Colorado legislative races: 12 to watch in 2012

The Colorado Statesman

It’s just four months until Colorado voters cast ballots in the June primary, and already the battle for control of the General Assembly is taking shape.

Following last year’s contentious reapportionment fight, which scrambled districts statewide and resulted in an unusually high number of competitive districts — at least as measured by voter registration statistics — both Republicans and Democrats are vying for majorities in the state House and Senate. Republicans currently hold a one-vote margin in the House, and Democrats control the Senate by five votes, but an unprecedented turnover in the chambers means those majorities could be entirely up for grabs this year.

The Colorado Statesman has compiled a list of the 12 legislative races — including a handful of primaries — to watch this year, based on interviews with party strategists, campaign operatives, candidates and neutral observers. At the end of each month up to the election, we’ll update the list to reflect changes in the ranking based on what’s sure to be a dynamic campaign year.

It’s no coincidence that many of the tightest races are taking place in the metro-area suburbs, including areas that used to be dominated by Republicans or Democrats. Colorado has been described as the ultimate swing state in this year’s presidential election, and the war for state voters will be waged primarily in these suburban districts.

Out of the 85 General Assembly races on the ballot this fall — all 65 House seats and 20 of the 35 Senate seats — these dozen primary and general election contests stand to generate the most heat, draw the most attention and could be the closest to call.

Voter registration figures are current through the end of January and reflect active voters as reported by the Colorado Secretary of State. Fund-raising figures, also via the Secretary of State’s office, are current as of the most recent filing deadline, which reported contributions through January. The next filings aren’t due until May.

Performance measures show how U.S. Senate candidates Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Ken Buck did within each legislative district’s lines in the 2010 election. Additionally, results are shown for two down-ballot races from the same election, considered good indicators of how unaffiliated voters might swing. Those races show returns for the state treasurer race between Democrat Cary Kennedy and Republican Walker Stapleton, as well as returns for at-large CU Regent candidates Republican Steve Bosley and Democrat Melissa Hart. (Bennet, Stapleton and Bosley won their races statewide.) This data was compiled in documents assembled by the Colorado Reapportionment Commission.

It should be noted that voter registration figures are more current than performance data from the 2010 election, but they also represent a momentary snapshot that could change dramatically in coming months, as both parties conduct registration drives and work to activate voters.

Near the end of February, here’s how things stand in the top legislative races:

1. Senate District 22 – Democratic state Rep. Andy Kerr vs. Republican state Rep. Ken Summers

This is the marquee legislative race this year because it pits two solidly partisan, veteran lawmakers against each other in a quintessential swing district smack in the middle of bellwether Jefferson County. It’s also the contest that has seen the most twists and turns on the way to the final line-up, promising plenty of excitement right down to the wire. Reapportionment maps crowded state Reps. Kerr and Summers, along with Democratic state Rep. Max Tyler, into the same House district, leaving Kerr and Summers to emerge as candidates for the open Senate seat.

Rated: A pure toss-up.

SD 22 race profile:
Active Democrats: 20,808 (32.7%)
Active Republicans: 23,042 (36.3%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 19,222 (30.3%)
(Total 63,492)

• Bennet won with 49.41% to Buck’s 44.89%; Kennedy won with 50.88% to Stapleton’s 49.12%; Bosley won with 49.52% to Hart’s 44.74%

• Kerr raised $26,603.69 and Summers raised $53,774.19 through January.

2. House District 19 Republican Primary – Incumbent state Rep. Marsha Looper vs. incumbent House Majority Leader Amy Stephens

This Battle Royale for the soul of the GOP — albeit waged in the margins between two solid conservatives — in northern and eastern El Paso County has already lived up to its advance billing as the most contentious primary on the ballot this year. When a Democratic-drawn reapportionment map grouped several incumbent legislators into the same districts, only Looper and Stephens declined to sort things out with one stepping aside, creating the only intra-chamber primary on deck this year. If the constant stream of attack brochures from both sides are any indication, the various strains of hard-core Colorado Republicans are going to have a tough choice on their hands.

Rated: A fight to the finish, race should take more shape after assemblies.

HD 19 race profile:
Active Democrats: 4,968 (12.5%)
Active Republicans: 24,006 (60.5%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,477 (26.4%)
(Total 39,702)

• Buck won with 72.67% to Bennet’s 22.46%; Stapleton won with 75.96% to Kennedy’s 24.04%; Bosley won with 74.10% to Hart’s 20.86%

• Stephens raised $47,773.34 and Looper raised $3,345.00 through January.

3. House District 29 – Incumbent Republican state Rep. Robert Ramirez vs. Democratic challenger Tracy Kraft-Tharp

Even if this north Jefferson County district weren’t one of the most evenly divided in the state, it would still feature one of the most hotly contested races if only because of its symbolic value. This was the seat that flipped control of the House from Democrats to Republicans in 2010 when Ramirez toppled state Rep. Debbie Benefield by a mere 197 votes. Since that win, House Speaker Frank McNulty has been touting Ramirez as the linchpin for Republicans. Though he briefly flirted with a run for his Senate seat, by all appearances he’s working as hard to keep his seat as he did to win it the first time around, facing a strong challenge from lawyer Kraft-Tharp, a Democratic Party stalwart.

Rated: Pure toss-up.

HD 29 race profile:
Active Democrats: 10,813 (33.6%)
Active Republicans: 10,756 (33.5%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,334 (32.2%)
(Total 32,133)

• Bennet won with 50.70% to Buck’s 42.37%; Kennedy won with 52.48% to Stapleton’s 47.52%; Bosley won with 47.38% to Hart’s 45.90%

• Ramirez raised $18,984.75 and Kraft-Tharp raised $24,911.94 through January.

4. House District 3 – Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Daniel Kagan vs. Republican challenger Brian Watson

Kagan faces a significantly more challenging district this time around, losing solidly Democratic Denver portions of his district and landing entirely in less favorable Arapahoe County precincts. Republicans peg this as one of their strongest pick-up opportunities, fielding real estate maven Brian Watson, who also served as co-chair of the state GOP’s finance committee, to take on British-born attorney Kagan, who is counted as one of the Democrats’ strongest voices in the House.

Rated: If Republicans hope to keep the House, they’ll need to win this seat, but for now it’s a toss-up.

HD 3 race profile:
Active Democrats: 11,548 (32.9%)
Active Republicans: 12,912 (36.8%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,374 (29.6%)
(Total 35,101)

• Bennet won with 50.25% to Buck’s 44.71%; Kennedy won with 50.94% to Stapleton’s 49.06%; Bosley won with 50.02% to Hart’s 44.80%

• Kagan raised $32,383.51 and Watson raised $8,450.00 through January.

5. Senate District 26 – Incumbent Democratic state Sen. Linda Newell vs. Republican challenger Dave Kerber

This was the last Senate race to be decided last time around, and it could match that distinction again in November. Newell slipped past Republican Lauri Clapp by just 69 votes on election night in 2008 — the margin grew to 195 votes after they’d all been counted — and was the closest legislative race in the state that year. Former Arapahoe County GOP chairman Kerber lost a race that same night to former state Rep. Joe Rice, so has campaigned extensively in the district and has the solid backing of district Republicans as well as Newell has the support of Democrats.

Rated: Any other year, this would be Kerber’s to lose, but with the Obama machine targeting Arapahoe County, Newell has a slight edge.

SD 26 race profile:
Active Democrats: 21,720 (33.5%)
Active Republicans: 23,863 (36.8%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 18,760 (28.9%)
(Total 64,812)

• Bennet won with 50.45% to Buck’s 44.49%; Kennedy won with 51.21% to Stapleton’s 48.79%; Bosley won with 49.50% to Hart’s 45.33%

• Newell raised $71,545.91 and Kerber raised $32,420.00 through January.

6. Senate District 19 – Incumbent Democratic state Sen. Evie Hudak vs. Republican challenger Lang Sias

Republicans want this Arvada and Westminster seat in a big way, evidenced by a flurry of TV ads — yes, TV ads! — already unleashed on Hudak in an attempt to soften her up for past congressional candidate Sias. The ads went after Hudak for supporting last fall’s failed ballot initiative Proposition 103. It would have raised state taxes by $3 billion to fund education, a hot-button issue Democrats aren’t too worried will irreparably damage the former teacher, whose views on education funding are hardly a secret. On the heels of his losing primary to run against U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, Sias brings campaign experience and the past backing of U.S. Sen. John McCain to the suburban battleground.

Rated: Hudak’s familiarity with district gives her a slight edge, but Sias could benefit from sour voter mood.

SD 19 race profile:
Active Democrats: 20,908 (32.0%)
Active Republicans: 23,490 (35.9%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 20,426 (31.3%)
(Total 65,291)

• Bennet won with 48.54% to Buck’s 45.16%; Kennedy won with 50.01% to Stapleton’s 49.99%; Bosley won with 50.16% to Hart’s 43.54%

• Hudak raised $60,218.32 and Sias raised $100.00 through January.

7. House District 28 – Republican Amy Attwood vs. the winner of a Democratic primary between Brian Carroll and Brittany Pettersen

By the numbers alone, this Lakewood district ought to be a safe Democratic seat, but the combination of a combative Democratic primary and a seasoned Republican candidate make the outcome less predictable. Attwood knows the district inside and out, having run a failing bid for Lakewood City Council and gotten a jump on the partisan side as an aide to state Rep. Ken Summers, who is running for an open Senate seat. She’ll have the advantage of campaigning unobstructed through June while the Democrats slog through a primary. Campaign organizer Pettersen jumped in the race last week at the urging of local Democrats who feared Carroll had burned too many bridges during his short-lived primary challenge last fall against state Rep. Andy Kerr, when Carroll ran as the first openly gay veteran to launch a bid following the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military rule.

Rated: Pettersen looks strong out of the gate, and if primary isn’t too bruising could hold the advantage in November.

HD 28 race profile:
Active Democrats: 11,124 (35.1%)
Active Republicans: 10,685 (33.7%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 9,657 (30.5%)
(Total 31,675)

• Bennet won with 51.69% to Buck’s 42.53%; Kennedy won with 52.48% to Stapleton’s 47.52%; Bosley won with 47.38% to Hart’s 45.90%

• Attwood raised $13,771.95, Carroll raised $3,660, and Pettersen didn’t report any fundraising through January.

8. House District 23 – Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Max Tyler vs. Republican challenger Rick Enstrom

Touted as a top example of Republican legislative candidate recruitment efforts this year, Enstrom’s bid to unseat Tyler could give the Democrat his first real race in the central Jefferson County district. The candy man brings a solid record of public service and mainstream GOP positions to a race Republicans hope to turn into a referendum on Tyler’s more liberal approach to government.

Rated: Leans Tyler, but Enstrom will make him work for it.

HD 23 race profile:
Active Democrats: 12,267 (35.0%)
Active Republicans: 11,739 (33.5%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,802 (30.8%)
(Total 35,091)

• Bennet won with 52.53% to Buck’s 41.54%; Kennedy won with 53.64% to Stapleton’s 46.36%; Hart won with 47.44% to Bosley’s 46.81%

• Tyler raised $26,765.28 and Enstrom didn’t report any fundraising through January.

9. House District 41 Democratic Primary – Andrew Bateman vs. Jovan Melton vs. Terry Todd

The race to succeed term-limited Democratic state Rep. Nancy Todd, who is running for an open Senate seat, pits her husband against two young candidates vying for a nomination that’s tantamount to a win in this safely Democratic Aurora district. Will voters want a husband-and-wife team in the legislature, or will Melton’s campaign experience — he helmed runs by state Reps. Rhonda Fields and Angela Williams, in addition to steering a failing Aurora ballot measure that would have raised taxes for rec centers — spell an upset? Bateman has a strong organizing record, but it remains to be seen whether his young supporters will turn out at caucuses next month.

Rated: It’s Todd’s to lose, but he’ll have a fight on his hands, especially if the vaunted Webb machine lives up to its billing and turns out support for Melton

HD 41 race profile:
Active Democrats: 11,490 (40.4%)
Active Republicans: 8,634 (30.3%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 8,115 (28.5%)
(Total 28,456)

• Bennet won with 56.78% to Buck’s 37.83%; Kennedy won with 57.89% to Stapleton’s 42.11%; Hart won with 52.72% to Bosley’s 42.39%

• Bateman raised $4,365.34, Melton raised $6,162.33 and Todd raised $8,342.00 through January.

10. House District 33 – former Democratic state Rep. Dianne Primavera vs. Republican David Pigott

Although neighboring former state Rep. Debbie Benefield gets tagged with costing Democrats the majority in the House in the last election, Broomfield-based Primavera’s narrow loss to Republican state Rep. Don Beezley teed up the GOP take-over, and this year she’s looking to reverse it. It’s a more favorable district than the one she lost to Beezley — he decided against running for a second term — but it’s still a decidedly swing district and there’s a reason newcomer Pigott’s campaign is chanting “33 is 33” — control of the House could rest with this north metro district.

Rated: Advantage Primavera, but new territory could give Pigott an opening.

HD 33 race profile:
Active Democrats: 13,395 (30.8%)
Active Republicans: 15,320 (35.2%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 14,488 (33.3%)
(Total 43,473)

• Bennet won with 50.98% to Buck’s 43.85%; Kennedy won with 52.25% to Stapleton’s 47.75%; Bosley won with 50.52% to Hart’s 44.57%

• Primavera raised $16,733.47 and Pigott raised $7,429.23 through January.

11. Senate District 8 Republican Primary – Incumbent state Sen. Jean White vs. state Rep. Randy Baumgardner

This race pits incumbent White, who was appointed a year ago to fill a vacancy left when her husband, Al White, stepped down to take a job running the state Tourism Board for Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, against Baumgardner, a two-termer in the lower house who lost the core of his old district after reapportionment. The two Republicans present a clear contrast for primary voters, representing opposite sides of the sprawling northwestern Colorado district, opposing wings of the party, and even regional industries often at odds (the Whites stand for tourism, while Baumgardner brings a farming, ranching and extraction background to the table).

Rated: Don’t count White out, but Baumgardner starts with an edge among hard-core GOP primary voters.

SD 8 race profile:
Active Democrats: 15,371 (25.0%)
Active Republicans: 24,774 (40.4%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 20,659 (33.7)
(Total 61,382)

• Buck won with 47.57% to Bennet’s 46.19%; Stapleton won with 54.51% to Kennedy’s 45.49%; Bosley won with 52.87% to Hart’s 40.20%

• White raised $37,760.91 and Baumgardner raised $9,835.76 through January.

12. House District 59 – Incumbent Republican state Rep. J. Paul Brown vs. the winner of an expected primary between Democrats Michael McLachlan and Patrick Swonger

This sleeper of a race could turn into a nail-biter if the Four Corners district’s residents display their usual independent streak — and if Democrats can sort out who they want to run against Brown, an Ignacio rancher who lost a big chunk of Republican voters and gained an equivalent swath of Democratic territory after reapportionment. Despite some confusion over eligibility rules — Swonger registered as a Democrat a day after party rules required, so plans to petition onto the primary ballot — a spirited Democratic primary could sharpen the eventual nominee.

Rated: Leans Brown, but Democrats have a stronger chance here than the numbers alone would indicate.

HD 59 race profile:
Active Democrats: 11,106 (30.5%)
Active Republicans: 14,578 (40.0%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,337 (28.4%)
(Total 36,425)

• Bennet won with 48.10% to Buck’s 46.88%; Stapleton won with 51.89% to Kennedy’s 48.11%; Bosley won with 50.79% to Hart’s 42.99%

• Brown raised $14,205.00 and neither McLachlan nor Swonger reported any fundraising through January.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com