CAMP HALE — If Michael Bennet is reelected in November and serves out his full six-year term, he will become Colorado’s longest-serving U.S. senator in the century since state legislatures stopped selecting senators.
Ask the Denver Democrat to name his accomplishments in his 13-plus years in the Senate and he’ll provide a long list, including expanding the child tax credit for a year, improving broadband access through the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law a few months back, and securing $4 billion for Colorado River water conservation in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act.
That’s not to mention the dozens of bills he’s worked on as a cosponsor and that were signed into law since he arrived in the Senate in 2009 after being appointed to his seat by then-Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat. Bennet’s name wasn’t necessarily on the marquee for those measures, but it appeared very high in the credits.
“I think I’ve been one of the most effective senators in the time that I’ve been in the U.S. Senate,” Bennet told The Colorado Sun while attending a roundtable near Leadville earlier this month where he was trying to add another success to his list: the passage of the stalled Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy Act, which would grant additional protections to hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land in the state.
But as Election Day approaches, Bennet’s unflashy approach has opened him up to criticism from Republicans, who are painting him as a do-nothing member of Congress who can’t even get one of his signature bills, the CORE Act, passed despite Democratic control of Washington, D.C.
The GOP and Bennet’s opponent in November, first-time candidate and Denver construction company owner Joe O’Dea, see Bennet’s record as a vulnerability. They argue that given his long tenure in Washington, Bennet should be able to get what he wants.
“It’s clear that Bennet’s absence of results is because he lacks any real clout or respect,” Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown said in a written statement, citing the languishing CORE Act.
Bennet called it “idiotic” to argue that he should have been able to get the CORE Act passed with Democrats in charge in Congress and Joe Biden in the White House, citing the filibuster, which requires 60 votes for a measure to pass in the Senate. Democrats have just 50 seats in the chamber, limiting how much they can get done even though they are in the majority.
“The CORE Act, unfortunately, has been blocked by Joe O’Dea’s party over and over and over again,” said Bennet, who is now asking Biden to take executive action to boost protections for the land that would otherwise be shielded under the bill.
Bennet said Republicans keep saying he’s ineffective, “but I think the evidence is exactly the opposite.”
The Sun took a look at Bennet’s record to help voters decide.
Evaluating Bennet’s work
It’s difficult to objectively evaluate the effectiveness of a member of Congress.
Simply counting the number of bills they introduce and thus sponsor, and which ones are signed into law, doesn’t capture the breadth of their work. Bennet’s supporters say that’s especially the case for Colorado’s senior senator.
In addition to lawmaking, for instance, U.S. senators have oversight roles, important committee assignments and help constituents. Sometimes they offer amendments or work to pass bills that originated in the House. Other times they work behind the scenes to negotiate funding and policy.
Bennet, for instance, takes credit for $4 billion in Colorado River water conservation funding that was in the Inflation Reduction Act. Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona demanded the money be added, but Bennet said he helped ensure the spending benefited the entire Colorado River Basin.
“I was very concerned that the language was going to benefit the Lower Basin of the Colorado (River) and not the Upper Basin and not Colorado itself,” Bennet said recently on a podcast run by Democratic operatives. “I went on national television and I said, ‘I am not going to vote for a bill that does anything to harm the interest of the Upper Basin of the Colorado or Colorado itself.’ We then had a negotiation that I led to try to get language that the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin states could agree to.”
Sinema wanted $5 billion while Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia wanted the funding pared back to $1 billion, Bennet said. He claimed credit for negotiating the final $4 billion number, saying he spent an evening on Manchin’s boat to get the deal done.
Only one standalone bill — a measure that’s not combined with another piece of legislation — introduced by Bennet which he was the prime sponsor of has been signed into law, according to govtrack, a website that keeps tabs on Congress.
That was Senate Bill 1541, a bipartisan measure from 2011 that expanded the eligibility for membership in the Blue Star Mothers of America, a nonprofit group, to include grandmothers and other guardians who have children serving in the military. It also expanded membership to eligible mothers living outside of the U.S.
O’Dea, who is running to unseat Bennet in November, often makes the claim that Bennet has passed only one bill. But that statement lacks important nuance.
Twelve other bills introduced by Bennet have been combined with other measures that were signed into law, according to govtrack. The legislation spanned a wide range of topics, from the environment to trying to tackle childhood hunger to helping develop genetically targeted drugs.
By Bennet’s campaign’s count, the senator has worked closely on more than 100 pieces of legislation that were signed into law. The campaign arrived at that number by counting bills Bennet was an original cosponsor of, meaning he signed on at the time it was introduced and likely had a major role in shaping the policy.
Their count includes the House version of a bill introduced in the Senate to designate Colorado’s Granada Relocation Center — also known as Camp Amache, where Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent were interned during World War II — a national historic site that was signed into law in March.
It also includes the Better Buildings Act in 2015, which encouraged tenants of commercial buildings to reduce energy consumption. The bill was folded into another piece of legislation that was signed into law. There was also a measure letting home appraisers offer their services to Habitat to Humanity for free.
Bennet’s campaign also compiled a 37-page document outlining the tens of millions of dollars in funding the senator secured in Congress’ most recent budget for infrastructure projects, early childhood education, public safety and housing in Colorado. There was $4.5 million for construction of a new courthouse in Moffat County, $57.4 million for Interstate 25 corridor projects and $11.6 million for affordable housing projects and efforts to address homelessness in Colorado.
“Thanks to Michael’s work, more Coloradans have access to affordable health care, more Colorado public lands are protected,” said Georgina Beven, a spokeswoman for Bennet’s reelection campaign. “We’re funding critical infrastructure projects across the state, we’re restoring our forests and watersheds, and we are now, finally, making real investments to protect our climate which will grow Colorado’s clean energy economy.”
Fewer bills introduced than other senators
The Center for Effective Lawmaking, an initiative by the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University, aims to track the effectiveness of members of Congress in a nonpartisan way using a scoring system that evaluates how many standalone bills a lawmaker has introduced, the importance of those bills and how far they made it in the legislative process.
According to the group’s analysis, Bennet has been low on the effectiveness rankings among Democrats since he took office.
In the 116th Congress, for instance, the Center for Effective Lawmaking ranked Bennet 41st out of the 45 Democrats in the chamber for the session that began in January 2019 and ended in January 2021. (Bennet was running — unsuccessfully — for president in 2020.)
“Sen. Bennet generally puts forward less bills than the average Democrat,” University of Virginia Professor Craig Volden, who is a director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, said in explaining why Bennet ranks so low.
In the 116th Congress, for instance, Bennet introduced 43 “substantial” bills in the Senate, which was controlled by Republicans. None of them were signed into law. Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, whom the Center for Effective Lawmaking ranked the top Democrat, introduced 84, 10 of which were signed into law.
Former U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who lost his 2020 reelection bid, was ranked 10 out of the 54 Senate Republicans in the 116th Senate. Gardner introduced 70 substantial bills, two of which were signed into law.
In the 113th Congress, when Democrats controlled the Senate from January 2013 to January 2015, then-U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, was ranked 40 out of the Senate’s 57 Democrats, one rung below Bennet. Udall was ranked 26 out of the Senate’s 52 Democrats in the 112th Congress, while Bennet was ranked 36 out of 52.
Volden acknowledges that the Center for Effective Lawmaking’s rankings don’t necessarily capture the full breadth of work by a member of Congress.
“What we are looking at is lawmaking,” he said, “and so people who engage in other activities, like doing great communications back home or doing oversight work or tailoring money to their district or state, those aren’t what we are looking at.”
For instance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat and one of the most powerful lawmakers in Washington, is ranked low despite her position of great influence.
Notably, the center doesn’t track bills a members of Congress sponsors or cosponsor that are signed into law after being included in larger packages, such as Bennet’s Carbon Capture Improvement Act, which was added into the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed earlier this year, or the STOP Surprise Medical Bills Act, which was put in the omnibus spending bill signed into law in 2020.
Bennet’s campaign also points out that the senator was often the lead Democratic cosponsor on bills introduced by Republicans in years when Democrats were in the minority, like a 2016 measure naming a Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic in Pueblo the PFC James Dunn VA Clinic. The bill was introduced by Gardner and Bennet was the sole original cosponsor.
(There can only be one sponsor of a bill, but a measure can have an unlimited number of cosponsors.)
The center also doesn’t give lawmakers credit for shepherding House bills through the Senate — like the Rocky Mountain National Park Boundary Modification and Park Ownership Correction acts and the Yucca House National Monument Expansion Act — or offering amendments.
Finally, the Center for Effective Lawmaking doesn’t take into consideration lawmakers’ work on the budget process, where spending for specific projects in their home states can be secured by representatives through the earmark process.
Bennet’s campaign argues the Center’s evaluation process has “numerous shortfalls.”
But Volden said he has found that lawmakers who get high rankings from the Center for Effective Lawmaking also tend to be the ones who are the best at the work the organization doesn’t measure.
“Someone who’s very active in advancing their bills also tends to be more active on policy making behind the scenes, putting out ideas, advancing (ideas) in others’ bills and so on,” he said.
How would Joe O’Dea do it differently
“When I go out and I talk to people across Colorado, half of them don’t know who (Bennet) is,” O’Dea said, pointing to that as evidence Bennet hasn’t been effective in Washington.
Polling in recent months has indicated that a share of Coloradans are unfamiliar with Bennet’s work.
One poll conducted in late July among 500 likely voters by McLaughlin & Associates, a Republican firm based in New York, found that 45% viewed Bennet favorably, with 33% saying they view him unfavorably, 10% saying they had no opinion and 11% saying they’d never heard of the senator.
The same poll found 27% of respondents view O’Dea favorably, while 22% said they had an unfavorable view of him. About 19% said they had no opinion and 32% said they had never heard of him.
McLaughlin & Associates has a C/D rating from FiveThirtyEight, the nonpartisan election and sports statistics site. Of 27 polls analyzed by FiveThirtyEight, McLaughlin called 69% correctly.
The poll also found Bennet is leading O’Dea by a wide margin. Forty-eight percent of those polled said they would vote for Bennet while 40% said they would back O’Dea, and 12% said they were undecided.
O’Dea, who has never held elected office, has not led Bennet in a publicly released poll. Still, he thinks he can do better in Washington at advancing his priorities, like slashing federal spending and boosting American energy production.
“I know how to negotiate,” he said. “When you spend your life, 35 years, building infrastructure across the state — most of my customers are government entities, and I know how to talk to them. I know how to get things done. And that’s what I’ve done all my life. That’s what I’ll do when I get to the Senate.”
Bennet has said O’Dea is just running on “a bunch of slogans.”
If O’Dea is elected, he would likely be serving in a Senate where his party is in the minority or only has a narrow majority. Like Bennet — who has worked in government positions for most of his life — he would have to try to navigate the tricky politics of Washington to get anything done.