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Politics and Government

Michael Bennet looks to New Hampshire to give his 2020 presidential campaign new life

The Colorado senator filed paperwork Wednesday to qualify for the 2020 Democratic ballot in the Granite State and remains bullish about his campaign’s prospects

Colorado's U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet meets a group of supporters outside New Hampshire's State Capitol Building on Nov. 6, 2019. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)
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CONCORD, N.H. — Michael Bennet continued to push against the odds Wednesday, making his presidential candidacy in New Hampshire official by securing a spot on the ballot for the state’s February primary.

The Colorado senator is largely missing from the public’s view of the Democratic primary, absent from the debate stage and barely registering in the polls. But Bennet remained adamant after filing his paperwork, making the case that his better-known rivals can’t win on their ideas. 

“As the only candidate to win two (major) races in a state that’s only one-third Democrats,” Bennet told reporters in Concord, “I know what it takes to win in a purple state like New Hampshire and what it’s going to take to beat Donald Trump in 2020.”

Bennet is looking to Iowa for a jolt of energy from the opening contest, much like other candidates. But it’s here in New Hampshire where Bennet is hoping to make his presidential stand. He said he is counting on voters in New Hampshire and Iowa to “upset conventional wisdom” and light a fire under his long-shot effort to win the Democratic nomination. 

Sen. Michael Bennet walks with two staff members after formally filing to be included on New Hampshire’s primary ballot. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

The two-term senator from Denver is getting overshadowed by more high-profile liberals on the national stage, but the Granite State may warm to the pragmatic idealist. His fans in New Hampshire have pressed him for months to put all his chips on the state’s first-in-the-nation primary contest. “I can tell you what I told him: I thought he had a shot at coming in No. 3 in New Hampshire, and he needed to get his act together and make a commitment to do it,” said Rob Claflin after seeing Bennet at a September event in Manchester.

Claflin, along with his wife, Kyri, hosted Bennet at their home in April on his final trip to the state before officially announcing his candidacy in early May. He said a few other candidates are betting big on New Hampshire, but Bennet fits the mold of the state’s two current senators. “I think he would do really well if he decides to come here,” Claflin said.

MORE: Michael Bennet has a warning for Democrats. But it’s not clear how many are listening.

But as easy as it was for Bennet to secure his spot in the primary by filling out a one-page form and paying a $1,000 fee, the route to the party’s nomination — let alone the White House — appears far more difficult. 

Bennet didn’t qualify for the past two Democratic presidential primary debates, and he is still polling below 1% as of the end of October in New Hampshire — a sign that he won’t make the December debate either. This week, in an CNN interview, Bennet tried to brush off his poor numbers, joking that there are other candidates who are “actually polling below me, if you can imagine such a thing is possible.”

Roland Dubois, a New Hampshire voter who attended one of Bennet’s campaign events Wednesday, said he’s still undecided on which candidate he will support in February. 

“I’m very open to someone who is in the middle of the Democratic field, although I am drawn to the left-leaning philosophies and policies,” Dubois said. “I’m also very concerned about winning. And that leads me to seriously consider folks like Bennet who are positioned in a more central place.”

Dubois worried that Democratic candidates are focusing too much on health care. “Although it’s a really important issue, I think it bogged down Obama, and I would hate to see a repeat of that. This time around, I’d like to see someone put a priority on climate change and addressing that,” he said.

Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet speaks with a group of students on a field trip to the State Capitol Building. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Carol Hooper, a Democrat who also attended a Bennet event, agreed about the importance of focusing on climate change. “That has to go to the top of the list,” she said.

When it comes to where Bennet stands on her list of Democratic candidates, Hooper said: “I don’t really know where he stands out in the big picture, but looking at the middle-lower tier, he’s come across pretty well.”

Nevertheless, Bennet’s campaign said the candidate is seeing an increasing number of voters in New Hampshire commit to backing him in the primary — an encouraging sign as others in the Democratic contest exit or reduce their efforts in the bellwether state. 

In an interview with reporters, Bennet continued harping on his campaign’s talking points. The former Denver schools superintendent emphasized his focus on education and health care.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet answers questions during a press meeting at New Hampshire’s State Capitol Building on Nov. 6, 2019. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

His education plan calls for universal, free preschool and higher salaries for teachers, as well as addresses spending disparities across schools districts.

On health care, Bennet is a loud voice for a public option – his plan is dubbed Medicare X – and he’s quick to criticize rivals like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for their support of Medicare for All. Bennet called their idea “unpassable in America.” 

MORE: What is Medicare-X, Michael Bennet’s big idea to fix the American health insurance market?

Bennet also compared himself to former Colorado U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, who endorsed his candidacy and appeared alongside him in the September visit to New Hampshire. Bennet noted that Hart barely registered in the 1984 presidential race polls before beating Democratic favorite Walter Mondale in the New Hampshire primary. 

“I think we can do a similar thing in this race,” Bennet said, “because I believe that we are where New Hampshire’s voters are — where not just the base of the Democratic Party is (positioned) but where independent voters in this state are as well.”

Mondale still won the party’s nomination in 1984, but Hart established himself as a national figure and a frontrunner in 1988.

Staff writers Jesse Paul and John Frank contributed to this report.

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