By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
When Betsy Markey’s campaign manager saw the results rolling in from Weld County on election night, she knew her candidate had won a seat in the United States Congress.
“I was flabbergasted,” said Anne Caprara, of the 53.5 percent of the vote Markey, a Democrat, pulled in the GOP-leaning swing county against Republican incumbent Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave.
The unexpected margin in Weld led to a stunning overall win for the businesswoman and former staffer to U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, who started out as a long shot in the race for what was once considered a safe Republican district. Markey beat Musgrave by 12 points, although there are some 45,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. Democrats have not held CD 4 since 1973, and Markey is the first Democratic woman to represent Colorado’s 4th district in the United States House, and only the fourth woman in Colorado history to serve in Congress. Markey’s margin of victory was the largest for a Democrat challenging a House incumbent this year.
Capara called the result a “mandate.”
She admitted that in some ways, the result was a referendum on the Republican Party, which lost at least 19 congressional seats across the country and had eight more hanging in the balance at press time. More so, it was a referendum on Musgrave, who has drawn fire since being elected in 2002. After all, even in a bad Republican year, McCain still won CD 4 by a narrow margin.
After her early staunch support of a gay marriage ban and such other divisive causes as allowing concealed weapons in schools, Musgrave tried to rebrand herself for this election by working across the aisle on issues of greater local interest. But a starkly negative campaign — most notably campaign ads claiming Markey had committed crimes worthy of hard prison time — drowned out the bipartisan message.
However, said Capara, the election wasn’t just a referendum on Musgrave, noting that the Markey campaign’s grassroots organization had been hard at work for the better part of a year.
“We would have won by one or two points” if the campaign had solely been about Musgrave, Caprara said. Instead, Markey won by double-digits.
Now that Musgrave is out of the picture, Republicans are salivating at the prospect of taking back the seat in 2010.
“Republicans have a really strong ‘bench’ up there,” said GOP strategist Katy Atkinson. “Betsy Markey is going to have a heck of a race.”
Election week wasn’t yet over before the list of potential candidates grew to include state Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma; state Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray; former state treasurer and Senate majority leader Mark Hillman, of Burlington; and Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck.
“If I were a betting man, I’d be quite sure we’d win back that district,” said Hillman. “So long as we don’t do something stupid — an inter-party squabble — there’s a number of hardworking Republicans who could win in 2010.”
Of course, it’s far too early for anyone to announce their intentions, considering that Musgrave still hasn’t cleaned out her office in Washington D.C. (Or, as of press time, called Markey to concede the election.)
Buck said in an interview that the CD 4 seat is a “very interesting position, and something I would certainly look at when the time is right.” On the other hand, Buck could run for Colorado attorney general in 2010, should John Suthers decide to run for governor.
Hillman said, “it’s certainly something I’ll take into consideration,” though he also said he enjoys the additional free time that comes with forgoing public office. Brophy has said he’s discussing a possible run with his wife. Gardner is widely thought to be interested in the seat.
Former Sen. Steve Johnson, of Fort Collins, could be another potential candidate, although he just won a seat on the Larimer County Commission. Diggs Brown, a member of the Fort Collins City Council, who is currently serving in Iraq as an Army major, could be a dark horse candidate when he gets back to the United States in mid-2009.
Finally, losing U.S. Senate candidate Bob Schaffer has been mentioned as possible candidate for his old congressional district, which he represented from 1997 to 2003. Schaffer kept a voluntary term-limits pledge and was replaced by Musgrave.
Shortly after conceding the Senate race to Democrat Mark Udall, Schaffer, who represents CD 4 on the State Board of Education, said he would not be interested in recapturing his old job.
At this point, Gardner, Brophy, Hillman and Buck are seen as those most likely to jump in. Gardner, Brophy and Hillman all hail from Colorado’s eastern plains — potentially neutralizing one another. Buck’s home is in the all-important Weld County.
One potential advantage for Hillman is that he has had the name identification derived from serving as state treasurer, although several years have passed since he was in the public eye.
Meanwhile, Gardner and Brophy were both elected to Statehouse leadership positions on Thursday. Gardner was elected House minority whip, and Brophy became assistant minority leader in the Senate.
There’s one certainty: No one on the GOP side thinks the party will be able to settle on one candidate — and avoid a primary — given the attractiveness of the seat.
“Just knowing the number of Republicans in the district expressing interest, it would a tremendous feat to avoid a primary, though it would obviously would be good if we could do that,” Hillman said, adding that he thought the campaign for the GOP nomination could begin in just six months.
To solidify her position, Markey probably will try to get seats on the House Agriculture Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Those assignments would be a boon to her in a district where agriculture and renewable energy are major job sources.
In addition, Markey plans to hold town hall meetings across the district, Caprara said, particularly on the eastern plains, which swung towards Musgrave.
“She represents not just the people who voted for her, but the people who didn’t vote for her, as well,” Caprara said.
Republicans noted that the Democratic Party would take the blame for any problems in 2010, now that it holds the White House and Congress — and that Markey could be lumped in with party leadership.
“[Markey] certainly could be pulled by (Barack) Obama and (Nancy) Pelosi to the left of where the district is,” Buck said.
However, Atkinson, the GOP strategist, said Democrats have such a large majority in the House of Representatives that, in some cases, Markey should be able to vote against party leadership district without endangering the bills.
Caprara said the entire point of Markey’s candidacy had been to offer the district real representation, rather than representation that — as Musgrave did — would toe the party line.
“Betsy’s philosophy from the very beginning is that you don’t vote the party, you vote the issue,” she said. “If it’s a good bill, you vote for it. If it’s not a good bill, you oppose it.”
With Musgrave gone, the 2010 race in CD 4 may be less nasty than recent contests in the district — undoubtedly a win for district residents who have endured mudbaths over the past three election cycles.
But a new opponent probably would only make things more difficult for Markey the next time around.
“We’re under no illusions,” Caprara said. “We know that now we’ve got to go out and work very hard.”