What’s On Bennet’s Mind As He Continues On In The 2020 Race? Chatting With Early Voters, Getting His Polls Up And A Whole Lot Of ‘Saving The Democracy’ Talk

August 31, 2019
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet speaks to Colorado Matters about his Democratic presidential campaign on the Auraria campus in Denver, May 4, 2019.U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet speaks to Colorado Matters about his Democratic presidential campaign on the Auraria campus in Denver, May 4, 2019.Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet speaks to Colorado Matters about his Democratic presidential campaign on the Auraria campus in Denver, May 4, 2019.

After Sen. Michael Bennet failed to meet the threshold to make the September Democratic primary debate stage, his campaign sent out a feisty letter to Democratic National Committee head Tom Perez.

A few days later, the Colorado candidate is back to the grindstone, mapping out future campaign stops, rethinking polls and spreading his message. It's a schedule that has kept him away from Colorado for most of the August Congressional recess.

Bennet talked to Colorado Matters about his 2020 strategy, his long-term plans and more.

Interview Highlights

On how he plans to get his message out and build momentum:

"I think the key is continuing to talk to voters in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. These debates for them are a little bit like preseason football, I think, and they have not been the key to people really gaining momentum in the race to begin with, and I think we've made a decision that my campaign can go forward and that's what we're going to do."

On whether he will recommit to his Senate seat, and his long-term plans:

"If this is unsuccessful, I certainly intend to run again for the Senate. I really believe what I said to John Hickenlooper, which is that this is a moment in the history of our democracy when every single American is called upon to do what we can do to save this republic, to save the democracy, to make sure we pass on a thriving economy to the next generation of Coloradans and the next generation of Americans. And if the place I can do that is from the White House, I'm going to be glad to do it from there. If the place I can do that is from the Senate, I'll be glad to do it from there.

I don't, you know, as dysfunctional as the place is, I see that as a call to fix it, not as a reason to turn away from it, and I think all Americans need to feel that way. We need a progressive era in our politics like we had at the end of the last gilded age when Americans said we've had it with the income inequality that we've got in our country, we've had it with politicians serving themselves and not the people, and we're going to make a difference, we'll pass constitutional amendments to make sure women have the right to vote and that senators are directly elected by voters."

On not holding a recent town hall for Coloradans:

"It has been a while, and I miss those town halls, but my entire staff has fanned out across the state of Colorado in August, having listening sessions in every single corner of the state. People can get information on that if they want it, from my Senate website, which is Bennet.senate.gov. We've been having meetings about rural issues, telecom, agriculture, the state of the economy, and because I need to know, going back in in September, what people are thinking about, but I have also kept a very close ear to the ground myself and I have spent the last 10 years in a continuous conversation with the people of Colorado.

I think they are the most, absolutely the most useful engagement I have with people in our state, are my town halls, and I start town halls the same way. I never give a speech. I always say please ask any question or bring any criticism that you have. I need to hear it all, because we have to have an authentic conversation if we're going to rescue this democracy."

Full Transcript

Avery Lill: Colorado's Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet didn't qualify for the next presidential debate, but he is adamant that he won't be dropping out of the race anytime soon. Bennet talked with CPR's public affairs reporter Bente Birkeland about what's next for his presidential campaign, whether Congress can be productive this next year, and what it means for his work in the United States Senate.

Bente Birkeland: You didn't qualify for the next round of presidential debates. How will you gain momentum and get your message out when you won't be on the national debate stage?

Michael Bennet: I think the key is continuing to talk to voters in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. These debates for them are a little bit like preseason football, I think, and they have not been the key to people really gaining momentum in the race to begin with, and I think we've made a decision that my campaign can go forward and that's what we're going to do.

Bente Birkeland: The criteria includes reaching two percent in four national polls. To an outsider, that doesn't seem to be a super high threshold. Why do you think you're not breaking that barrier?

Michael Bennet: Well, it may not seem that way to an outsider and it may not have seemed that way to me. It turns out that it is hard to do, and in the most recent national poll, there were 12 of us that were tied with one percent in the polls nationally. That was me, Beto O'Rourke, Amy Klobuchar. There were only three candidates, there was Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, who were in double digits. There were two other candidates at five. So I think what that shows is that the race is very, very early. I've only been in it for four months. We're five months away from Iowa, and I'm going to have to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire, obviously, to stay in the race, but I think it's very premature to be making judgment about that now.

Bente Birkeland: In the letter your campaign sent out, it insinuated that the DNC may be unfairly setting its criteria to advantage the front runners in the race. Do you have evidence of this?

Michael Bennet: Well, I think that it's what the evidence is, that they were very arbitrary in the way they set the criteria, and it did advantage the front runners in the race, and it hasn't reflected progress that people have made in the race, because there are people on the debate stage who have spent the entire primary season losing ground in the polls and who are now down around one percent. For me, it's been a gain to get up to one percent, in Iowa or in New Hampshire to get closer to two percent, and to be sixth in one poll in New Hampshire. So I just think it's a puzzling way to approach it, but we're going to just keep going.

Bente Birkeland: So along those lines, what is next for you in the presidential race?

Michael Bennet: Well, I'm going back on Sunday to Iowa with my family, and we're going to spend a few days there and then it's off to New Hampshire again. Just continuing to meet with people in their living rooms and in their storefronts, listening to what they're thinking about the future of the country, and what they're thinking about this current president and the need to select somebody else.

Bente Birkeland: So we hear you were instrumental in getting your former boss, Gov. John Hickenlooper, to join the crowded Democratic primary to run for U.S. Senate. What advice did you give him?

Michael Bennet: Well, I wouldn't put it that way. I didn't really give him advice. I mostly told him the pluses and minuses of being in the Senate. I did say to him that I thought that anybody that had the opportunity to serve in the Senate at a moment when our government is as broken and dysfunctional as our government is, has a duty to try to make a difference. But John had to make this decision on his own, and I said at the beginning of the conversation that I thought that what would be more useful than my advice would be just trying to lay out the pros and cons of the job, and that's what I tried to do.

Bente Birkeland: On the campaign trail, you've talked a lot about the dysfunction in Washington and in the U.S. Senate. Is it a job you think you want to keep long-term, potentially?

Michael Bennet: If this is unsuccessful, I certainly intend to run again for the Senate. I really believe what I said to John Hickenlooper, which is that this is a moment in the history of our democracy when every single American is called upon to do what we can do to save this republic, to save the democracy, to make sure we pass on a thriving economy to the next generation of Coloradans and the next generation of Americans. And if the place I can do that is from the White House, I'm going to be glad to do it from there. If the place I can do that is from the Senate, I'll be glad to do it from there. I don't, you know, as dysfunctional as the place is, I see that as a call to fix it, not as a reason to turn away from it, and I think all Americans need to feel that way. We need a progressive era in our politics like we had at the end of the last gilded age when Americans said we've had it with the income inequality that we've got in our country, we've had it with politicians serving themselves and not the people, and we're going to make a difference, we'll pass constitutional amendments to make sure women have the right to vote and that senators are directly elected by voters.

And I think we're going to have a period of reform like that to overcome Citizens United and the money in our politics to end political gerrymandering and to recapture a set of priorities in Washington that actually reflects what the people in a state like Colorado want, which is a state that's exactly a third Democratic, a third Republican, and a third independent. That is where the solution lies, I think.

Bente Birkeland: Your Senate colleague, Cory Gardner, he gets a lot of heat from liberal activists because he doesn't hold large public town halls, and it's been a while since you've had an event like that in Colorado. How is running for president impacting your ability to represent Colorado in the Senate?

Michael Bennet: It has been a while, and I miss those town halls, but my entire staff has fanned out across the state of Colorado in August, having listening sessions in every single corner of the state. People can get information on that if they want it, from my Senate website, which is Bennet.senate.gov. We've been having meetings about rural issues, telecom, agriculture, the state of the economy, and because I need to know, going back in in September, what people are thinking about, but I have also kept a very close ear to the ground myself and I have spent the last 10 years in a continuous conversation with the people of Colorado.

Bente Birkeland: Do you think senators and other members of Congress owe their constituents those types of forums or how useful do you think they are?

Michael Bennet: I do. I think they are the most, absolutely the most useful engagement I have with people in our state, are my town halls, and I start town halls the same way. I never give a speech. I always say please ask any question or bring any criticism that you have. I need to hear it all, because we have to have an authentic conversation if we're going to rescue this democracy.

Bente Birkeland: During your career in Congress, you've at times been partisan. Major bipartisan legislation not always successful, like trying to reach a grand bargain on immigration reform. Is there anything you could see the Senate doing to cut deals right now, or do you think this Congress is just going to be at a gridlock until the next 2020 election?

Michael Bennet: I'm afraid we're going to be at gridlock until the next 2020 election. When you look at an issue like infrastructure, which should be very straightforward and very bipartisan, and President Trump ran on infrastructure, but he doesn't have the competence in the administration, candidly, to write an infrastructure bill or submit one to the Congress. So we are broken. I mean, the place was a mess before Donald Trump got there. It's one of the reasons why he was sent there. The immobilization of our exercise in self-government by Mitch McConnell and by the Freedom Caucus has been severe and serious, and it's something that America has to find a way to overcome.

In 2016, people sent a reality TV star to Washington because they thought they couldn't do any worse and they figured they might as well blow the place up. Now I think we need to have a conversation with each other as friends, not as enemies, to figure out how we're going to rebuild a framework for us to be able to achieve bipartisan outcomes, because on every single issue that we face, in the end, we have to not just respond urgently to problems, but we need to have solutions that are durable, that will last longer than one president or two years of a single Congress, and the only way that's going to be able to be achieved is if Democrats and Republicans at home insist that Democrats and Republicans in the Congress work together. Right now, I think for the foreseeable future, until Donald Trump's term has ended, I think it's going to be very challenging to achieve that.

Bente Birkeland: One final question here on the BLM Headquarters move to Grand Junction. On the one hand, it's jobs and prestige for a part of the state that often feels that they're getting left out, but some Democrats in Congress are claiming it's a move that's actually going to weaken the agency and was meant to weaken it. What are your thoughts?

Michael Bennet: I've not had a chance yet to study the detailed proposal. I did call the Interior Secretary and have a conversation with him after he proposed it, and when I have a chance to reconnect with them again, I'll have a more substantive answer. I will tell you that what I am deeply worried about today on this score is the Trump administration's stripping of the methane, the fugitive methane capture rule, that the Obama administration put in place. This is an assault on our environment, it's an assault on climate. The industry told Trump that they didn't want this rule stripped away, because it would create too much uncertainty and frankly too much pollution. It's another reason why Donald Trump should be a one term president. We should never have a climate denier in the White House again.

Bente Birkeland: Okay. Thanks, senator. I know our time is wrapping up. Well, we appreciate you taking the time.

Michael Bennet: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it. Bye.

Avery Lill: That was Colorado's Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet talking with CPR public affairs reporter Bente Birkeland.