Outside politics, the two Colorado GOP Senate hopefuls have every reason to be close friends.
Jane Norton and Ken Buck exchange Christmas cards and share friends among the GOP elite of Colorado. Buck was hired as a federal prosecutor by Norton’s husband.
Now, though, they’re in an often-bitter fight to win the Aug. 10 primary to vie for the Senate seat now held by Democrat Michael Bennet.
Buck, 51, is the Weld County prosecutor. While he’s won over Greeley voters twice for that job, he’s a newcomer to the state political scene whose candidacy caught fire when he captured the imagination of conservative Tea Party enthusiasts.
“Ken Buck is not an establishment GOP guy,” said supporter Amy Mitchell, who runs a dietary supplement business in Colorado Springs. “He has shown he is willing to do what is right even when it is not easy or popular.”
Norton, 55, was a regional director of the federal Department of Health and Human Services before taking the reins of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. She was elected lieutenant governor in 2003 on a ticket with Bill Owens. In this race, she owns the mainstream Republican establishment, but still wound up gathering petition signatures to guarantee herself a spot on the ballot.
“She’s a good conservative,” said supporter state Rep. Larry Liston, a Colorado Springs Republican. “She’s an electable conservative candidate, and I don’t think Ken Buck is an electable statewide candidate.”
The winner of the Republican primary will take on the Democratic primary victor, either Bennet or former Colorado House speaker Andrew Romanoff.
The GOP is counting on the still-sour economy and voter unrest to seize the seat.
In harnessing key issues for those angry voters, Buck and Norton are closely aligned.
They want to cut government spending, roll back plans for health care reform and reduce the deficit.
On foreign policy, Norton has said she would “double down” in Afghanistan to defeat terrorist groups.
Buck calls for a more measured approach on Afghanistan, but has harsh words for Iran and says he’d support a military strike to eliminate that country’s nuclear weapons program if diplomacy fails.
Buck says he wants to bring the country back to its constitutional roots.
“I carry this with me wherever I go, it’s a copy of the Constitution,” Buck told a Colorado Springs crowd last month.
Norton said she wants to pull health care reforms “out by the roots” and would examine eliminating federal agencies.
“The government is out of control,” Norton said in Colorado Springs last month.
Their differences are more style than substance. Norton says she’s more trustworthy and has a better record of achievement. Buck says he’s more independent and would be better able to avoid the pull of partisan politics.
The close ties between the candidates haven’t caused them to shy away from personal attacks.
Norton has accused Buck of ethical breaches and overspending in his Weld County post.
“If we can’t trust him in Greeley, how can we trust him in Washington?” Norton said in Colorado Springs last month.
Buck has accused Norton of buying her way on to the ballot and says her support of a measure that eased state government spending caps makes her responsible for the “largest” tax increase in the history of Colorado.
Mitchell thinks Buck will follow through on what he promises because he hasn’t served in high political office.
“It is a matter of trust,” she said.
Liston said he trusts Norton because of her long track record.
“She has the necessary experience and temperament to serve in the Senate,” he said.