lurch to the right–which seems to have accelerated and formalized since Josh Penry took over as campaign manager in April–looks in the context of a campaign that otherwise has been a bumbling disaster, with an uninspiring message and an inarticulate stuffed suit of a candidate failing to win her base. Penry certainly knows how to go hard negative, as he’s proven in his time as Minority Leader in the state senate. The problem is that Norton has gone so sweepingly negative, and so stridently right-wing, as to inspire skepticism about everything she says–even the things that may be legitimate.
It all begins to reek of simple desperation, and that becomes the sidebar of every story.
It’s not the way it had to be: we just don’t think many of the parallels to “Tea Party” victories in other states had to play out the same way in Colorado. Colorado Republicans might well have warmed to Norton over time if she had not tried so hard to reinvent herself into this reactionary caricature, which everyone knows she would not have affected but for the rebellion against her on the right. Norton was expected to be a Bill Owens-model moderate, which would have been the better general election candidate–possibly, had it happened differently, more than a match for Michael Bennet. That’s the Jane Norton Democrats were afraid they would face this November.
But the last nine months of Norton’s pandering to the fringe right, reaching its crescendo with her broadly offensive “war on Islam” ad, have destroyed her ability to campaign as a wide-appeal moderate in the general election. Unbelievably, “Tea Party” favorite Buck is in a more general election-credible spot right now than Norton, if only because nobody thought Buck merited a “tracker” during the primary–we expect that’s changing. Either way, Norton can’t put all these wacky things she has asserted and called for on camera back in the bottle. And she has failed in her goal of winning the base votes she sought to attract with this stuff–she was too far alienated from them to have it considered believable, and she has only fallen further behind in the polls.
It’s a situation both similar to and different from the GOP Senate primary in Nevada, where the would-be frontrunner Sue Lowden lost to “Tea Party” favorite Sharron Angle. Lowden had on-camera gaffes that called into question her qualifications (like Norton, her supposed best asset)–but Angle is a toxic victor the GOP must hide all the way to November, lest the general election voters discover how crazy she truly is. Norton has the worst of both: credibility problems that endanger her in the primary, and the body of fringy statements that would harm her after.
It’s not the end, of course. Nobody is willing to say that Norton is finished, and her strategy since abandoning the assemblies of reaching out to inactive and low-information GOP primary voters could certainly work: there remains the matter of Norton’s considerable cash on hand versus Buck’s weak fundraising (offset by those deep-pocketed “independent interests,” of course).
But if we do wake up on August 11th, and are compelled by events of the previous evening to write Jane Norton’s political epitaph, we’re going to start with the worst decision Norton made, and Josh Penry doubled down on. A contrived play that failed to resonate with the primary voters she needed, and cost her the biggest thing she had going for her once the primary was over.