By Ellen Miller
WESTERN SLOPE CORRESPONDENT
GRAND JUNCTION — What a difference four years makes.
Republican Scott Tipton, a one-term state representative from Cortez, romped to victory over Democrat John Salazar in a hotly contested race in the sprawling 3rd Congressional District.
Tipton won 60 percent of the vote in heavily Republican Mesa County and cut into Salazar’s base of Pueblo County, where the Republican took 41 percent of the vote on his way to a 126,227 to 114,763 victory.
Tipton ended up with a district wide 50 percent of the vote to Salazar’s 46 percent — quite a reversal of 2006, when Salazar hammered Tipton by more than 25 percentage points.
The difference was the heavily funded Republican wave that particularly hurt Salazar on the Western Slope, where in his prior three successful runs for Congress he had attracted the support of moderate, business-oriented Republicans who flocked to Tipton this time around.
“I’ve supported John in the past, but Scott is a businessman and I’m a Republican,” Mike Holmes, a Grand Junction lawyer, said during Tipton’s election night party at an Irish pub in Grand Junction.
Not even the endorsement of the National Rifle Association for Salazar cut into Tipton’s Western Slope totals.
Most 3rd District campaigns focus on natural resource issues, such as water rights, the Animas-LaPlata project, and Arkansas conduit, energy and public lands, but this year the debate was almost entirely about the national issues of the federal deficit and health care reform.
“You can’t ignore, obviously, the local issues, but people were focused on national issues, the huge national debt, the deficit and rising health care costs,” Tipton said.
Tea Party groups, which emerged strongly in Mesa County and the Four Corners, endorsed Tipton’s primary opponent, Bob McConnell, but Tipton won them over for the general election.
“They were very important, and brought out lots of new people who hadn’t been active before,” Tipton said in a phone interview Thursday from Cortez, where he was fielding phone calls and starting to put together a staff. “They didn’t endorse me in the primary but we did outreach and they were energized.”
Salazar conceded to Tipton the morning after the election in a phone call both candidates said was warm and cordial.
Salazar remained unavailable for interviews back on his ranch in Manassa, but said in a lengthy press release that he had “no regrets and I want to thank my constituents for the honor of representing the most beautiful district in the country.”
“After six years of the fighting and bickering in Washington, I’m ready to spend more time with my family,” Salazar said. “I’ll always be a farmer and rancher at heart. It’s what I was born to do. Now it’s time to pick up my shovel and go back to work.”
Campaign spending by outside groups was astounding, with $2.2 million spent by liberal groups either for Salazar and against Tipton, and $1.5 million spent for Tipton and against Salazar, according to the money-tracking organization opensecrets.org.
They included nearly $1.2 million by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, $763,074 by the National Republican Congressional Committee, $498,428 by the conservative Americans for Job Security and $516,474 by the Majority Action PAC.
And those figures are only for groups that report spending. Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case, much spending goes unreported.
For example, of 16 mailed pieces sent to one Mesa County Republican that attacked Obama, Pelosi and Salazar, half came from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which also funded a number of robocalls. The U.S. Chamber does not report political spending.
Most of the outside-financed ads were harshly negative, with Tipton accused of supporting a “23 percent sales tax on everything we buy,” and Salazar decried as a flunky to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for supporting “Obamacare and reckless federal spending.”
“It was relentless,” former state Rep. Matt Smith, R-Grand Junction, said of the outside spending. “It was a big difference for Scott from the last time around. He had no outside spending (in 2006), but this time, it came.”
The outside groups could afford plenty of ad time in the 3rd District, where media costs are substantially lower than in major media markets.
Branding Salazar as a Pelosi flunky was ironic since the Manassa Democrat belonged to the conservative Democratic Blue Dog caucus.
In the end, Tipton said his strong ground game, particularly in Pueblo, won the race for him.
“I had good volunteers, some from 2006 and some I met through my work at the state Legislature,” he said.
While Salazar was relaxing at home in the San Luis Valley, his campaign spokeswoman, Tara Trujillo, talked up his achievements in his six years in Congress, including “finally making the (Arkansas) conduit a reality, getting medical care for veterans in Craig so they don’t have to drive to Grand Junction and establishing a veterans cemetery in southern Colorado.”
The national strategy by Republicans and conservative outside groups “demonized Nancy Pelosi and tarred John along with her,” Trujillo said.
State Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, who managed three of Salazar’s campaigns for both the state House and Congress and who worked in the congressman’s Pueblo office for four years, said his former boss lost because of “a national tidal wave against the Democratic Party. John campaigned incredibly hard.
“His schedule the last several months was packed,” Pace said.
Pace, who was elected House minority leader by his Democratic colleagues Thursday morning, said he is “absolutely not thinking about” possibly challenging Tipton in two years.
“I have a caucus to lead,” he said.