Michael Bennet won a Senate race he should have lost. Can Democrats copy his strategy?

Sen. Michael Bennet

Ken Buck’s campaign for U.S. Senate in Colorado is already fading into trivia, another example of how the Tea Party screwed up a Republican win. It’s being forgotten too quickly. On paper, Buck’s loss to Sen. Michael Bennet made no sense.

Bennet, a soft-spoken bureaucrat who had never won an election before being appointed to the Senate, never cracked 50 percent in a public poll. Hours before the election, InTrade.com gave Buck a 60 percent chance of winning it. Larry Sabato, the election calculator that walks like a man, marked down Colorado as a probable Republican gain. And so on.

How did Bennet do this? Well, that’s easy. He had 1,900 volunteers on Election Day, he reached out to Hispanic voters, and he raised more money than his opponent, even when you added in the $5.1 million that American Crossroads spent against him. But some of this can be said about the Democrats who went down in the wave, too.

I wrote about the Senate race in Colorado in mid-October, when the White House hadn’t bailed on Bennet—Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama both stumped for him—but also when Buck was stubbornly ahead in polls and handicappers had moved on to discussing California and Connecticut as the Democrats’ “firewall” to hold the upper house. I was surprised by Bennet’s win. The win prompts a question: Can Democrats learn anything from the upset victory of an incumbent in a purplish state? Can they reverse-engineer this election and use the good parts to re-elect Barack Obama?

“Huh,” says Mike Hamrick, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Arapahoe County, part of the Denver sprawl that voted for Bush in 2004, Obama in 2008, and Bennet in 2010. “That’s a tough question. I think the president and the DNC need to toot their own horns more about what they’re accomplishing. We did that here. But it’s easier to manage locally.”

It sure is. “Colorado was one of many states where the Republicans nominated a fresh face who wasn’t ready to have everything he said on the stump be recorded,” says Lori Weigel (no relation), a pollster for Public Opinion Strategies in the state. “That’s helpful if you’re the incumbent and you need to make the alternative to you look unacceptable. Bennet did that.”

He had to. According to the exit poll, there were really no reasons that voters would re-elect their Democratic senator. Sixty-two percent of voters said that Congress’ next priority should be cutting taxes or reducing the deficit. Fifty-one percent of them wanted the Affordable Care Act repealed. Fifty-one percent disapproved of the job Obama was doing. Right now, that’s a good snapshot of the rest of the country that Obama, presumably, wants to win over in two years.

So what can Democrats learn from Bennet? Can they copy it? Mostly, no.

The “Crazy” card can work. The number that mattered in the Colorado exit poll was this one: 54 percent of voters called Buck’s views “too extreme.” A whole lot of money and media went into making that word, and that attack, stick to him. Bennet was so shameless and assiduous about loonifying Buck that one of his ads even clipped footage of Buck, frustrated, sarcastically asking “I’m extreme? I’m extreme?” Quoth the narrator: “Ken Buck asked the right question.”

But the crazy card didn’t work for the Democrats in dozens of House races, including two races they lost in Colorado. What was different in this race? The diversity of the “craziness,” for one. Bennet’s rote attacks on Buck for entertaining the ideas of privatizing Social Security and implementing a national consumption tax were added to a powerful attack on his opposition to abortion in all cases and to some forms of birth control. That, according to FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe, “divided and distracted” voters. Nationwide, Republicans erased the Democrats’ advantage with female voters. Buck lost female voters by 17 points.

Primaries can help. Andrew Romanoff, the former speaker of Colorado’s House of Representatives, wanted the Senate appointment that Bennet got. He spent a year campaigning as a Washington outsider. Romanoff’s campaign forced Bennet to define himself early: an affable moderate who hated Washington just as much as you did, and who seemed to go everywhere wearing microfleece. “The primary made Bennet a better candidate,” says Lori Weigel. But that’s not something that Democrats can count on in 2012. Apart from columnists working through slow news days, no one expects a serious primary challenge to Obama; no one is talking about primaries to toughen up any of the Democrats on the ballot in two years. They’re expecting to find themselves anew by contrasting themselves with the GOP.

Pray for a Republican meltdown. Compared with Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, the patron saints of Tea Party election-throwing, Buck didn’t make many mistakes. He mishandled a controversy over a woman who asked him, as Weld County district attorney, to prosecute a rape case he had passed on. “She had buyer’s remorse as a result of the relationship that she had with this young man,” he explained on Meet the Press, in words that may as well have been calculated to alienate female voters.

But it was Buck’s partner at the top of the ticket who messed up the battle plan. The party’s nominee for governor was hobbled by a plagiarism scandal and lost to first-time candidate Dan Maes, whose own mistakes sent the party establishment running to support Constitution Party candidate Tom Tancredo. It seemed like Tancredo was preventing a disaster, but there was no way for him to really save the GOP—the party had to keep wasting time on Maes, and the Republican Governors Association bailed on the state, denying money that could have been used to help get out the whole Republican vote.

It was a mess, and it helped Bennet. But it’s not a mess that Democrats can expect to keep occurring when they need one.

The Hispanic vote can save you. Bennet was the beneficiary of a too-clever-by-half piece of reverse psychology from a group called “Latinos for Reform.” The startup group wanted to run a commercial in Nevada telling Hispanic voters to stay home and skip the election. It didn’t run, but got tons of free media—Democrats in Colorado say that their voters heard about that and heard about campaigns in other states to go after illegal immigration. And then there was the matter of possible Gov. Tom Tancredo. “The Republicans had the avatar of anti-immigration sentiment at the top of their ticket,” says David Sirota, a progressive radio host and author in Denver.

In 2008, the Colorado electorate was 13 percent Hispanic; in 2010, it was 12 percent. And those votes broke for Bennet. Democrats running in two years, like the Democrats this year, like Democrats two years ago, don’t need immigration reform to win over Hispanics. They just need to be Democrats.

So Bennet found four winning strategies in his come-from-behind win. Only one of them—the crazy card—is likely to help all Democrats in 2012. Another, the Hispanic vote, can only help in places where the Democrats have enough potential Hispanic support to make a difference. Bennet’s win may have been the most impressive Democratic upset of the cycle. But good luck to the Democrats who want to clone it.

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