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.