Salazar’s the One

Democrats Get Their Man in Colorado Race

Posted November 17, 2003 at 6:30pm

Despite a world of uncertainty surrounding Colorado’s 3rd district, Democrats have managed to all but clear the field for their preferred candidate there, state Rep. John Salazar.

Salazar is scheduled to begin a two-day announcement swing through the sprawling district today. He’ll be joined at various stops by three of the leading Democrats who were also considering running: Grand Junction businessman Bernie Buescher, state Sen. Jim Isgar and former state Senate Majority Leader Bill Thiebaut.

Their departure from the contest leaves Anthony Martinez, a frequent candidate for political office, in the Democratic race. But Martinez is a protégé of Salazar’s younger brother, state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D), the most popular Democrat in Colorado, and may yet pull out, a source close to Ken Salazar said.

Even with the winnowing of the Democratic field, the race to replace retiring Rep. Scott McInnis (R) is still fraught with uncertainty. For starters, there are persistent rumors that McInnis will resign before the end of his term, necessitating a special election that would have a dynamic all its own.

Then there is also the question of whether the district’s new boundaries will remain intact. In a round of re-redistricting earlier this year, Republicans in the Colorado Legislature transformed the 3rd district from a tossup, if conservative, area to one with a distinct Republican tilt. But the Colorado Supreme Court is expected to rule on a Democratic challenge to the new redistricting plan soon — perhaps as early as next Monday — and could wind up changing the contours of the 3rd again.

“It’s possible that someone could run in a special election and win and then find themselves in a different district,” Thiebaut speculated, citing the political uncertainty as one of the reasons he has decided to forgo the race and run for Pueblo County district attorney instead.

Regardless, John Salazar’s entry into the contest is good news for Democrats. A conservative farmer from Manassa in the San Luis Valley, he and his brother the attorney general just worked successfully to defeat a statewide ballot initiative to authorize the sale of $2 billion in bonds to pay for water projects, which was highly unpopular in the 3rd.

“We think John reflects the values of the district,” said Brian Ross, a Salazar aide.

While Democrats are coalescing around one candidate, the Republican field in the race to replace McInnis remains likely to grow. Already running on the GOP side are state Sen. Ken Chlouber, Pueblo County Sheriff Dan Corsentino, real estate agent Delina DiSanto, state Rep. Gregg Rippy and state Rep. Matt Smith, who is McInnis’ brother-in-law. Greg Walcher, director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and architect of the water ballot initiative that was defeated, will join the race soon, and others could follow.

It is difficult to identify a frontrunner in that field, although insiders suggest that if McInnis leaves office early, Smith might have the advantage because the GOP nomination would be decided by a vacancy committee made up of party leaders.

Carl Forti, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the GOP is not worried about a divisive primary, or about the idea that Democrats appear to be unifying behind Salazar.

“It’s an early August primary and the Republican candidate will come out battle-tested and ready to go,” he said. “And in the end, it’s a Bush district.”

Even before the new lines were drawn, the 3rd was a district that President Bush carried in 2000 with 58 percent of the vote. But conservative Democrats have run well there, and before McInnis was elected in a close race in 1992, the district was represented by now-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) when he was a Democrat.

Salazar was elected to his state House seat in 2002, defeating a Republican incumbent by a solid margin. He is a fifth-generation resident of the San Luis Valley, a heavily Hispanic region that resembles northern New Mexico in topography and political outlook.

“We obviously want to play in this district and we feel we have a real chance to,” said Kori Bernards, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Assuming he is the nominee, John Salazar will be aided by his brother in the general election. Ken Salazar has been recruited by national Democrats to challenge Campbell in 2004 but seems far more interested in running for governor in 2006.