- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2009

It’s hard to say who was feeling luckier after the Senate announcement in Colorado Saturday: Denver schools chief Michael Bennet, tapped to fill the seat of Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar, or state Republicans.

Three weeks ago, Colorado Republicans were staring at another Senate loss in 2010 against popular incumbent Mr. Salazar. With his nomination to become interior secretary, followed by the selection of political neophyte Mr. Bennet to succeed him, state Republicans suddenly have their strongest opportunity in years to flip a Democratic seat.

“Republicans were obviously already pleased that this was an open seat, and now they’re ecstatic,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “It’s an open seat, and it’s being held by a political novice.”

Indeed, Attorney General John Suthers, the state’s highest-ranking Republican officeholder, was already on the phone lining up support for a Senate run in 2010.

Other Republicans expected to take a look at the race included former Rep. Bob Beauprez, lawyer and radio talk-show host Dan Caplis, U.S. Attorney Troy Eid and former Rep. Scott McInnis.

State politicos had assumed that Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., a Democrat, would choose Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff or one of the state’s Democratic members of Congress to fill the seat.

Any would have been viewed as a more formidable candidate than Mr. Bennet, who has an impressive resume in the public and private sector, but has never run for political office.

“The fact that Ritter did not appoint Hickenlooper — that in itself is good news for us,” said Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams. “Now that he’s appointed Michael Bennet, who has no track record, he’s left the seat vulnerable to a challenge, not just from Republicans but also from members of his own party.”

Indeed, Democrats were clearly on defense at Saturday’s news conference formally announcing the pick as they attempted to soothe ruffled feathers and play up Mr. Bennet’s credentials.

Speakers heaped almost as much praise on Mr. Hickenlooper, who was repeatedly referred to as the best mayor in America, as they did Mr. Bennet.

Mr. Ritter assured Democrats that the selection wasn’t intended as an insult to Mr. Hickenlooper, while playing down speculation of a rift between the two.

“In choosing Michael Bennet, it wasn’t about not choosing anyone else,” Mr. Ritter said. Mr. Hickenlooper “is the best mayor in America … It is my hope we remain people who can work together but more importantly remain friends.”

Mr. Salazar, wearing his black cowboy hat, insisted that Mr. Bennet would be able to win the seat in 2010.

“There are some who put a question mark on whether Michael Bennet can be elected in 2010,” Mr. Salazar said. “There were people who put question marks on Ken Salazar, Bill Ritter and [U.S. Rep.] John Salazar when we decided to run.

“Let the message go out loud and clear: Michael Bennet will make a great senator and will win re-election in 2010 no matter who they put up against him,” he said.

Mr. Bennet, 44, appearing with his wife, environmental lawyer Susan Daggett, and three young daughters, said he was “humbled” to be selected for the post.

“I’m privileged to follow in the very large boot steps of Senator Salazar,” said Mr. Bennet, also adding praise for his former boss, Mr. Hickenlooper.

“John is like a big brother to me, and I’ve learned so much from him,” Mr. Bennet said.

He assured Democrats that he would run for re-election: “I absolutely intend to seek re-election, and I absolutely intend to win re-election.”

Mr. Bennet assumed the job of Denver schools superintendent in 2005 after working as the mayor’s chief of staff. Before that, he served as managing director of the Anschutz Investment Co., owned by Republican billionaire Philip Anschutz.

His background is far different from the two men who represented the state in the 110th Congress, Mr. Salazar, a fifth-generation rancher, and retiring Republican Wayne Allard, a large-animal veterinarian.

An East Coast blueblood, Mr. Bennet attended St. Albans School in Washington and received degrees from Wesleyan University and Yale Law School. His father, Douglas Bennet, was a diplomat, president of National Public Radio and president of Wesleyan University. The younger Mr. Bennet was born in New Delhi, India, while his father served as an aide to then-Ambassador Chester Bowles.

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