Andrew Romanoff held a press conference today to announce that he is still running for the U.S. Senate and will not seek any other office or accept any other job offer in the meantime.
So there’s that.
On one hand, this is the first good bit of strategy (okay, really the only strategic move) that we’ve seen from Romanoff as a U.S. Senate candidate. Romanoff got a lot of free media attention by holding a press conference to announce basically nothing, while at the same time trying to beef up the impression that he is still a sought-after politician due to all of the people who encouraged him to run for Governor. Romanoff also needed to publicly affirm that he was staying in the race for Senate because of so much speculation to the contrary. In that regard, today’s press conference was a good move.
On the other hand, it’s hard to really understand this decision in general. Romanoff is a talented policy wonk who is widely liked and respected by both Democrats and Republicans, but his campaign for Senate has been downright awful…and it’s destroying his political future in the process. Romanoff has tried meekly to distinguish himself from incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet on the basis of not accepting PAC money or special interest contributions, but policy-wise and issues-wise, there’s really not much difference between the two. The lack of a strong, clear message for why Romanoff is running for Senate has been startling, and his campaign in general has been a mess. Witness this weird item today from Westword:
The morning after Bill Ritter announced that he wasn’t going to run for governor this year, I reached out to Romanoff spokesman John Schroyer for a comment about whether or not his guy would consider switching his focus from the senate to Ritter’s gig.
Schroyer pointed me to a comment Romanoff had made at a public event the evening before about still being a candidate for the Senate — but when I asked followup questions about how his challenge to Michael Bennet was going, Schroyer said someone else from the organization would have to provide answers. I suggested new campaign manager Bill Romjue. Schoryer said he wasn’t sure if he could get in touch with Romjue, but he would have someone contact me shortly.
That didn’t happen — and after Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar endorsed Denver mayor John Hickenlooper amid his own announcement that he wasn’t going to step in for Ritter, it was clear that Romanoff’s window of opportunity had closed.
Nonetheless, I received e-mails from Schroyer later that day, and for several days thereafter, asking if I’d gotten what I needed in terms of an interview. Each time I replied that I had not — that neither Romjue nor anyone else from the Romanoff campaign had contacted me. But these notes never prompted any action. No call ever came.
The Westword story pretty well sums up Romanoff’s campaign in general. He waited way too long to begin his campaign, he went months without a campaign manager, and he still hasn’t really articulated what he would do as a Senator that Bennet isn’t already doing. Romanoff had to announce soon that he was either running for Senate or switching to Governor, but ironically, it is the disarray of his Senate campaign that precluded a real run for Governor. We heard from more than one politico in the last two weeks who would have supported a Romanoff bid for Governor six months ago but had lost confidence in his ability to run a strong statewide campaign. Had Romanoff stayed on the sidelines and waited for his next opportunity, there likely would have been a strong sentiment that he should be the Democratic nominee for Governor.
But because he has spent the last six months running a head-scratcher of a campaign while simultaneously alienating a good number of Democrats with his messageless Bennet challenge, Romanoff was never going to be able to elbow someone like John Hickenlooper out of the race.
The reason we’re having such a hard time understanding today’s announcement is because there’s really no good ending in sight for Romanoff. His fundraising numbers for Q4 haven’t been released yet, but there’s no way he’s going to be able to keep up with Bennet. Romanoff doesn’t need to outraise Bennet in order to beat him in August, but he does need to raise a considerable amount of money just to keep his campaign running. You cannot run a truly effective statewide campaign when many of your staffers are volunteers, as they are for Romanoff. But if Romanoff spends the money he needs in order to staff up appropriately, then there’s no way he’ll have enough money for the kind of TV ad buy that will overcome Bennet. Remember, Romanoff may be popular and well-known with activist Democrats, but 85% of primary voters are uninformed, generally uninterested voters. Most primary voters don’t know Romanoff or Bennet, because most primary voters aren’t all that different than most general election voters. By and large, those voters will select the person they are most familiar with come August, and Bennet will be able to go up on TV with an ad buy that will all but assure that he has strong ID among Democratic voters.
In order to be a success in politics, you need either to be feared or loved (or, ideally, both). In less than a year, Romanoff has gone from being universally loved and respected (if not-quite feared as a candidate for higher office), to only somewhat loved and not-at-all feared. As long as he remains in the Senate race, nobody who has seen Romanoff’s campaign to this point will ever again fear what he might do as an opponent. As long as he stays in this race, Romanoff will never again enjoy the kind of popularity among Democrats that he once had. The only positive outcome for Romanoff at this point is an all-or-nothing gamble that seems like more of a long shot than anything. . He’s risking his entire political career on a bet that he’s going to get dealt two or three amazing cards between now and August – cards that will somehow propel him to an improbable victory.
Maybe Romanoff will surprise us and go on to win both the primary and the general election, but no serious observer can watch this race at this point and really, truly believe that Romanoff has a significantly better chance than Bennet. If Romanoff exits the race soon, he can chalk his crappy campaign up to wrong place, wrong time and write it off as an aberration. If Romanoff gets out now, he can start to rebuild the relationships he has broken while continuing to serve as a leader to those who support him now. Romanoff is talented and young, and he can live to fight another day. But if he loses the primary to Bennet while running a bad campaign, then he’s done. Or even worse, if he loses the primary and then Bennet loses the general election, Romanoff will be blamed (fairly or not, he’ll be blamed) for damaging the chances of Democrats to hold this seat.
Perceived political power is as important, if not more important, than actual legislative or executive power. If Romanoff loses to Bennet, then he also loses his place in line for future races. No other Democrat is going to defer to Romanoff if he has already proved that he can’t even win a primary, but if Romanoff exits the race now, he can do so while preserving some chits in his pocket to use for a future run.
Look, we didn’t think that Bennet was the right choice when Gov. Bill Ritter appointed him to replace Ken Salazar last year; we thought that it should have been Romanoff, Hickenlooper or Rep. Ed Perlmutter, and we said as much. We were skeptical of Bennet when he fumbled around early, and we wrote that Romanoff and Perlmutter might have been better. There was an opportunity for someone like Romanoff to challenge Bennet and even emerge as the frontrunner while doing it. But that time passed in late spring while Romanoff waited, and waited, and waited. When he finally made a decision in August, it was too late; Bennet had raised a lot of money and was picking up more and more support. Similarly, there was a time, back in 2005, when virtually every Democrat in Colorado would have moved over to allow Romanoff to be the Democratic candidate for Governor. But Romanoff passed, and the political world moved on without him.
Did Romanoff get screwed over by not being appointed to the Senate or as Secretary of State by Ritter? Probably, but you can’t ignore the fact that Romanoff also passed up opportunities of his own. Either way, perhaps Romanoff does deserve better than this; but as Clint Eastwood once said, “Deserve ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.”
It looks like Romanoff is going to continue ahead with a Senate campaign that he most likely cannot win, and that’s a shame. Politics is as much art as science, and you’ve got to know (to use another poker analogy) when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em. Whether it’s right or wrong, it’s just not there for Romanoff in 2010.