A rematch in southwest Colorado’s House District 59 is likely to end up being one of the state’s most expensive legislative races, as Democrats will fight to preserve the seat against an onslaught of Republican and conservative third-party attacks.
Democrat Mike McLachlan, a Durango attorney, is facing off once again against Republican Ignacio rancher J. Paul Brown. When they competed in 2012, Brown was the incumbent. McLachlan won by only 917 votes, or just over 2 points.
Much of McLachlan’s success in that election could be credited to reapportionment in 2011, in which the seat was redrawn from a more right-leaning district to a more moderate district, with a somewhat equal balance of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.
In 2010, Brown beat Democrat Brian O’Donnell by a commanding 3,019 votes. He was swept into office in the tea party wave of that year. But that run was quickly cut short in 2012 when Democrats took back control of the House.
The current makeup of the district does not necessarily bode well for a conservative. There are 17,955 registered Democrats, 21,474 Republicans and 22,230 unaffiliated voters. Democrats believe they are more likely to attract the unaffiliated voters.
“I am a moderate,” declared McLachlan. “This is why sometimes I have members of my own party, especially Front Range Democrats, they don’t get the Western Slope, they don’t understand the issues in the Western Slope, and so I have them disagree with me, and I vote contrary to what they want me to do.
“By the same token, I think people of the Republican Party who are ideologically driven, who are not interested in seeking compromise, they also don’t get it that I’m trying to figure out a way to come up with reasonable compromises,” McLachlan continued.
He pointed out that some people in the district and around the Capitol refer to Brown as “64 and Brown,” referring to Brown’s reputation for voting “no” on seemingly noncontroversial bills. Brown, in 2011, was the only lawmaker to oppose a measure that expanded services available to homeless youth.
“He’s got his own particular view of reality,” opined McLachlan.
“He represented the more conservative ideological segment of this district, specifically people who are anti-government, who are not interested in good government,” added McLachlan.
“This is a more moderate district than Mr. Brown represented,” he continued. “We have a real diversity in this district…”
House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, also believes that the district is more representative of a middle-of-the-road electorate. He said HD 59 is a priority race for Democrats this year. Democrats will fight to either expand or maintain their 37-28 majority.
“It’s definitely one of the most competitive seats in the state…” he said. “So, you can’t take it for granted. It’s one of those very competitive seats.
“It’s a rematch of what we saw in 2012, but I think McLachlan is out there working hard; connecting with voters. What I think we’ll end up seeing is a similar outcome where the voters of the southwest corner will see that J. Paul Brown is not representing the values and the concerns of the majority of that district,” added Ferrandino.
Brown, however, believes he in fact represents the majority of the district. He said that Democrats and liberal interests try to paint him as a radical conservative who has no conscience for issues such as the environment. But he pointed out that as a rancher, he has great regard for a wide berth of issues affecting the district, including the environment.
Brown blames his loss in 2012 to a Democratic wave, including the re-election of President Barack Obama in Colorado and the legalization of marijuana.
“In the last election they had the marijuana vote, I think that was something that hurt me, and also the coattails of Barack Obama,” opined Brown. “Independents, unaffiliateds, they’re not so sure about this fundamental change to our country, and I don’t plan on changing my principle, or anything. I think that I represent the majority of the folks in the 59th District, and I think we’ll see that this fall.”
He explained why he has at times been the lone “no” vote, suggesting that he is simply standing up for his values and the values of the district.
“If I say ‘no’ it’s because we’re spending too much money on something we don’t need to, or it’s not constitutional,” Brown explained. “If we only have a limited amount of money, we need to prioritize… I don’t see myself as someone who says ‘no.’ If I say ‘no’, it’s for a darn good reason.”
Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, echoed similar thoughts. McNulty helped lead the charge in 2010 that helped Republicans take back control of the House.
“I put that seat at one of our very best pickup opportunities,” said McNulty. “It’s a district that J. Paul represented well before. If not for President Obama’s 5.5-point win, he would have been re-elected to the statehouse. This is a much different year, the president is not popular.”
McNulty acknowledged that Brown is a unique candidate with conservative views, but he said voters appreciate Brown’s forthcoming approach to politics and policy.
“J. Paul is a very sincere person, so even though you may not agree with him on a particular issue, you know where the guy is coming from; you know what he tells you is the truth, and he’s always willing to listen,” explained McNulty. “That matters a great deal.”
Taking aim on gun control
Both sides of the aisle, however, agree that gun issues are going to take a prominent role in the election. McLachlan pointed to his work last year during the gun control debate, suggesting that he looked for compromise, rather than hold up the process.
When he was faced with a measure that would have banned high-capacity ammunition magazines of 10 rounds, McLachlan pushed for the limitation to be increased to 15. That compromise stuck and the law passed.
But despite the effort at striking a balance, McLachlan still faced the wrath of gun rights groups and individuals over his vote in support of the gun control measure. McLachlan also supported a bill that mandated universal background checks.
The Durango lawmaker faced a threat of a recall election, but that attempt never gained momentum.
He does not deny that the issue is going to come up in the election, but he believes voters will understand the public safety aspect.
“I’m not going to dilute myself into thinking that the gun activists – the people that strongly believe in the Second Amendment, to the point of it’s the most important amendment in the constitution – I’m not diluting myself into believing those people have forgotten, and I still think they’re going to come against me,” acknowledged McLachlan.
“Hopefully the election will show that the majority of people understand that those were reasonable public safety measures that will benefit the public safety in the long run,” he added.
Third-party groups like Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a conservative political heavyweight, have not started pounding the district with advertising yet. In fact, there have only been a handful of mailers from any groups at this point in the race.
But both sides agree that the advertising will intensify and the money will roll in.
McLachlan has already raised an impressive $55,419, compared to Brown’s $28,610. Brown said he has been busy ranching, which is why he hasn’t been doing much fundraising, but he expects more contributions to start pouring in.
Ferrandino agreed that the gun control debate is going to play big in the district, contributing to the costly nature of the election. But he believes McLachlan can overcome the criticism.
The Speaker attended a town hall with McLachlan recently in which the gun issue came up, but Ferrandino said McLachlan came out of it very well, pointing to his military background in which he actually carried assault weapons. He was a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam.
“Mike is very strong about where he stood, why he stood where he did, and I think that’s one of the things that people really care about, that you have a reason why you did something, that you can explain it, and that there’s logic to it,” explained Ferrandino. “I think Mike makes a compelling case.”
Brown, however, said McLachlan’s votes on gun control will come back to haunt him this November. He pointed out that McLachlan sat on the House Judiciary Committee where many of the gun laws passed through. Citizens had complained that the committee, led by Democrats, cut off their speaking time and limited testimony.
“There are a lot of people in our district that are very, very upset with his vote on those laws that were passed, they were upset that he was on the Judiciary Committee and they cut testimony off; they didn’t listen to people; they didn’t listen to the sheriffs…” said Brown.
“He voted against what he said he stood for, and so I think that is going to be an issue,” he added.
McNulty added, “McLachlan ran into trouble himself with the gun bills down at the legislature, and folks [in HD 59] don’t like people going to Denver and saying one thing and coming back home and saying another. Those are the things that are going to come back to bite Mike.”
Abortion and personhood
Another controversial issue that is likely to come up again during the election is abortion. Brown is a staunch pro-life candidate who supported personhood in the past, though he has been less forthcoming about it this year.
Brown stopped short of supporting this year’s ballot attempt at personhood, stating that he hadn’t read the initiative yet. But he said he would not waver in his opposition to abortion.
“Fundamentally I don’t agree with abortion, but as a state legislator, there’s nothing that I can really do about that,” explained Brown.
“The Democrats keep trying to throw this ‘war on women’ out there, and I have nothing against women. Heck, I’ve got six granddaughters,” he continued. “I think that’s a political play. I just hope that people will see what I can do for the state, and that is look to the future and try to plan for the future, for future generations, and that’s what I’ll be concentrating on.
“I don’t believe in abortion, but I can’t tell anybody not to have one, I can try to say there might be alternatives, but that’s just not something that I’m going to focus a lot of attention on,” Brown added.
McLachlan is in an especially unique position to comment on the abortion issue. In 1999, then-Attorney General Ken Salazar appointed McLachlan as solicitor general. McLachlan successfully argued the constitutionality of Colorado’s women’s health clinic shield law before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The nation’s high court recently took up the question of what restrictions can be placed on protesters at clinics that provide abortions. The issue was over a Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot buffer zone outside all abortion clinics.
All nine justices agreed that the “flat” 35-foot buffer zone violated the First Amendment free speech rights of the protesters. But Colorado’s 8-foot “floating” bubble within 100 feet of a facility remains.
“Mr. Brown and I have absolutely diametrically different views on that issue and there’s no doubt about it,” McLachlan said of abortion, suggesting that the district leans more in his direction on the subject.
“It’s not so much a matter of pro-abortion or against abortion, as much as this district is moderate, it has an underlying freedom component, in other words, the same people that say you need to have very narrow drawn restrictions on your right to own a gun… they also think it’s not the government’s business to dictate the choices for a particular woman,” opined McLachlan.
Tough fight ahead
Both candidates acknowledge that they are headed into a very difficult election season. It’s not lost on McLachlan that he only beat Brown by a narrow margin the last time around. But he believes his record will carry him well.
“I’ve actually demonstrated a pretty good record in the legislature…” said McLachlan. “Mr. Brown, in his only two years, in his first session, really only passed about three bills, and in the first year I passed 11, and this year I did more than that, or close to that.
“So, I’ve got 20 bills or so that were law, and a couple of those were very significant,” he added, pointing to his work on Senate Bill 1, which added $100 million to higher education.
Meanwhile, Brown is also readying for war. He is hopeful that the same grassroots swell that propelled him to office in 2010 will help him this year.
“There are a lot of people that are very, very concerned about where this country is going. I don’t know that in particular the tea party is going to support me… but I do feel the same way that we need to adhere to the constitution of the United States, the constitution of Colorado, and that we’ve gotten away from freedom and the free enterprise system,” explained Brown.
“What Barack Obama calls ‘fundamentally changing the country,’ boy, that scares me,” he continued. “It’s very important that we get back to what has made this country great, and that’s private property rights and just freedom in general.”