Rumble for McInnis Seat

Posted May 4, 2004 at 4:39pm

Operating in the shadow of the state’s open-seat Senate race, three Republican candidates have emerged from the pack as frontrunners in the Western Slope 3rd district.

State Reps. Gregg Rippy and Matt Smith as well as former Colorado Department of Natural Resources Secretary Greg Walcher are the three GOPers with a legitimate shot of emerging victorious in the state’s Aug. 10 primary. Seven Republicans are seeking the seat now held by departing Rep. Scott McInnis (R).

Both Rippy and Walcher expressed confidence in interviews and claimed to be the candidate to beat in the race.

“I am the frontrunner,” said Rippy.

“Our campaign is the first tier,” maintained Walcher.

Smith did not return repeated calls for comment.

The three leading candidates will face an early test of strength at the June 5 state party convention, where they will compete for delegates to secure their place and position on the primary ballot.

State Rep. John Salazar is seen as the likely Democratic nominee; his younger brother, state Attorney General Ken Salazar, will be the party’s choice to replace retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R).

Talk of the Senate race has dominated the state’s political circles since Campbell decided not to seek a third term on March 3.

While Ken Salazar has a relatively unimpeded path to the Democratic Senate nomination, former Rep. Bob Schaffer and brewing mogul Pete Coors will face off for the Republican nod.

The Senate race “did put us a little bit in the shadow,” acknowledged Rippy, though he added: “In the Congressional scheme of things this is a very important race.”

The 3rd is one of seven Republican-held open seats that are competitive between the parties. Three Democratic seats are expected to be hotly contested.

McInnis has held the seat easily since 1992 but is leaving Congress at the close of this session to take a job in Denver with the high-powered law firm Hogan & Hartson.

Gov. Bill Owens (R) signed a bill in May 2003 that would have made both the 3rd district and the suburban Denver 7th district decidedly more Republican after a state court had drawn a more Democratic-friendly map in 2002.

Democrats appealed the Owens map and won a favorable decision in the Colorado Supreme Court in December 2003.

Republicans, in turn, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court is expected to decide whether to take the case later this week, though any decision on the lines would not go into effect until after the November election.

The current district is roughly split in thirds between registered Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Before McInnis was elected, Campbell held the seat — as a Democrat.

With so little attention on the contest, the three candidates’ first-quarter fundraising reports provide the only early benchmark for where the race stands.

Rippy led the Republican field in fundraising from Jan. 1 to March 31, ending the period with $153,000 in the bank. He had raised $233,000 so far for the race, including a $61,000 personal loan.

Rippy, who owns a construction business in Glenwood Springs, said donating more personal funds is “an option.”

“It’s important to level the highs and lows [of a campaign] and make sure you have the resources to get your message out,” he added.

Walcher trailed only slightly behind Rippy in first-quarter receipts, bringing in $193,000 with $115,000 on hand.

He said that Rippy was “decidedly not” the financial frontrunner in the race because of his personal donations.

Walcher added that he broke a Colorado fundraising record for contributions to a candidate in a contested primary in the first quarter of an election year.

Given Walcher’s background, he is not likely to struggle to raise money.

Prior to his five years in the Owens administration, Walcher headed up “Club 20,” a combination regional chamber of commerce and council of governments on the Western Slope. He spent 10 years as a top aide to former Colorado Sen. Bill Armstrong (R). He also operates a peach orchard with his wife in Palisade.

Armstrong, as well as conservative activist Terry Considine and former Colorado Republican Party Chairman Bruce Benson, are on Walcher’s finance committee.

Smith, inexplicably, has yet to file a report with the Federal Election Commission detailing contributions and expenditures to his campaign. He initially entered the race in October 2003.

A candidate must file with the FEC as soon as his committee raises or spends more than $5,000.

Smith is considered a serious player due almost wholly to his connections to McInnis, as he has done little else to distinguish himself as a candidate.

Smith, who is married to McInnis’ sister, has held a Grand Junction-based House seat since 1996.

Prior to being elected to the state House, he served as a water and natural resources attorney.

Both Smith and Walcher have pledged to compete at the June 5 state Republican convention for delegates’ votes.

If either or both receive better than 30 percent of the ballots cast, they are ensured a spot on the primary ballot. If they take between 10 percent and 30 percent, they can petition their way onto the ballot.

Rippy has chosen to simply collect the required petition signatures, bypassing the convention process altogether.

“This is all about a universe of 595 voters,” said Walcher about the convention. “I am very focused on what needs to happen.”