DENVER -- On a tough night for Democrats nationwide, some small hope could be found in Colorado, where Democrat and former rancher Ken Salazar narrowly defeated beer baron and Republican Pete Coors to win an open seat in the U.S. Senate.
Coors delivered his concession speech at 11:30 p.m. MST. With 80 percent of the precincts reporting, Salazar held a 50 percent to 48 percent lead. The win was a significant pickup for Democrats because the seat is held by Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who is retiring.
"We ran a wonderful, clean, positive campaign," Coors said in his brief speech in Denver. "I could no longer stay on the sidelines, and I'd be disappointed if I didn't give this effort and participate in the process. I will now go back to having the greatest job in America, running a beer company."
In his victory speech minutes later, Salazar said, "I just spoke with my opponent, Pete Coors. He ran a good race, and he is a good man. And when people take off their hat and put it in the arena of politics, we need to celebrate that."
The open seat set off a scramble. Both parties funneled money and workers into Colorado, and the candidates themselves spent a combined $20 million on the race.
Salazar is in his second term as attorney general. His moderate politics, up-by-his-bootstraps life story and long family history in Colorado have endeared him to voters. But he faced a tough race against Coors, chairman of Coors Brewing Co. and heir to the family fortune.
Coors, 58, had nearly universal name recognition and, though a political novice, he was an engaging campaigner whose frosty hair and rugged good looks played well in television ads. But his association with his beer company did not always help him. TV ads noted that his company is the biggest polluter in a state where the environment is sacred.
Then there were the twins, the two young, well-proportioned young women who dance in Coors beer ads. Such images did not sit well with voters who prize family values. Also, Coors Brewing gives benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees, even though Coors favors a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Such contradictions might have dampened enthusiasm for Coors among social conservatives.
Salazar worked hard to show that he was a man of the people. He wore his trademark white cowboy hat in most public appearances, along with cowboy boots, a denim jacket and a bolo tie.
Few people in Colorado dress like that anymore, but it still appealed to voters.
"The average Colorado voter does not come from rural roots," said Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College. "But this is the Colorado we all come to know when we get here, the Colorado you see on calendars. Everyone knows about the mountains and that this is a ranching state, and Ken presents this image quite strongly."
Salazar, 49, grew up one of eight children in Colorado's San Luis Valley. His family, ranchers for generations, had a long, proud history. His ancestors emigrated from Spain to what is now Santa Fe, N.M., in 1598. The family moved to Colorado in the mid-1800s.
Salazar also benefited from a surge in the state's Hispanic population. Hispanics make up 17 percent of Colorado's residents, and they registered in record numbers this year.
Salazar appealed to suburban voters by avoiding a liberal tag. He is a vocal supporter of the death penalty, which Coors opposes on religious grounds.
Asked what it takes for a Democrat to win in Colorado, Salazar said in an interview Monday, "To be a centrist, independent voice. You have to appeal to diverse constituencies in rural as well as urban and suburban settings. Because of my ranching background, I've had an easier time of it than many."
That background played particularly well against Coors' more privileged upbringing. Voters interviewed yesterday said they thought Salazar would look out for regular people and that they weren't convinced Coors understood their concerns. Some still praised Coors, faintly.
"Coors is a great company, and they employ a lot of people here," said Ron Dries, 59, after voting in Golden, home of Coors Brewing. "Coors is a nice-looking man, he's been on TV a lot, and he's got a lot of money. But Salazar came up from humble beginnings. I appreciate his devotion to public service."