In a debate televised nationally on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Ken Buck, the Republican nominee for Senate in Colorado, likened homosexuality to alcoholism, arguing that "birth has an influence over it" but that "basically, you have a choice."
The comment, instant fodder for the political media and blogosphere, came after a week in which revelations about Buck's refusal to prosecute a rape case as a district attorney in 2005 made headlines in Colorado and across the country.
Whether any of this will ultimately sink Buck's campaign against Democrat Michael Bennet remains to be seen. But the flare-ups illustrate vividly the risk that Republican voters have taken in nominating so many unconventional, Tea Party-championed candidates in key Senate contests.
The Colorado race is exactly the kind of contest that Republicans should be winning this year. The state voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but that was when just about every factor imaginable was aligned in the Democrats' favor. With Democrats in charge of the White House and Congress, a repeat performance for the party in 2010 was always unlikely -- and with joblessness and economic anxiety stuck at alarmingly high levels, the only real question has been how far Democrats would slide in '10 from the high water mark of '08.
In Colorado, that means that Bennet, an appointed incumbent who had to fight off an aggressive primary challenge over the summer, should be ripe for defeat. The easiest way for Republicans to oust him would have been to field an inoffensive, friendly-seeming candidate -- someone who wouldn’t attract much attention on his or her own and who could thus ride the powerful anti-Democratic tide to victory. The swing voters who helped deliver Colorado to Obama in '08 are willing to vote Republican this year, simply because they need a vehicle for their frustrations with the ruling Democrats. This is the kind of climate in which a generic, competent-seeming Republican can do wonders.
But that's not the route the party took. Instead, the GOP's restive base -- also known as the Tea Party movement -- mobilized in the primary behind Buck, a previously obscure county prosecutor. And Buck, as the rape story and his new comments on homosexuality (not to mention his earlier declaration that GOP primary voters should choose him over his female opponent because "I don't wear high heels") demonstrate, is far from a generic, blend-in-with-the-scenery kind of candidate. This is exactly what attracted the GOP's Tea Party base to him in the primary, but in the general election, it threatens to make Buck himself an issue -- giving Democrats an opportunity to convince swing voters that, as much as they'd like to register their protest with Democrats, Buck is just too extreme and erratic.
Of course, this has been Democrats' hope -- in Colorado and in other key states where Tea Party candidates have been nominated -- since the primary season ended. But so far, there's been scant evidence that Buck is underperforming and jeopardizing the GOP's chances of grabbing the seat. That's probably because, at least until now, Buck has run a disciplined general election campaign; he hasn't generated inflammatory headlines. Thus, voters haven't been focusing on him as a candidate and have instead viewed the race in terms favorable to the GOP. Polling has been close, but Buck has generally held a slight lead over Bennet.
The question is whether this dynamic is now changing. With the rape story and his "Meet the Press" comments, Buck is beginning to reveal himself to Coloradans as a polarizing, extreme-seeming figure. That he's far to the right ideologically isn't itself the problem -- at least not in this climate. But every time he sparks a media firestorm, whether it's through a new comment or revelations about past conduct, it builds unease among swing voters. Pile enough controversies on top of one another, and those swing voters might ultimately conclude that it's more important to vote against Buck personally than the Democrats as a party.
For Republicans in 2010, this is the threat that the Tea Party represents. The movement has allowed unconventional and untested candidates like Buck to power their way past safer, establishment figures in GOP primaries. Many of these candidates will end up winning anyway; in a climate like this, swing voters aren't that threatened by Tea Party ideology (even if that might feel differently two years from now). Buck himself may well be one of the winners. But every time he stirs the pot like he did on Sunday, it's a reminder of the gamble that Republicans took in nominating him -- a gamble that could be one or two more eruptions away from blowing up in their faces.