A look at Colorado

Posted May 16, 2003 at 6:26pm

The Colorado political world is in a tizzy right now, after Republicans in the Legislature rushed through a plan to redraw the contours of the state’s seven Congressional districts two weeks ago — not surprisingly, to their advantage.

Before the ink from Gov. Bill Owens’ (R) pen even dried after he signed the legislation, Democrats sued to stop the plan from taking effect. The state Supreme Court has agreed to take thecase. [IMGCAP(1)]

But that hasn’t stopped the political clock from ticking. While Democrats and Republicans wait for the state’s High Court to consider the redistricting case — and appeals to that decision are all but certain — they must prepare for the 2004 and 2006 elections without knowing what the Congressional lines will look like. And that, of course, could affect the lineup of candidates for various offices in the next few years.

In some cases, political operatives have yet to figure out whether prospective candidates for certain House seats still live in the districts they were targeting.

“It certainly adds a new dimension to everything,” said Chris Gates, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party.

The most dramatic thing the redistricting bill did was add 27,000 Republican voters to what had been the tossup 7th district in suburban Denver, where Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) was elected last November by just 121 votes. Equally significant, the GOP drew the two men thought to be the strongest Democratic challengers next year — 2002 nominee Mike Feeley, a former state Senator, and former state Sen. Ed Perlmutter — out of the 7th.

“Please don’t claim that that was some kind of accident,” Gates said bitterly. “That seat is done now. Talk about overkill. It’s a lockdown.”

Another promising Democrat who has been touted for the Beauprez seat, 29-year-old state Rep. Mike Garcia (D), still apparently lives in the 7th. But it is considered unlikely that he would run in 2004 if the voter enrollment stays as it is in the new GOP plan.

Before Owens signed the redistricting bill, the 7th was expected to produce the most competitive race in Colorado next year. The Centennial State’s other six Members were all considered pretty safe even before the Republicans pushed through their proposal. But the political calculus has undeniably changed.

While Colorado voters will go to the polls next year to decide whether Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) deserves a third term, most of the state’s political operatives are looking ahead to 2006, when the governor, the attorney general, the state treasurer and the secretary of state all face term limits.

For the Campbell seat, Democrats still cling to the hope that one of what Gates calls their “Big Four” — Attorney General Ken Salazar, outgoing Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, and Reps. Mark Udall and Diana DeGette — decides to run. But none is considered likely to at this stage.

Udall has all but said that while he’d like to be a Senator, he won’t run against Campbell. DeGette has shown no signs of launching a statewide candidacy. Webb is looking forward to retirement after a dozen years as mayor (though many political observers believe he’ll miss the limelight and may reconsider a Senate bid several months from now). And Salazar, the most prominent Democrat in the state right now, is almost certain to run for governor in 2006.

If none of those four comes forward in 2004, Gates said he has been talking to four political newcomers “who have been very successful in the private sector and who have been very active in the party” about running for Senate. Meanwhile, Mike Myles, a teacher from Colorado Springs, has already entered the Democratic contest.

Rep. Scott McInnis (R), who has represented the 3rd district since 1993, is considered the likeliest GOP candidate for governor in 2006. He could be joined in a primary by state Treasurer Mike Coffman.

“It would be a pretty big clash,” said one Colorado Republican leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t know what would happen.”

While McInnis wins re-election easily on the Western Slope, the 3rd is really a swing district — or was, before the Colorado Legislature had its way.

Tom Downey, a lawyer in Denver who has worked for Salazar and helped state Democrats on an earlier redistricting court case, said the changes in the 3rd — where Democratic Hispanic voters were moved out — are as significant as the changes in the 7th.

“That’s why this redistricting court battle is so important,” he said.

Nevertheless, several Democrats and Republicans are identified as potential candidates for McInnis’ seat if he moves on.

On the GOP side, state Director of Natural Resources Greg Walcher, a former chief of staff to then-Sen. Bill Armstrong (R), heads the list. Republicans are also high on state Rep. Gregg Rippy.

“He impresses a lot of people as the Congressman type,” said one GOP insider. “But he may not have the burning ambition.”

Finally, there is colorful state Sen. Ken Chlouber (R), a professional auctioneer and former miner famous for wearing bolo ties on the Senate floor. Although he lives in the mountain town of Leadville, he ran for Congress last year in DeGette’s Denver-based district, arguing that his part-time residence in the state capital qualified him to run in the city. He lost badly, but in a rural district he could do much better.

At least two notable Democrats are likely to run in the 3rd district when McInnis leaves: state Rep. John Salazar, the brother of the attorney general, and former state Senate Majority Leader Bill Thiebaut.

Of the rest of the Colorado delegation, Rep. Joel Hefley (R), 68, may be the closest to retirement, and already there is a long line of Republicans waiting to run in the conservative Colorado Springs-based district. The list includes Realtor and GOP activist Jack Gloriod; state House Majority Leader Keith King; state Sen. Doug Lamborn; U.S. Attorney John Suthers; former state Senate Majority Leader Jeff Wells, who is now executive director of the state Department of Labor and Employment; and El Paso County Commissioner Wayne Williams.

Meanwhile, ambitious Democrats are already gathering in DeGette’s 1st district and Udall’s Boulder-based 2nd district in the unlikely event — barring a run for Senate — that they move on anytime soon. In the 1st, possible contenders include state Sen. Peter Groff; state Sen. Dan Grossman; outgoing Denver City Councilwoman Happy Haynes; Denver Auditor Don Mares, who is running for mayor but is expected to lose next month’s runoff; Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter; former state Sen. Penfield Tate; state Rep. Andrew Romanoff; and state Rep. Jennifer Veiga, one of the few openly lesbian politicians in Colorado. She is expected to win a special election for state Senate later this year.

Some of these potential Congressional candidates could also run for other offices soon.

In the 2nd, possible Democratic House contenders include state Senate Minority Leader Joan Fitz-Gerald, who led a walk-out of Senate Democrats during a vote on redistricting earlier this month; state Board of Education member Jerrod Polis, a wealthy 20-something who spent $1 million of his own money to win his seat; and state Sen. Ron Tupa.

In the 4th district, freshman Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R) is probably safe. But political observers wonder about Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) in the 6th. While he appears likely to break his three-term-limit pledge and seek re-election, there is some talk of party leaders attempting to nudge him aside or recruiting a top-tier challenger for a Republican primary.

Coffman, the state treasurer, is one possible foe. So is former Senate President John Andrews, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 1990. So is Rick O’Donnell, Owens’ policy director. O’Donnell was the runner-up to Beauprez in the 7th district GOP primary last year, but may now live in the 6th under the new Congressional map.

Both parties are also anticipating spirited primaries for attorney general in 2006. The Republican contest could include state Rep. Shawn Mitchell, a former aide to then-Attorney General (now U.S. Secretary of the Interior) Gale Norton, and Troy Eid, Owens’ former legal counsel. Possible Democratic candidates include Ritter, Perlmutter, Feeley and Grossman.

In the miscellaneous promising category, both parties are high on mayors. The GOP is touting Ft. Collins Mayor Ray Collins and Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera. And assuming he wins the Denver mayoral runoff next month as expected, brew pub owner John Hickenlooper will instantly become a major player in state Democratic politics.

Finally, there is Chris Romer, a public finance expert and son of popular former Gov. Roy Romer (D), who is expected to run for state treasurer in 2006.

And Republicans are confident that they haven’t heard the last of former Rep. Bob Schaefer (R), who retired from Congress last year at the tender age of 40 to honor a three-term-limit pledge.