TOP 12

Update of Colorado’s top legislative races in 2012

The Colorado Statesman

Smack in the middle of what might be called Colorado’s political pre-season — both parties have concluded their caucuses, county assemblies are under way, and the primary ballot is still taking shape — dozens of legislative races are beginning to vie for attention in a year so far dominated by the presidential race.

At stake: control of both chambers of the General Assembly, where Republicans hold the House by a single seat and Democrats reign in the Senate by a wider, five-vote margin. Following a drastic redrawing of district boundaries at the end of last year, more legislative seats than usual can be termed competitive — where neither party holds a solid advantage — and unprecedented turnover means neither party holds a clear advantage going into this year’s election.

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

As both Democrats and Republicans target Colorado as one of the country’s key swing states in this year’s presidential election, it’s no surprise that many of the key legislative races will be fought out in the ring of suburbs surrounding Denver. In 2008, strong Democratic performance in Arapahoe and Jefferson counties helped swing the state to Democrat Barack Obama, and no one thinks the battleground will be any different this year.

Of the 85 legislative races up for election in November — all 65 House seats and 20 of the 35 Senate seats — these dozen contests are already generating the most heat, drawing the most attention, and could be the closest to call.

Voter registration figures are current through the end of February and reflect active voters as reported by the Colorado Secretary of State. Fundraising totals cover contributions reported through January, the most recent filing deadline. 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 newly drawn 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 reported 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 snapshot that could change dramatically in coming months, as both parties conduct registration drives and work to activate voters.

Dropping off the list this month are a handful of races that could return in June after both parties — but especially Republicans — sort out several contentious primaries.

We’re side-lining the House District 28 race between Republican Amy Attwood and the winner of a Democratic primary between Brian Carroll and Brittany Pettersen. Next month, we’ll know whether there will even be a potentially divisive primary or whether Pettersen can out-organize the novice Carroll, who is still recovering from self-inflicted damage late last year when he announced a run against incumbent state Rep. Andy Kerr before reapportionment scrambled the Lakewood districts and propelled Kerr into a race for an open Senate seat.

In addition, we’re waiting to see if Republican challenger Rick Enstrom catches fire in the neighboring Jefferson County House District 23 race against Democratic state Rep. Max Tyler, whose newly configured district is actually more favorable toward Democrats than the one he handily retained in the Republican-leaning 2010 election.

Likewise, prime Republican recruit David Pigott has yet to poke his head above the crowd in his run against former state Rep. Dianne Primavera in the north metro House District 33 race. This one could turn quite competitive, but this month takes a back seat to more targeted races generating more fireworks.

And while we expect the House District 59 race — in the southwest corner of the state — to emerge as one of the more competitive in the state this summer, for now the decision by Patrick Swonger to drop a primary bid leaves Democratic challenger Michael McLachlan a clear field against incumbent Republican state Rep. J. Paul Brown. Until the legislature adjourns and the battle is fully engaged, this contest is drawing less attention than it would have if there had been a primary.

As the month of March draws to a close, here’s how things stand in the top legislative races:

1. House District 19 Republican Primary – Incumbent state Rep. Marsha Looper vs. incumbent Majority Leader Amy Stephens (up from No. 2 last month)

While the battle for delegates at this weekend’s GOP assembly could give a clue who has the upper hand in this quintessentially conservative El Paso County district, as long as both legislators make the ballot this promises to be a fight to the finish. Already one of the fiercest legislative primaries in memory, don’t expect this contest to ease up until 7 p.m. on June 26. Battle lines have been drawn either side of a 2011 Stephens bill establishing a state health care exchange. Stephens maintains the law helps Colorado escape the clutches of federal health care reform, but Looper has attacked mercilessly, claiming “Amycare” is just shorthand for “Obamacare.”

Rated: The most evenly matched primary in the state this year.

HD 19 race profile:
Active Democrats: 4,881 (12.3%)
Active Republicans: 23,973 (60.3%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,674 (26.8%)
Total: 39,781

• 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 and Looper raised $3,345 through January.

2. Senate District 22 – Democratic state Rep. Andy Kerr vs. Republican state Rep. Ken Summers (down from No. 1 last month)

This Jefferson County contest is still the race to watch this fall, pitting two solid representatives of their respective parties — neither standing far out on the fringe — in what could double as a referendum on whether Colorado is more a Red state or a Blue state. Put simply: for Obama to carry Colorado’s nine electoral votes, he almost certainly has to carry this swing district in the middle of a crucial swing county. Likewise, the Republican presidential nominee’s campaign will be working SD 22’s precincts as hard as any in the state, because a win here could echo statewide.

Rated: Tilting slightly Republican by voter registration and leaning slightly Democratic by voter performance, this district represents the state in a nutshell: too close to call this early.

SD 22 race profile:
Active Democrats: 21,011 (32.7%)
Active Republicans: 23,304 (36.2%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 19,566 (30.4%)
Total: 64,323

• 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 $26,604 and Summers raised $53,774 through January.

3. House District 3 – Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Daniel Kagan vs. Republican challenger Robert Watson (up from No. 4 last month)

Because Republicans cannot hope to keep control of the House without taking out a few Democrats — and Kagan is top on the list — this district stands to be among the most targeted in the state this cycle. Kagan traded a hefty slice of heavily Democratic Denver for more Republican-friendly Arapahoe County neighborhoods, giving Watson an opening. But Watson has yet to establish whether he can match the charismatic Kagan either as a fundraiser or on the trail.

Rated: This isn’t the easy take-out opportunity Republicans might have hoped, but Kagan is going to have to outwork a GOP challenger right out of central casting to hang on to his seat.

HD 3 race profile:
Active Democrats: 11,576 (32.6%)
Active Republicans: 13,029 (36.7%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,615 (29.9%)
Total: 35,489

• 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 $32,384 and Watson raised $8,450 through January.

4. House District 18 – Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Pete Lee vs. Republican challenger Jennifer George (debuting this month)

El Paso County will be swimming in Red this fall though Democrats will be fighting like mad to keep this seat Blue. There are no two candidates on the ballot this year with stronger reputations for flat-out retail campaigning, and both Lee and George will be pushed to the limits in a block-by-block battle here. This independent-leaning district likes to buck trends, proving it in the last election with solid margins for Democrats all around, but George will have no shortage of foot soldiers from everywhere else in the county.

Rated: Leans Lee, but Republicans know how crucial this seat is to a House majority so will go all-out.

HD 18 race profile:
Active Democrats: 9,993 (30.6%)
Active Republicans: 11,257 (34.5%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,014 (33.7%)
Total: 32,673

• Bennet won with 51.74% to Buck’s 42.19%; Kennedy won with 53.57% to Stapleton’s 46.43%; Hart won with 48.88% to Bosley’s 45.29%

• Lee raised $37,308 and George raised $17,920 through January.

5. Senate District 19 – Incumbent Democratic state Sen. Evie Hudak vs. Republican challenger Lang Sias (up from No. 6 last month)

Unlike the SD 22 race to the south, this northern Jefferson County seat features two candidates who more easily resemble each other’s stereotypes of the opposition. Conservative groups have already gone after Hudak with TV ads blasting her support for last year’s failed Proposition 103 tax hike for education, and Sias is bringing a more seasoned approach after losing a congressional primary to Aurora Republican Ryan Frazier two years ago. The voter numbers are on the Republican’s side, but Hudak is nothing if not a fighter.

Rated: Arvada and Westminster voters will be deluged with increasingly harsh caricatures of these two candidates by fall in what could be a photo-finish.

SD 19 race profile:
Active Democrats: 21,055 (31.9%)
Active Republicans: 23,757 (36.0%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 20,794 (31.5%)
Total: 66,078

• 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 and Sias raised $100 through January.

6. Senate District 10 Republican Primary – State Rep. Larry Liston vs. challenger Owen Hill (debuting this month)

While the Stephens-Looper primary gets more attention, this El Paso County battle for the soul of the GOP could be just as telling. Conservative stalwart Liston faces an all-out challenge from Hill, who just missed dethroning Democratic state Sen. John Morse in 2010 and in the process tapped into a restive Republican spirit unwilling to wait its turn. Perhaps even more than in the HD 19 intraparty battle, the tensions between establishment and insurgent Republicans will be laid bare here.

Rated: Slight edge to Hill.

SD 10 race profile:
Active Democrats: 11,304 (18.8%)
Active Republicans: 30,481 (50.8%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 17,778 (29.6%)
Total: 59,989

• Buck won with 62.08% to Bennet’s 32.24%; Stapleton won with 65.56% to Kennedy’s 34.44%; Bosley won with 64.47% to Hart’s 30.60%

• Liston raised $41,215 and Hill raised $23,052 through January.

7. House District 29 – Incumbent Republican Robert Ramirez vs. Democratic challenger Tracy Kraft-Tharp (dropping from No. 3 last month)

This North Jeffco race falls a few notches in the ranking simply because other races have vaulted past it, not because it stands to be any less competitive through the summer and into the fall. It’s our list’s most evenly divided House district by voter registration, though those voters tend to vote for Democrats — even though Ramirez squeaked by Democratic state Rep. Debbie Benefield by a razor-thin 197-vote margin in 2010. Though he has the advantages of incumbency and has proved himself a tireless campaigner, Ramirez won’t have the element of surprise this time out, and he’ll also have to contend with a Libertarian candidate siphoning off votes.

Rated: Kraft-Tharp has the advantage if she can maintain strong fundraising and relentless campaigning, but it’ll be a nail-biter.

HD 29 race profile:
Active Democrats: 10,875 (33.4%)
Active Republicans: 10,906 (33.5%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,526 (32.3%)
Total: 32,543

• 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 $13,780 and Kraft-Tharp raised $24,912 through January.

8. Senate District 26 – Incumbent Democratic state Sen. Linda Newell vs. Republican challenger Dave Kerber (dropping from No. 5 last month)

Newell slipped into the Senate in 2008, winning by that election’s slimmest statehouse margin — earning the nickname “Landslide Linda” — but has been laying the groundwork to defend this Arapahoe County swing seat ever since and begins the campaign with the biggest fundraising total of any legislative candidate this year. Kerber, a past chairman of the Arapahoe GOP, has plenty of experience knocking on doors and raising money himself — he lost a bid against state Rep. Joe Rice the same year Newell was first elected — and is as well known as the incumbent in some of the newer parts of the district. Like other suburban battleground races, this one will reflect how hard the presidential campaigns are fighting it out for Colorado’s votes.

Rated: Newell is lucky she’s running the same year as the Obama campaign will be getting out its own vote and should benefit from a Bluer electorate.

SD 26 race profile:
Active Democrats: 21,823 (33.3%)
Active Republicans: 24,032 (36.7%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 19,168 (29.3%)
Total: 65,493

• 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 $71,546 and Kerber raised $32,420 through January.

9. House District 40 – Incumbent Republican state Rep. Cindy Acree vs. Democratic challenger John Buckner (Democrats P.K. Kaiser and Travis Grant are also announced candidates for the seat) (debuting this month)

With the entry of former Overland High School principal John Buckner into the race this week, a seat that had been firmly in the GOP column is suddenly up for grabs. Acree lost her most favorably Republican precincts in reapportionment and gained voters perhaps more familiar with her challenger than they are with her. She’s a tireless campaigner and Buckner’s skills on the doorstep are unproven, but what seemed last week like an easy coast to reelection has to feel more like an uphill slog.

Rated: An unexpected pick-up opportunity for Democrats.

HD 40 race profile:
Active Democrats: 10,596 (35.0%)
Active Republicans: 10,250 (33.9%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 9,153 (30.3%)
Total: 30,240

• Bennet won with 51.24% to Buck’s 42.48%; Kennedy won with 52.65% to Stapleton’s 47.35%; Hart won with 47.37% to Bosley’s 46.82%

• Neither Acree nor Buckner reported any fundraising through January.

10. House District 41 Democratic Primary – Andrew Bateman vs. Jovan Melton vs. Terry Todd (down a notch from No. 9 last month)

The contest to succeed term-limited state Rep. Nancy Todd, who is running for an open Senate seat, is coming down to the wire in this Aurora district. Todd’s husband, Terry, had the field to himself for much of last year, all but proclaiming himself the popular legislator’s natural heir, but a vigorous challenge by Melton and relentless campaigning — relying heavily on social media — by Bateman the past few months has thrown things wide open. Todd won a straw poll held on caucus night, ahead of Melton by a slim margin, with Bateman straggling. Since it’s virtually impossible for all three candidates to clear 30 percent and win a primary nomination at this weekend’s assembly, observers are speculating that one of the three might endorse another candidate rather than face a trouncing among delegates.

Rated: While Todd had an early edge, Melton is breathing down his neck and could pull into the lead by the time April showers give way to May flowers.

HD 41 race profile:
Active Democrats: 11,577 (40.2%)
Active Republicans: 8,697 (30.2%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 8,303 (28.8%)
Total: 28,794

• 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, Melton raised $6,162 and Todd raised $8,342 through January.

11. House District 35 – Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Cherylin Peniston vs. Republican challenger Brian Vande Krol (debuting this month)

In what should have been an easy stroll to reelection by Peniston, a challenge by veteran campaigner Vande Krol — who just barely missed unseating state Rep. John Soper in a neighboring Adams County district last time around — has turned it into a top target by Republicans and one Democrats realize they’ll have to defend. Peniston has the numbers on her side but hasn’t yet had to campaign as hard as it will take to fend off a determined challenge in a year when a “D” might not mean the automatic vote it once did from disgruntled Adams County residents.

Rated: This race is Peniston’s to lose, but Republicans have tasted blood in Adams County and see this as a prime pick-up opportunity, so it’ll be hard-fought.

HD 35 race profile:
Active Democrats: 10,550 (36.3%)
Active Republicans: 9,201 (31.6%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 9,105 (31.3%)
Total: 29,075

• Bennet won with 51% to Buck’s 42.60%; Kennedy won with 53.90% to Stapleton’s 46.10%; Hart won with 47.79% to Bosley’s 46.72%

• Penniston raised $14,445 and Vande Krol raised $4,218 through January.

12. Senate District 8 Republican Primary – Incumbent state Sen. Jean White vs. state Rep. Randy Baumgardner (down from No. 11 last month)

This Senate primary in the northwest corner of the state features one of the two or three most liberal GOP senators facing off against one of the House’s most conservative Republicans in a district where ideology might not matter as much as personal impressions. Baumgardner has won election twice to his House district, something White hasn’t had to do herself, as she took over the seat in a vacancy appointment last year when her husband, Al, stepped down for a job running Gov. John Hickenlooper’s state tourism office. As much as this contest pits standard-bearers from opposite wings of the GOP, it also asks voters to pick sides in the region’s constant battle between the extraction industries, epitomized by Baumgardner, and the tourism industry, personified by White.

Rated: Depending who turns out for the unfamiliar June primary, Baumgardner could have an edge among hard-core Republicans.

SD 8 race profile:
Active Democrats: 15,485 (24.9%)
Active Republicans: 24,989 (40.2%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 21,027 (33.9%)
Total: 62,085

• 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 $37,761 and Baumgardner raised $9,836 through January.