Colorado Democrat Soft-Pedals Partisan Views

Posted August 22, 2008 at 5:51pm

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Retired firefighter Bruce Perry symbolizes both Betsy Markey’s opportunity as the Democratic nominee in the solidly Republican 4th district and the Rocky Mountain climb she faces in her bid to oust three-term incumbent Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R).

Perry, 55, answered the front door of his suburban-tract home in the southern end of this northern Colorado community last week after Markey knocked while canvassing for high-propensity and historically Republican and independent voters. Perry, a registered Republican for about 15 years until he went “unaffiliated” a year ago, voted for Musgrave in 2006, when the Congresswoman — whom he referred to as Marilyn — won with just 46 percent of the vote.

But Perry and his wife, Pam, who is on medical disability, haven’t made up their minds yet about whom they are going to vote for this time around. Perry said he is open to voting for a Democrat for Congress on Nov. 4, and that he is undecided as well about whom he will support in Colorado’s open Senate race and the presidential contest.

“I am tired of both” parties, Perry said during an interview after Markey concluded her pitch. “As long as they keep arguing with each other, nothing gets done. I’ll listen to what [Musgrave and Markey] are talking about this year and decide from there.”

Perry engaged Markey in conversation for about five minutes, asking the businesswoman, ex-Larimer County Democratic Party chairwoman and former aide to Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) primarily about her plans for stemming rising health care costs. But when asked afterward about the No. 1 issue he’d like to see addressed during the fall campaign, Perry talked generally of wanting to hear the candidates discuss their plans to break through the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill and “get something done.”

Therein lies the opportunity for Markey, who claims that Musgrave is a politically focused extremist who has spent her tenure in Congress pushing her opposition to same-sex marriage while excluding bread-and-butter concerns of 4th district constituents. Among the seat’s residents are families living in old and new suburbs situated about an hour or so north of Denver, and the farmers and ranchers of Colorado’s eastern plains.

Though it is typical for a Democrat running in a Republican district to eschew party labels — and vice versa — there appears to be an appetite among the electorate this cycle for solutions-oriented governing that puts traditional politics on the back burner. Markey’s remarks last week before a largely friendly audience of 100 mostly senior citizens during a town hall meeting on energy in Windsor were tailor-made to capitalize on this sentiment.

“We need to go again to Washington, D.C., to solve these problems as Americans,” Markey said as Salazar looked on, enunciating “Americans” with an added emphasis. “And if we look at both what Democrats are talking about and what Republicans are talking about, there’s a lot of common ground there. Take away the rhetoric, let’s look at the common ground and work from there.”

Promoting ANWR

While Markey was preaching to a packed room in the Windsor Community Center about the need for a balanced approach to rising gasoline prices that includes domestic oil drilling but focuses primarily on investing in new technologies and renewable energy sources like wind and solar power, Musgrave was visiting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska in part to highlight her support for increased domestic oil drilling, which polls have shown has gained wide support, both nationally and in Colorado.

According to the Musgrave campaign, the Congresswoman was in Alaska Monday through Friday of last week to learn about the logistics of drilling in ANWR, which the Congresswoman supports as a part of comprehensive energy policy that includes investments in renewable fuels and new technologies in addition to increased domestic production of traditional fossil fuels.

Markey opposes drilling in ANWR, and Musgrave’s team believes this proves that the challenger is not, in fact, the moderate Democrat that she claims to be. Markey, the progeny of a Republican mother and Democratic father, would probably take issue with that contention. She still owns a technology company that she founded with her husband while living in Maryland in the 1980s, and is attuned to the burden often placed on businesses by the government.

Markey, who moved to Fort Collins in 1995 and eventually bought a downtown coffeehouse that she owned for five years before selling at a profit, has even voted Republican in the past, though she conceded she hasn’t done so since voting for then-Rep. Connie Morella (Md.) in the late 1980s.

“My husband and I had just started our business, and there was some legislation, or regulation that I didn’t agree with, and I wrote a letter to the office and Connie Morella called me back, on the phone, to talk about this letter that I had written, and I was so impressed that she did that, that I voted for her next time,” Markey recalled.

The Musgrave campaign completely disavows any suggestion that the Congresswoman has ignored the basic needs of the 4th district in favor of narrow political interests.

Markey’s pitch to independent voters and Republicans is light on national Democratic talking points. And besides accusing Musgrave of focusing too much on gay marriage — Markey doesn’t go out of her way to say whether the Congresswoman is wrong on the issue — the challenger doesn’t tend to include much of a specific critique of the positions Musgrave has taken on hot-button political issues such as taxes and the Iraq War when she is on the stump.

Rather, Markey, at least in campaign stops she made on Wednesday, has accused Musgrave of failing to work across the aisle to address apolitical issues that affect the economy and quality of life of 4th district residents. The Musgrave campaign, though acknowledging that the Congresswoman has suffered from a perception problem that she has worked hard to correct since narrowly winning re-election in 2006, vehemently denies Markey’s charges.

Citing Work With Udall

If you don’t believe the Musgrave team, just ask Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) whether the Congresswoman works with Democrats to get things done, the incumbent’s campaign offered.

In fact, Udall, the Democratic Senate nominee in the race to replace retiring Sen. Wayne Allard (R), underscored his bipartisan credentials in an interview with Roll Call on Thursday by noting his collaboration with Musgrave on legislation that would give the president the line-item veto — something he does regularly on the campaign trail.

“Unlike her opponent, whose only political experience is working as a partisan staffer and party chair, and whose policies are in lock step with the Democratic Leadership Council, Marilyn has a proven record of working across party lines for Coloradans,” Musgrave campaign spokesman Jason Thielman said. The DLC is a think tank that has long been the philosophical home of moderate Democrats.

In 2006, Musgrave narrowly held off liberal Democratic state Rep. Angie Paccione 46 percent to 43 percent, with Independent Eric Eidsness garnering 11 percent. Paccione is now working in the private sector, abandoning her 2008 bid for the 4th district after it became clear that the Democratic establishment had coalesced behind Markey.

In talking to the Musgrave campaign and some of the Congresswoman’s supporters, it is clear that they are sensitive to the charge that she has been absent from the district and AWOL on critical issues. Yet they insist that such characterizations are patently false, saying that the perception exists in large part because of the nearly $10 million in negative ads that were thrown at Musgrave in the 2004 and 2006 cycles by a few wealthy, activist Colorado Democrats who were angry at her for sponsoring a constitutional amendment in the 108th Congress to bar same-sex marriage.

Thielman noted that Musgrave returns home from Washington nearly every weekend that Congress is in session, which involves landing at Denver International Airport and driving about 90 miles northeast to her 100-acre farm in Fort Morgan.

Thielman also offered a laundry list of Musgrave’s bipartisan successes, including “leading the fight” to override President Bush’s veto of the farm bill (Markey claims she supported the bill reluctantly), working with Udall on the line-item veto and to implement a moratorium on earmarks, working with Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.) to prevent the Army from expanding its training ground in Pinion Canyon, and working with Sen. Salazar to create a designated wilderness area within Rocky Mountain National Park.

Realism and Optimism

The Markey campaign is realistic about the politics of the 4th district.

The Democrat’s team believes that the district has seen some significant demographic changes in their favor since 2002, with some Democrats and like-minded independents moving north from the metro Denver area to take advantage of northern Colorado’s less expensive real estate. But they also understand that a majority of the district’s voters remain conservative.

Hence, Markey’s plans to squeeze as much turnout as she can out of southern Fort Collins and Longmont, the small part of Boulder County included in the 4th district and where she has a second campaign office. Additionally, Markey’s strategy involves pumping up turnout in the southern portion of otherwise staunchly conservative Weld County, where several new suburban communities have popped up over the past six years. Meanwhile, the Democrat hopes to minimize her losses along the eastern plains by focusing on water — the lack of which has become a significant concern for the farmers and ranchers who populate that portion of district — as well as renewable energy and how those farms and ranches could profit from the budding industry.

Strategy aside, what has the Markey campaign feeling extremely confident is Musgrave. The Democrat’s team believes voters — even conservative Republicans — have tired of her. And according to Markey’s internal polling, she is an acceptable Democratic alternative.

“If we were running against somebody else, it would be an entirely different race. Marilyn Musgrave is not well-liked,” one of Markey’s advisers said.

Sean Conway, Allard’s chief of staff going back to the Senator’s days as the 4th district Congressman and a northern Colorado resident for nearly two decades, said Markey’s strategy makes sense. But according to Conway, the math just doesn’t add up, nor is Markey the right kind of Democrat to win.

Conway said Democrats keep making the mistake of nominating someone from Fort Collins to challenge the Republican incumbent — the GOP has held the seat since 1972. Conway, who is running for a seat on the Weld County Board of Commissioners, called Weld County the real battleground in this race, noting that even in the 4th district’s newer suburbs, Republicans have a registration advantage.

Evan James, 59, agrees that Markey faces a tough campaign in her bid to upend Musgrave. James, a Fort Collins Democrat, attended a rally last Wednesday for Udall in an open field across the street from the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, where Markey appeared.

“I think it’s going to be an uphill battle for her,” James said. “We have a very conservative Representative right now, of course. And, she does, unfortunately, represent a lot of the most conservative values of the [district]. I think Betsy offers a fresh face, a whole different point of view.”