Bennet support for Iran deal shakes up Senate landscape
The Colorado Statesman
September 10, 2015
It didn’t take long for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to start feeling the heat over his decision to support the Iran nuclear deal.
Bennet’s announcement came Friday, the day before Labor Day weekend. By the next business day, the conservative group Advancing Colorado had targeted Bennet in a digital ad campaign that depicts the Democrat as a puppet of Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Before the end of the weekend, Republican Robert Blaha said he would enter the Republican primary for Bennet’s Senate if Bennet sided with President Obama to support the deal.
A Colorado Springs businessman — he lost a primary challenge against U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn in 2012 — Blaha said his formal announcement in early October would hinge on how Bennet casts his vote on the deal, which lifts economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for heightened limits and inspections on its nuclear capability.
“Michael Bennet has made his decision; once again he has chosen to stand with the far left community,” said Blaha in a statement. “His twisted ideology in supporting this worst-ever ‘negotiated’ Iranian deal punctuates who he really is.”
Another Republican weighing a Senate bid, state Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, said Bennet has made “the wrong decision,” adding, “Simply put, we should not sign an agreement with the murderous dictators in Iran — who have clearly signaled their hatred for America and their intent to destroy our allies.”
Despite an initial blast of criticism, however, it’s unclear whether the controversy will linger long enough to threaten Bennet’s reelection chances in 2016. Longtime Colorado political analyst Robert Loevy said he doubted it.
“I think he’s handled it well. I think it will very quickly go below the radar,” said Loevy, a political science professor emeritus at Colorado College.
Given the strong emotions surrounding the agreement, he said Bennet might have finessed the volatile situation as adroitly as could be expected. For one, he announced his position right before a holiday weekend, when most Coloradans are focused on issues other than foreign policy.
For another, Bennet said he plans to sponsor legislation with Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin to increase aid to Israel and provide additional checks on the agreement, which was negotiated over 20 months between Iran and leading world powers.
In his Friday statement, Bennet called the agreement “flawed” but said he had concluded it is “more likely to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon than the plausible alternatives.”
A congressional vote on the deal also comes 14 months before Bennet faces Colorado voters next November.
“I think if he’s lucky, he’s probably gotten rid of the issue. It’s going to be a very old issue by the time the Senate race heats up,” Loevy said.
Senate Democrats backing the agreement, including Bennet, voted on Thursday to filibuster a bill disapproving of the Iran deal.
A bigger problem for Bennet than the vote itself could be that it adds to the perception of the senator as a rubber stamp for President Obama and Reid, said Republican strategist Dick Wadhams.
Before the Senate vote, Wadhams said that aligning with national Democrats reinforces perceptions that Bennet falls in line with the administration and Senate Democratic leadership.
Wadhams also said that the pre-Labor Day announcement may have been politically savvy, but it also made Bennet look calculating and furtive.
“When politicians do that on a Friday before a holiday weekend, you know they’re hoping that nobody’s going to remember what they just did,” Wadhams said. “It wasn’t transparent what he did on Friday last week, and it was clear how uncomfortable he was with this vote.”
Another potential wild card emerged Tuesday with the unveiling of the multi-state Defund Iran ballot campaign, which aims to place measures requiring divestment of state funds from Iran on the November 2016 ballot in 25 states.
In Colorado, the drive is headed by two high-profile Republicans, former House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, and House Assistant Minority Leader Polly Lawrence, R- Roxborough Park. A poll released by Defund Iran showed 4 out of 5 Republican voters would support such a measure, as would 3 out of 5 Democrats.
The effort is aimed at blocking a provision in the agreement that calls for the federal government to “take all appropriate steps” to lift economic sanctions against Iran, which would presumably include states with provisions against investment in state sponsors of terror.
The danger for Bennet is that such a proposal, if it were to qualify for the ballot, would keep the Iran nuclear deal front-and-center through next year’s election. A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday found support among the American public for the Iran deal dropping, with only 21 percent saying they approve and 49 percent expressing disapproval. A July Pew survey found 33 percent in favor.
Bennet’s vote could also alienate some of his supporters and fundraisers within the state’s Jewish community. Jewish voters have long been considered a dependable voting bloc for Democrats, but fears of the agreement’s impact on the security of Israeli have led to a schism in Colorado and elsewhere.
“Of course we are disappointed in Sen. Bennet casting his vote in supporting the administration’s deal. There’s not much that can be done,” said Neil Dobro, executive director of Americans Against Terrorism in Denver.
Dobro urged the senator to allow a vote to go forward on the Senate floor. “Even if he’s opposed, he should not in any way vote to stop the democratic process and stop a debate in Congress.”
On the other hand, Bennet drew praise from members of J Street, the liberal Jewish advocacy group that ran ads in the Denver media market in support of the deal.
“This agreement will make Israel safer, and Senator Bennet’s vote in support of the agreement is consistent with his long and exemplary record of support for Israel and its security,” said Margery Goldman of Boulder, a Bennet supporter and member of J Street’s Colorado steering committee.
“It took real wisdom and political courage to tune out the extreme rhetoric and focus on the facts,” she said in an email. “Pro-Israel, pro-peace Coloradoans can truly be proud of their Senator and his decision.”
As make-or-break votes go, Wadhams said he doubted the Iran deal would rise to the level of, say, former Sen. Mark Udall’s vote in favor of Obamacare, which came back to haunt the Democrat in 2014, when he was defeated by Republican Cory Gardner.
“I don’t think the Iran vote is going to bring him [Bennet] down next year, but I do think it adds to the impression that he can never claim to be independent of the Democratic leadership, that he’s always there when needed,” Wadhams said. “There’s no ability to have any independent thought whatsoever. That’s the danger for him in 2016.”
Perhaps the biggest gamble for the deal’s supporters is that they’re counting on Iran, not the most reliable of international partners, to live up to its end of the bargain.
“What he [Bennet] needs to be afraid about is some dramatic issue, sometime in the next few months — Iran announces that they’ve built a nuclear bomb, or something like that,” said Loevy. “I think he’s safe unless something really definite, really dramatic — not a pseudo-event but a real event — occurs that creates negativism toward the treaty.”
“But I don’t think that’s going to happen in the next year and two months,” he said.