In Race to Replace Udall, Anyone Can Win Primary

Posted June 24, 2008 at 6:52pm

“Up for grabs.”

That’s the consensus prediction offered by informed sources when asked to project a winner in Colorado’s 2nd district Democratic primary on Aug. 12.

With Rep. Mark Udall (D) giving up the overwhelmingly Democratic, Boulder-area seat to run for Senate, a mad scramble has ensued among three formidable Democrats to replace him, as the winner of the primary should cruise to victory in November.

But so far, none of the candidates’ strengths has translated into a decided political advantage.

Former state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald’s institutional support, former state Board of Education Chairman Jared Polis’ personal millions, and environmental activist Will Shafroth’s grass-roots support have all failed to catapult any of the candidates into the pole position in a race that is expected to heat up following the July 4 holiday.

“It’s definitely a three-way race,” said Jonathan Parker, the political director of EMILY’s List, which has endorsed Fitz-Gerald.

Polis, a wealthy Internet entrepreneur who is openly gay, has made the biggest splash, spending $3.7 million of his own money on the race as of late May, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Polis has been on television in the reasonably expensive Denver media market with several positive, issue-based ads. Fitz-Gerald and Shafroth have yet to hit the airwaves, although Fitz-Gerald has been active in the mail.

Fitz-Gerald is the former state Senate president who helped Democrats take over the Legislature in 2006. Her support among organized labor and important Democratic interest groups — such as EMILY’s List — is unmatched among the three candidates.

Fitz-Gerald and Polis both gained their spots on the Aug. 12 primary ballot by going through the state Democratic Party’s caucus system. But Fitz-Gerald won the votes of 60 percent of the caucus-goers, while Polis garnered 39 percent. Shafroth bypassed the caucuses and petitioned his way onto the ballot.

Shafroth has deep roots in the environmental community and has raised impressive amounts of money while claiming strong grass-roots support.

He is the former executive director of the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund. One Democratic operative based in Colorado referred to environmentalists as a “sleeping giant” who have not turned out to vote in large numbers in the past but who might show up to support Shafroth, who they see as one of their own.

A Democratic strategist headquartered in Washington, D.C., characterized the race as one where Fitz-Gerald and Polis were tied for first, with Shafroth a close second.

“I think it’s Polis and Fitz-Gerald ahead of Shafroth,” this strategist said. “But I think it may be a situation of 1A, 1B and 2.”

Multiple sources interviewed for this story were clear that they had not seen any recent polling on the race, and said that their predictions that the contest is currently anyone’s to win (or lose) was based on a gut feeling of where things stand, not on hard data.

The Polis campaign could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. But both the Fitz-Gerald and the Shafroth campaigns said they expect the race to take a turn following Independence Day, when voters begin to focus on the contest and the airwaves war heats up.

Fitz-Gerald and Shafroth both plan to join Polis on television in early July.

“I really believe that this is an open race and anyone could win it,” Shafroth campaign spokeswoman Lynea Hansen said. “Once all three start with paid communications, that’s when we’ll see some changes in this race.”

Although Shafroth is considered a strong dark horse candidate who could surprise the prognosticators, most still predict the contest will develop into a two-person affair between Fitz-Gerald and Polis.

There doesn’t appear to be too much difference among any of the candidates on major issues, and Hansen argued that the race is more about leadership style and personality than positions on policy. She said Shafroth’s advantage is that voters see him as a regular guy who is most like them.

But Fitz-Gerald campaign spokesman Matthew Moseley contended otherwise, although in his analysis of the race, and where it might be headed, he focused on Polis and all but ignored Shafroth. In particular, Moseley predicted voters would punish Polis for spending so much personal money while previously pushing for campaign finance reform.

“The voters in the district are not identifying with large amounts of money in this race as they are dealing with higher gas prices, tuition and health care costs,” Moseley said.

The Democratic operative based in Colorado speculated that Fitz-Gerald would ultimately finish on top.

While conceding that the race remains wide open at this point, this operative said Fitz-Gerald is working extremely hard and has the best combination of institutional support, cash on hand to get her message out, and positive name identification courtesy of her tenure as state Senate President.

“She’s definitely a well-known, well-liked figure,” Parker added. “She’s not starting from ground zero.”