Michael Bennet hopes to become Colorado’s longest serving senator in decades. Who is he?

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet speaks at City Park in Denver, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, at an event to draw attention to passage in Congress of the Inflation Reduction Act.

Michael Bennet, Colorado's senior U.S. senator, is seeking a third term in office, a first for any Colorado senator in decades.

The Democrat has made economic and children’s issues, poverty in particular, central to his political focus, most recently with his drive for an expanded Child Tax Credit.

He said that’s what’s motivating him to run again. He’ll make his case to Colorado voters from now until Nov. 8 that, despite the economic headwinds the country is facing, he has championed the state and should be re-elected.

Spend any time with Bennet on the campaign trail and you’ll hear the 57-year-old Denver resident say that he wants to create an economy that “grows for everybody, not just the people at the very top.”

“I just don't accept that we somehow have to accept, for our children and our grandchildren, a diminished expectation of what their opportunity looks like,” he said. “And I don't accept that we can't strengthen this democracy in very fundamental ways to pass something off to the next generation of Americans that we're proud of.”

Despite a short-lived run for president two years ago, Bennet has kept a relatively low profile in Congress. He’s not trying to “own” people on Twitter, he rarely has a gaggle of reporters following him around the Capitol, and he doesn’t push bills on flashpoint issues of the day. 

For the most part, he’s spent his last two terms building a legislative record as a moderate. He said he looks for opportunities to work with Democrats and Republicans to get bills “over the finish line.” 

“I feel lucky to have the record that I’m running on in Colorado. I think it’s a record that will hold up in this election,” he said.

Even as some priorities make no headway, Bennet focuses on successes

As he campaigns, Bennet has touted many of Democrats’ recent wins, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, which focused on climate, health care and taxes; the CHIPS Act; the bipartisan gun safety bill; and the PACT Act, aimed at helping veterans suffering from toxic exposure. He also points to older legislation like past Farm Bills, for which he held listening sessions in rural Colorado, the bipartisan infrastructure package, and a bill to speed up the development of advanced therapies for rare diseases.

Bennet also took advantage of the return of congressionally directed funding, better known as earmarks, to deliver more than $121 million in funds to communities across the state.

But Bennet has so far failed to get some of his priorities passed. A prime example is the CORE Act to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land in western Colorado. He’s been championing elements of the current bill for years. While Rep. Joe Neguse has managed to get it passed in the House several times, it hasn’t cleared a Republican or Democratic controlled Senate yet. Instead, Bennet is lobbying the Biden Administration to protect as much of the land as it can through administrative action.

Medicare-X, Bennet’s push for a public health care option, which he talked about during his failed presidential run, hasn’t advanced in the Senate either, although some elements were included in the Inflation Reduction Act. 

He was part of a bipartisan group of senators that tried and failed to get a comprehensive immigration reform bill across the line. He also worked on a 2018 bill to extend protections for “Dreamers” who were illegally brought into the country as children; The bill didn’t have former President Donald Trump’s support and failed to get 60 votes in the Senate. 

Most recently, one of Bennet’s longtime priorities came to fruition, but then expired: The expanded Child Tax Credit. This is the topic where Bennet takes on a strong progressive bent. In the limited time it was in effect and providing a monthly income bump for families with children, researchers found the credit helped reduce hunger, lifted some kids out of poverty and provided working and middle-class families a financial cushion. It did exactly what it was supposed to, in Bennet’s view. But it’s also the kind of idea that many Republicans argue is a handout, not a hand up.

While Bennet has criticized his party on certain issues, such as not acting to roll back the Trump tax cuts for the very wealthy, he has come under fire from Republicans for being politically close with President Biden.

“Michael Bennett votes for the party line 98 percent of the time,” said Bennet’s opponent, Joe O’Dea, at a candidate forum held by the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce. “I love my wife dearly, but I don't even agree with her 98 percent of the time.”

After the Supreme Court’s ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion has become a significant issue for Democrats across the country. Bennet supports a federal law legalizing abortion nationally, and he doesn’t think it should be dismissed just as a cultural divide issue.

Democratic headwinds

The Cook Political Report has Colorado’s Senate race as a likely Democratic seat, but O’Dea was definitely not the candidate the party wanted Bennet to have to face. Democratic-aligned groups spent millions trying to defeat him in the primary

Bennet enters the final stretch of the race with more than $8 million in campaign cash, almost ten times more than O’Dea has on hand, as of the July filing deadline.

Bennet has been spending that money by running TV ads across the state, while O’Dea has been trying to raise more money, including a fundraising swing in Florida, Georgia, and D.C. with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP senate candidates. 

Still, Bennet is realistic about the headwinds Democrats, including himself, face ahead of November. He said he runs like he’s 20 points behind. 

“Even before we had inflation that's so tough for families in Colorado,” Bennet said, “we were dealing with dramatic increases in the cost of things like housing, healthcare, higher education and early childhood education.”

But he makes the case that “over the years, I've supported policies that would address every single one of those things.”

Bennet, who along with his colleagues, was in the Senate chamber on January 6, believes “democracy is on the ballot this fall” as voters decide whether to hand Republicans back control of Congress. And he said that means electing people committed to strengthening democratic institutions.

It’s an issue that’s personal to Bennet, who graduated from Yale Law School. His mother and maternal grandparents survived the Holocaust and immigrated to the United States to rebuild their lives. Bennet’s father had high level roles at USAID, the State Department and even National Public Radio. (CPR is an NPR member station.)

“We may not win every political race, but I think this is a fight worth having and it’s a fight worth winning,” he said. “And I think in the end, we will save democracy.”

Bennet was born in India, where his father was an aide to the U.S. Ambassador at the time. He moved to Colorado in the late 1990s and worked at the Anschutz Investment Company before Denver’s then-mayor, John Hickenlooper, brought him on as chief of staff. In 2005, he was hired as superintendent of DPS and saw first-hand the struggles families had climbing the economic ladder

He arrived in the Senate in 2009, as the appointed replacement for Sen. Ken Salazar after Salazar was named Secretary of the Interior. Bennet was something of a surprise pick at the time, given that he’d never held elected office before. The state GOP dubbed him the “accidental senator” — a slight he now embraces in fundraising emails.

The next year, Bennet eked out a slim victory over Republican Ken Buck — then the Weld County District Attorney — in the 2010 race to hold the seat. His win was a rare bright spot for Democrats in a year that saw the party lose seats in a Tea Party wave. He won reelection in 2016 with 50 percent of the vote.