Call me an '80s junkie, but when I saw the results of this week's closely watched Colorado election, I immediately thought of "Spaceballs." In that Mel Brooks masterpiece, a Darth Vader spoof named Dark Helmet says, "Evil will always triumph because good is dumb." Make it "dumb and broke," and you have a powerful explanation for incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet's narrow victory over former state legislator Andrew Romanoff.
In the 20 months since being appointed to fill the vacated Senate seat of now-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Bennet became one of Congress' top recipients of corporate cash. A wealthy businessman who had never held elected office before, he ultimately raised and spent almost $6 million on his campaign — more than any other primary candidate in the history of Colorado. He was additionally aided by the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America’s phone banking, by President Barack Obama’s full-throated endorsement, and by the built-in advantages that come with a taxpayer-financed Senate office.
Romanoff, by contrast, swore off special-interest money from the beginning. As a former state House Speaker with a deep grass-roots network throughout Colorado, he constructed a scrappy campaign on less than $2 million of mostly small-dollar, in-state contributions. In the relatively few ads he was able to afford, he juxtaposed his own progressive economic platform against Bennet's odious Senate votes to protect the big banks, oil firms and health insurance companies that Americans despise and that financed Bennet’s campaign.
Alas, it wasn’t enough. The Bennet campaign’s ads obscured the incumbent’s true record, and because those ads were backed with so much money, Romanoff's spots were like a pin dropping at a Metallica concert, and the challenger lost.
So it's true — this particular political contest, like so many others, can indeed be summed up by paraphrasing Dark Helmet and noting that malevolent forces triumph because good is dumb and broke. The simple fact is, in elections across the country, many well-intentioned voters remain ill informed, and many principled candidates are still too underfinanced to mount a winning campaign.
However, the longer view tells a different story — one that may foreshadow the end of this "Spaceballs" axiom in the future.
Considering Bennet's wealth, corporate fundraising, incumbency and presidential support, it is astounding that a whopping 46 percent of this bellwether state's Democratic voters cast their ballots against him, against their own party's establishment and against their own party’s president.
For those who care about a progressive economic agenda and about injecting democracy into the Democratic Party, this is encouraging when put next to the similarly impressive results of White House-thwarting Democratic primary challengers in Pennsylvania and Arkansas. And that trend explains the increasingly fierce pushback from Washington.
Yes, this is why Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, so vociferously berated the progressive movement on the eve of Colorado's primary, and why DNC power brokers moved so forcefully against Romanoff. He was the latest candidate to represent what those elites know to be an ascendant national progressive uprising inside the Democratic Party — one that keenly understands money’s corrosive effects on public policy and that, therefore, rejects the Beltway’s corporatist model.
Seeing that this uprising threatens their power and their D.C. worldview, these elites are desperate to preserve Dark Helmet’s principle — so desperate, in fact, they have resorted to employing Obama’s presidential campaign infrastructure to prop up more conservative candidates against progressive challengers in intra-party battles.
This unholy alliance managed to hold off the onslaught this time. But make no mistake — Colorado is yet more evidence that the days of "Spaceballs" defining the Democratic Party are ending.