MOUNTAINS: Colorado’s Salazars Win; Utah’s Mathesons Split

Posted November 3, 2004 at 4:59pm

Two brother acts in adjacent states met with mixed results Tuesday.

In Colorado, the Salazar brothers both were winners, and their victories represented important pick-ups for the Democrats. In Utah, it was a split decision for the Matheson brothers.

In the most competitive Senate race in the region by far, Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) defeated brewing mogul Pete Coors (R) in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.).

Despite his personal wealth and his family’s ties to national conservative causes, Coors, a political neophyte, proved to be no match for Salazar. A two-term attorney general who also served in the cabinet of former Gov. Roy Romer (D), Salazar won in a Republican-leaning state by emphasizing his rural roots and moderate positions. At times — particularly on issues like law enforcement and national security — Salazar was able to position himself to Coors’ right. And Republicans’ attempts to paint Salazar as a liberal trial lawyer fell flat; he was a land-use lawyer before entering public service.

Salazar appeared to have long coattails as well. He may have helped his older brother, state Rep. John Salazar (D), defeat former state Director of Natural Resources Greg Walcher (R) in the sprawling 3rd House district. Salazar will succeed retiring Rep. Scott McInnis (R) in the Western Slope seat.

Like his brother, John Salazar, whose family has farmed in the San Luis Valley for several generations, was able to win by emphasizing his deep roots in the community and his own centrist views. While Walcher was well known in the district, he first had to win a nasty Republican primary and then wound up paying for carrying water — literally — for an unpopular ballot measure championed by his ex-boss, Gov. Bill Owens (R).

In 2003, Owens promoted a measure that residents of rural communities feared would divert water to the populous Denver region. Both Salazar brothers fought the proposal hard, and it went down to defeat last year.

John Salazar’s victory puts the 3rd district in the Democratic column for the first time in a dozen years: Before McInnis’ election in 1992, Campbell held the seat as a Democrat.

Despite the success of the Salazar brothers, the Democrats were not able to capture another House seat they had targeted — the 7th district, held by freshman Rep. Bob Beauprez (R).

Beauprez’s 121-vote victory in 2002 meant that the suburban Denver seat was certain to be a battle regardless of whom the Democrats nominated. And the Democrats at one point were comfortable that their nominee, Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas, would run a competitive race.

But a state report released in September on the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings found fault with Thomas; he never really recovered, and Beauprez won 55 percent to 42 percent. Considering that other high-profile Democrats had thought about running for the seat, this must be considered an opportunity missed for the minority party.

In one other noteworthy Colorado race, freshman Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R) beat back former state Sen. Stan Matsunaka (D) in a rematch of their 2002 contest.

In addition to the dual Salazar victories, Colorado Democrats were celebrating the unexpected takeover of both chambers of the Colorado legislature. The seizure of the state House was especially unexpected — it appears to be the only chamber in the country not rated “in play” by the Rothenberg Political Report that switched hands Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, in Utah, the Matheson brothers were unable to pull off the same feat as the Salazar brothers.

Despite the heavy Republican tilt of his district, Rep. Jim Matheson (D) did win a third term by a surprisingly easy margin over former state Rep. John Swallow (R), who had fallen just 1,600 votes short of knocking off Matheson in 2002. This time Matheson won, 56 percent to 42 percent.

But Matheson’s brother, law school dean Scott Matheson Jr. (D), lost his bid for the governorship, falling 15 points short of Republican businessman Jon Huntsman. The Mathesons’ father, the late Scott Matheson Sr., was a popular governor of the Beehive State from 1977 to 1985.

Despite the surprising size of his victory, Jim Matheson never will be able to rest easy in a district that gave President Bush more than 60 percent of the vote.

Incumbents easily prevailed in the rest of the region, including Sens. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).

In Montana, farmer Brian Schweitzer (D), who fell just 13,000 votes short of upsetting Sen. Conrad Burns (R) in 2000, saw vindication, as he narrowly was elected governor over Secretary of State Bob Brown (R). The candidates were seeking to replace Gov. Judy Martz (R), whose personal troubles gave Schweitzer a big opening.