A New Landscape

Race for Udall’s Seat Not as Easy to Predict as It Once Was

Posted September 24, 2007 at 6:25pm

With all eyes in Colorado’s 2nd district Democratic primary focused on state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald and wealthy party activist Jared Polis, some observers of the race suggest environmentalist Will Shafroth actually might be best positioned to win the contest.

Shafroth has never run for elective office and is pitted against two experienced, formidable candidates who are better connected to the Colorado Democratic establishment, have more political experience and more access to campaign cash. Fitz-Gerald and Polis are in fact considered the primary’s two frontrunners.

But Shafroth, with an impressive record as an environmentalist in a district where that issue is key, has been a solid fundraiser thus far. And significantly, Shafroth, with the look and feel of a friendly, rugged outdoorsman, cuts the closest image to the one cultivated and projected by well-liked Rep. Mark Udall (D), who is vacating the 2nd district seat to run for Senate.

“Shafroth has the more collaborative personality,” said one Colorado Democrat who is familiar with the district. “He could very well be the sleeper candidate under the right conditions.”

Centered just north of Denver in Boulder, the 2nd district is solid Democratic territory, with whomever emerges from the primary almost assured of advancing to Congress in 2009. For that reason, the three candidates are engaged in a heated contest.

With all three candidates in agreement on the major issues, the race could revolve around who can position himself as the most ardent opponent of the Iraq War, who can raise the most money or who possesses the intangible qualities needed to separate from the pack.

Although some Colorado Democrats believe Shafroth could be that candidate, not all believe his chances are especially good.

Going back to 1992, every candidate in Colorado who has won a Democratic primary for Congress, or office higher than that, has been the one who spent the most money. If that pattern holds, Fitz-Gerald and Polis are positioned to win — Fitz-Gerald has received most major endorsements, including that of fundraising powerhouse EMILY’s List, while Polis is a multimillionaire with, presumably, access to as much cash as he needs to compete.

Fitz-Gerald closed the second quarter of this year with $189,000 on hand, Polis finished the period with $403,000, and Shafroth banked $288,000.

“Is Will a great candidate? Yes. Is his profile made for this Congressional district? Yes,” said one Democrat who has previously run for office in Colorado. “But he’s never run for office and is up against two people who’ve served in elected positions and are pretty formidable.”

Yet Shafroth appears to have more going for him than simply his folksy, Udall-like disposition — namely his deeper roots in the 2nd district.

Fitz-Gerald has a fuller political résumé than Shafroth, having been elected Jefferson County Clerk and then state Senator. But Shafroth is based in Boulder, while Fitz- Gerald is based in Jefferson County, in a legislative district that barely overlaps with the Congressional seat.

That means most of the voters who are most familiar with Fitz-Gerald will be unable to vote for her in the August 2008 primary.

Yet Fitz-Gerald is a prolific fundraiser and is described as both a tough and smart campaigner. She has the high-profile endorsements, including those of Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) in the adjoining 7th district; former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer (D); and the local branches of major unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters.

But Shafroth’s notoriety in Colorado’s environmental advocacy community and strong personal connections to the district itself could help him overcome Fitz-Gerald’s institutional strength. He served as executive director of the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund and Colorado Conservation Trust, and has some notable support of his own, including that of attorney Tom Strickland, the Democratic Senate nominee in 1996 and 2002.

As an interesting if ultimately inconsequential aside, Shafroth’s great-grandfather, John Shafroth, was Colorado governor from 1909 to 1913 and also served in the U.S. House and Senate.

Polis is from Boulder, and having spent millions of dollars to help elect Democrats to state and federal office in recent years is well-known in party circles. On this front, Polis would appear to be protected from being outflanked by Shafroth.

But in viewing his main competition as Fitz-Gerald, Polis already has begun targeting her aggressively. In doing so, he could be setting himself up for a mudslinging battle that ultimately could turn voters off.

Some observers of this race believe that this could provide Shafroth with yet another opening. If Polis and Fitz-Gerald over time tear each other down and engage each other in a manner deemed off-putting by the voters, Shafroth could emerge as a candidate above the fray.

“At worst he’s a spoiler, at best he’s a sleeper Cinderella,” said one Democratic strategist based in Colorado.

In Colorado, Democrats have a two-step process to determine their nominees for elective office. In a Congressional race, there is a district-wide convention where party leaders express their preference. But candidates who do not win the party caucuses, which are an inside-game and would appear to benefit Fitz-Gerald and Polis over Shafroth, are able to petition onto the ballot.

That’s what Udall did when he first ran for the 2nd district seat in 1998 and bypassed the party convention altogether.