MOUNTAIN: Democrats See Unexpected Gains at Altitude

Posted May 13, 2004 at 3:01pm

COLORADO
Filing deadline: June 1
Primary: Aug. 10

Senate
Open seat: Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) is retiring
Outlook: Tossup

The two months since Campbell’s March 3 retirement announcement have been filled with more political intrigue than a dime store novel.

While Republican establishment leaders were clearly staggered by Campbell’s departure, they quickly turned to Gov. Bill Owens (R) as their strongest candidate.

After a few days of deliberation, Owens turned down the race — but his involvement had only just begun.

Former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R), who represented the 4th district from 1996 until 2002, jumped in with the support of former Sen. Bill Armstrong (R), a major player in the state’s politics, especially among its most conservative members.

Dissatisfied with Schaffer as the party’s nominee, Owens led a public candidate search that featured rejections by Reps. Bob Beauprez and Scott McInnis, Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Jim Nicholson and Re/Max founder Dave Liniger, among others.

Flummoxed by his inability to find a hand-picked candidate, Owens appeared to have accepted Schaffer as the nominee and even offered his endorsement.

That support was revoked less than 24 hours later when Coors Brewing Co. Chairman Peter Coors (R) decided to make the race. Owens quickly switched allegiances to support Coors.

While not as protracted as the Republican candidate melee, the Democratic recruitment process featured plenty of drama in its own right.

In the days preceding Campbell’s retirement announcement, after months of fruitless recruiting, national Democrats convinced wealthy philanthropist Rutt Bridges to run.

When Campbell dropped out, Bridges vowed to stay in the contest even as Rep. Mark Udall (D), who had twice rejected making the race, began to reconsider.

Undaunted, Udall entered the contest, setting up a primary with Bridges.

But it was not to be.

Less than 24 hours after entering, Udall appeared with Bridges and state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) to announce they were all uniting behind the state’s top cop.

Democrats were elated, as Salazar, who is seen as the party’s most popular elected official, was supposedly more interested in the 2006 governor’s race.

The Democrats’ joy was diminished somewhat by Coors’ candidacy, given his wide name recognition in the state and unlimited bank account.

Polling done in the race shows that Salazar has a double-digit lead over both Schaffer and Coors, however.

In a late-April survey conducted by Public Opinion Strategies for the Rocky Mountain News, Salazar had a 48 percent to 37 percent lead over Schaffer; he led Coors by a more comfortable 52 percent to 36 percent margin.

It remains unclear whether Schaffer’s base among social conservatives and experience in the state Legislature and Congress can overcome Coors’ famous last name and huge wallet.

Schaffer raised $187,000 in less than a month of active fundraising. Coors did not file a financial report. Salazar gave a sneak preview of his strength by raising $527,000.

By early May his campaign had crested the $1 million mark and began running unorthodox two-minute commercials in the state’s rural areas.

Salazar likely has a slight lead over either candidate, though the prospect of a free-spending Coors strikes fear into the hearts of many national Democrats.

House
3rd district
Open seat: Scott McInnis (R) is retiring
Outlook: Tossup

Democrats are increasingly optimistic about their chances in this Western Slope district after landing their No. 1 recruit and winning a challenge to a Republican redraw of the district’s lines.

State Rep. John Salazar, the older brother of state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D), is the clear favorite in the race.

He faces a nuisance primary from Grand Junction Mayor Jim Spehar among others.

The Republican field is much more crowded.

State Reps. Matt Smith and Gregg Rippy as well as former state Department of Natural Resources Director Greg Walcher are considered the top tier.

Rippy leads the money chase with $153,000 in the bank at the end of March. He had raised $233,000 total at that point including $61,000 in personal donations.

Walcher had raised $193,000 with $115,000 on hand.

Smith, who is married to McInnis’ sister, oddly, had not filed a financial report with the Federal Election Commission and has done little to put together a campaign.

Even before the race began, Democrats won a victory when the Colorado Supreme Court voted to overturn a Republican redraw of the state’s lines that would have removed much of the Hispanic population in Pueblo County from the district, making it much more friendly for Republicans.

Salazar, who is Hispanic, is hoping to maximize the vote in Pueblo and stay within shouting distance in the more rural of the district’s 29 counties.

Until the Republican primary concludes, this is a tough race to handicap, but Democrats have improved their chances significantly over the past year.

7th district
Incumbent: Bob Beauprez (R)
1st term (47 percent)
Outlook: Leans Republican

The past few months have brought Republicans good news and bad news in equal measures in this seat.

In December 2003, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned a Republican re-redistricting plan that would have made Beauprez’s suburban Denver district much safer for him.

The decision returned the lines to their 2002 shape under which Beauprez defeated then-state Sen. Mike Feeley (D) by just 121 votes — the narrowest margin of any House race in the country.

Then in March came the good news for Republicans, as Beauprez resisted entreaties by Gov. Bill Owens (R) to run for the open seat of retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R).

Beauprez declined the offer under pressure from House Republicans, who believe he is the only Republican capable of holding the House seat.

Democrats seem to have coalesced around Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas, who lost a primary to Feeley last cycle.

Beauprez has run a solid re-election bid to this point — especially on the fundraising front. He ended March with $1 million in the bank.

Thomas had $171,000 on hand at that time.

The competitive nature of the seat ensures that both national parties will be active, however, and money is not likely to be a problem for either candidate.

Because this is the first time the district will play host to a presidential race, it is difficult to predict how it will perform.

A Democratic poll conducted in late February showed Beauprez with a 39 percent to 32 percent lead over Thomas.

IDAHO
Filing deadline: passed
Primary: May 25

Senate
Incumbent: Mike Crapo (R)
1st term (70 percent)
Outlook: Safe Republican

Crapo’s re-election effort couldn’t be any easier: He has no opponent in November.

House
2nd district
Incumbent: Mike Simpson (R)
3rd term: 68 percent
Outlook: Safe Republican

Both Simpson and Idaho’s other House Member, Rep. Butch Otter, are quite safe, though Otter was held to 59 percent in 2002 after being challenged by former U.S. Attorney Betty Richardson (D).

This time, Simpson might have the slightly tougher race, as he squares off against former state Sen. Lin Whitworth (D), a retired railroad worker and union activist.

MONTANA
Filing deadline: passed
Primary: June 8

House
At-Large
Incumbent: Denny Rehberg (R)
2nd term (65 percent)
Outlook: Safe Republican

Rehberg has become so entrenched it is difficult to remember that he took just 51 percent of the vote in his first campaign in 2000.

This year, his challenger is Tracy Velazquez, a 40-year-old consultant to nonprofit and faith organizations. The Harvard-educated Velazquez seems like a solid, earnest contender, but she is probably overmatched.

Rehberg, who many political observers believe is preparing to run for Senate some day, was sitting on $360,000 as of March 31.

UTAH
Filing deadline: passed
Primary: June 22

Senate
Incumbent: Bob Bennett (R)
2nd term (64 percent)
Outlook: Safe Republican

Despite breaking a pledge to serve only two terms, Bennett remains a popular figure and should have no trouble dispatching former state Attorney General Paul Van Dam (D), who is badly underfunded.

House
2nd district
Incumbent: Jim Matheson (D)
2nd term (49 percent)
Outlook: Tossup

Matheson will always be a target in this heavily Republican district that covers two-thirds of the Beehive State territory.

But he is careful to distance himself from liberal Democratic orthodoxy on key issues and is well-armed for battle, with $783,000 in the bank as of March 31.

Matheson may also benefit from continued divisions in the state Republican Party, and two GOPers are vying for the right to challenge him. Both are running for the second time: former state Rep. John Swallow, who finished just 1,600 votes short of defeating Matheson in 2002, and businessman Tim Bridgewater, runner-up to Swallow in the 2002 primary.

Swallow and Bridgewater were both in decent shape financially as of March 31, with $313,000 and $274,000 on hand, respectively. Swallow is also the beneficiary of help from the conservative Club for Growth.

One big unknown for Matheson this year: how his brother’s candidacy for governor will affect his own campaign.

Scott Matheson Jr. is the odds-on Democratic nominee in the gubernatorial race. A law school dean and political neophyte, Scott Matheson is considered slightly more liberal than his Congressman brother. Both are sons of the late Gov. Scott Matheson Sr. (D).

WYOMING
Filing deadline: May 28
Primary: Aug. 17

House
At-Large
Incumbent: Barbara Cubin (R)
5th term (61 percent)
Outlook: Safe Republican

Cubin has never had to seriously sweat re-election in this heavily Republican state.

The curious thing is the emergence of two fairly credible Republican primary challengers: attorney Bruce Asay and state Sen. Cale Case. Perhaps it is a function of persistent rumors that Cubin — whose husband is ailing — may retire soon.

Cubin still had the heavy financial advantage as of March 31, sitting on $171,000 in her campaign treasury. Asay had $39,000 — most of it courtesy a $35,000 loan he made to his campaign. Case had not begun raising money as of March 31.

Four little-known Democrats are also running, but the GOP maintains the heavy edge regardless of whom the nominee is.