Aaron's Real Opinions:

The Surprisingly Close Races
by Aaron Harber
October 29, 2006 - Print Article

Part 1: Two Republican Strongholds Tighten Up

Democrats need to gain an extra 15 seats to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives and have been looking at Congressional District 7 - primarily in Adams, Arapahoe, and Jefferson counties - as one of their best shots. And it now appears Democrat Ed Perlmutter is the likely winner over Republican Rick O’Donnell but the contest still could end up being close.

In what is shaping up to be one of the biggest surprises of the 2006 election season, it appears several other races are turning out to be far closer than expected. On the congressional side, 5th Congressional District nominee Jay Fawcett, bearing tough military credentials, appears to be within striking distance of his Republican opponent, State Senator Doug Lamborn. In a District known for its conservatism and Republicanism, Fawcett is the ideal Democratic candidate. He is being helped by the Republican incumbent’s labeling of Lamborn as having run a sleazy campaign. Representative Joel Hefley, a popular, 10-term Congressman Joel Hefley, even has refused to endorse Lamborn.

The national Democratic Party has just taken note of the race, centered in conservative Colorado Springs, but its entry is terribly late. There’s a real question regarding the time it took the party to do anything. The result may be a missed chance - and one the Democrats come to regret. On the other hand, with a week to go, if Fawcett gets $1 to $2 million in immediate financial support and finds a way to get an extra 200 to 300 volunteers from the Party to add to his own, he will have a chance at winning the race - which could be the biggest upset in the nation.

In the 4th Congressional District, covering Eastern Colorado but dominated by Larimer (Fort Collins) and Weld (Greeley) counties population-wise (although Longmont, in Boulder County, also is now in the District), Democrat Angie Paccione has put up a tough fight against Republican incumbent Marilyn Musgrave but lost ground when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee yanked a $620,000 television advertising buy.

Musgrave then went on the offensive, using Paccione’s personal bankruptcy as the focal point of a stinging attack which likely froze the polling numbers in that District. Although Musgrave could have been beaten, if she now loses that race, it will be a big surprise. Had national Democrats stayed the course, they might have had a serious shot.

One of the problems both Democrat candidates in the 4th and 5th C.D.’s face in overcoming their opponents in what are both Republican districts is the fact a sizable percentage of the electorate already has made up its mind and - thanks to absentee ballots and Early Voting - and have cast their ballots. This leaves a progressively smaller pool of people who are available to be convinced each day. It may be too late.

Part 2: Are All The Other Major Races Over?

With no Republican opponent in the Denver-based 1st Congressional District, Democratic incumbent Diana DeGette can be declared the winner today. The same applies to Democratic incumbent Mark Udall in the 2nd Congressional District, centered in Boulder County, who faces only token (and very polite) opposition. Republicans gave both a free ride.

Surprisingly, the race in the 3rd C.D., between first-term incumbent Democrat John Salazar and Republican challenger Scott Tipton - which was expected to be close because the District is conservative and because Salazar is just finishing his first term, when incumbents are most vulnerable - appears to be over. Tipton has struggled raising funds in a race which is expensive because it covers a massive amount of the State including the entire Western Slope and Pueblo. Even with what appears to be a comfortable lead, Salazar has gone on the attack and has been eviscerating Tipton. Because he has no money, Tipton has been unable to respond. The result is no one expects Salazar to lose.

The 6th C.D. incumbent, Republican Tom Tancredo, has been ignored by the Democratic Party despite being accused of holding extreme positions on a number of issues, and appears ready to cruise to an easy win over Democratic challenger Bill Winter. The District includes parts of Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, Jefferson, and Park counties and always has been a Republican stronghold.

The 7th C.D., featuring former Democratic State Senator Ed Perlmutter against Republican Rick O’Donnell, started off in a dead heat but Perlmutter seems to have gained ground by hitting O’Donnell hard on his ties to the Bush Administration as well as taking advantage of a disclosure that CBS paid for a vacation for O’Donnell and his girlfriend after O’Donnell purchased advertising time on CBS for the State while Executive Director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. While the accusation wasn’t explosive in its own right, it seriously undermined O’Donnell’s own ethics theme - a centerpiece of his campaign.

What has been the biggest surprise are the under-the-radar statewide races for Colorado’s constitutional executive offices. The positions of Attorney General, Secretary of State, and Treasurer traditionally are seen as potential stepping stones to higher office, although only the Treasurer’s position seems to have been used successfully in that regard. Republicans have dominated these positions and today hold all three. Despite this fact and despite the fact Republicans have a 170,000 voter registration edge in Colorado - out of more than three million registered voters - Democrats appear competitive in all three of these contests for the first time in decades. Can they muster the resources to win or will tradition dominate the results?

Part 3: 2006’s Biggest Other Close Election Surprises

In recent elections, Democrats traditionally have not fared well in statewide contests. With the exception of Roy Romer (Governor), Ken Salazar (Attorney General and U.S. Senator), and Jared Polis (State Board of Education), there have been few statewide Democratic successes in the past two decades. This year, however, Democrats are competitive in the races for Attorney General, Secretary of State, and Treasurer.

The Treasurer’s race pits Democrat Cary Kennedy against Republican Mark Hillman. Not only did Hillman serve in the General Assembly in a leadership position, he also served temporarily as the State Treasurer while incumbent Mike Coffman was serving in Iraq. Kennedy authored educational Amendment 23 and has been involved in numerous other progressive efforts but has not been known to the general public. Nevertheless, the Denver Post poll had her and Hillman tied at 37% each (with 26% undecided) and the Rocky Mountain News poll had her leading Hillman 40% to 37% with 23% undecided. The closeness of the race probably has surprised Hillman more than anyone else.

The Secretary of State’s race has incumbent Republican State Treasurer and former legislator Mike Coffman attempting a lateral move from one constitutional executive office to another while Democratic Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon makes his first bid for statewide office. Coffman has been a high profile officeholder while Gordon has been more low key yet the Denver Post poll shows Coffman leading by one point - 39% to 38% with 23% undecided - and the Rocky Mountain News poll has Gordon ahead by one point - 43% to 42% with 15% undecided. Clearly that race is a toss-up, too.

The biggest surprise is the Attorney General’s race where there is an incumbent (albeit appointed, not elected) - Republican John Suthers. The person who likely cares the most about this contest is Democrat Bill Ritter, the State’s probable next Governor, because the A.G. serves as the Governor’s attorney. The truth, however, is Ritter and Suthers have known each other for years (they both served the State as District Attorneys) and probably would work well together (Suthers even once defended Ritter when the latter came under attack from his Republican opponent, Bob Beauprez, for plea bargaining). If Democratic challenger Fern O’Brien wins, it could be the State’s biggest upset.

Part 4: How Could The A.G.’s Race Be So Close?

Incumbent Republican Attorney General John Suthers, who has held a number of major positions in the State and who succeeded Ken Salazar as A.G., was expected to win an easy victory. Instead, his Democratic opponent, virtually unknown Fern O’Brien - who has never been involved in State politics in any significant way - has shockingly dogged him throughout the campaign with the simple theme, “I’ll do a better job.” O’Brien hasn’t attacked Suthers, has no television advertising, and isn’t even recognized by three out of five voters yet she is competitive with Suthers in every respect.

The Rocky Mountain News poll has Suthers leading O’Brien 36% to 33% with 6% going to the Libertarian candidate, Dwight Hartig, and 25% undecided. The Denver Post poll has Suthers ahead 42% to 38%. Suthers has been advertising on television and O’Brien has been totally absent yet she keeps hanging on. Clearly, if Democrats supported O’Brien with a $500,000 advertising purchase, she probably would win the race. It’s unlikely Democrats will do that.

What is surprising in all of these statewide races - i.e., for Attorney General, Secretary of State, and State Treasurer - is the +170,000 Republican voter registration advantage appears to already have been overcome by the Democratic candidates in these contests - making them all very competitive. This means the outcomes likely will all come down to voter turnout - i.e., which party gets its supporters to cast their ballots on or before November 7th.

The Colorado Republican Party has become known in recent years for its sophisticated, well-organized, and well-funded Get-Out-The-Vote effort. The Democrats remain far behind in their own statewide effort. However, Democrats argue it is a “Democratic Year” and they are pinning their hopes that Coloradans’ disillusionment with Washington and the fact both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate as well as the White House are controlled by Republicans will result in voters seeking change and favoring Democrats at all levels.

With these counterbalancing forces and with so many races already in statistical deadheats, it would not be surprising if the final results which come in late at night on Election Day from a handful of Colorado’s 64 counties determine a number of the winners.

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