Legislative races of 2012: April edition

The Colorado Statesman

This time around, the cardinal number is six: It’s just six weeks until ballots drop for June’s all-mail primary election, and six months from now Coloradans will already be voting in what promises to be one of the most hard-fought general elections in memory.

While Colorado’s role as a crucial battleground in the presidential contest — some say it’s the key swing state — will surely suck up most of the oxygen this year, dozens of races in every corner of the state will vie for attention as voters select a new legislature.

Control of both chambers of the General Assembly is at stake. Two years ago, voters delivered a divided legislature after Democrats had held sway three elections in a row. Republicans own the House speaker’s gavel by a one-seat majority, while Democrats rule the Senate with a more comfortable five-vote margin. But in the wake of redrawn district boundaries at the end of last year, an unusually high number of legislative seats have turned competitive, and unprecedented turnover — more than a third of the House will be new next year — means neither party can take its majority for granted.

Of the 85 legislative contests on the ballot — all 65 House seats and 20 of the 35 Senate seats — these dozen races are generating the most heat, drawing the most attention, and could be the closest to call.

The Colorado Statesman has updated its monthly roster of the state’s Top 12 legislative races — nearly half of them primaries this month — based on interviews with party strategists, campaign operatives, candidates and neutral observers. Each month as the election draws closer, we’ll update our rankings to reflect changes based on what’s sure to be a nail-biter of an election season.

After the conclusion of nominating assemblies earlier this month, ballots are set and the candidates are sprinting toward the earlier June primary. On both sides of the aisle, the top primary races epitomize a battle for the soul of the parties, pitting more establishment incumbents against upstarts unwilling to wait their turn, dissatisfied with business as usual.

Many of the top general election races — and the top primary battle on the GOP side — represent fallout from a contentious reapportionment process, which turned numerous safe districts competitive and forced more than a dozen lawmakers into the same seats.

Democrats are banking this year on the return of the Obama voters after a significant portion of them sat out the 2010 election. Likewise, Republicans are hoping that their newly motivated supporters from the last election remain energized this fall and that disenchanted Obama supporters stay that way.

Voter registration figures are current through the last day of March and reflect active voters as reported by the Colorado Secretary of State. Percentages of the total might not equal 100 percent because of rounding and minor party registration.

Fundraising totals cover contributions reported through January, the most recent filing deadline. After candidates file updated reports on May 7, it should be clearer which races are attracting the most attention from donors and whether any imbalances are emerging that could give a candidate the upper hand. (Still, it will be worth taking the early May reports with a grain of salt, as legislative candidates are forbidden from raising money from lobbyists and some other contributors while the General Assembly is in session, so some candidates could be able to catch up quickly once the legislature wraps things up.)

Voting performance numbers list 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 in different districts might swing. Those races list 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.) The Colorado Reapportionment Commission reported this data.

Voter registration figures are more current than performance data from the 2010 election, but registration numbers 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 pair of races almost certain to return after the primary election.

Incumbent Republican state Rep. Cindy Acree is facing an unexpectedly spirited challenge from Democrat John Buckner in southwestern Aurora’s House District 40, which ranked No. 9 on last month’s list but slips off this month to make room for primary contests. Republicans polled the district earlier this month — a sure sign they’re taking Acree’s vulnerability seriously — and are pulling out the stops to defend the seat, while Buckner’s strong launch could have lost some momentum, but count on a top-tier race once it’s fully engaged.

Likewise, incumbent Democratic state Rep. Cherylin Peniston is confronting the toughest fight of her career against Republican challenger Brian Vande Krol in western Adams County’s House District 35 race, which ranked No. 11 last month. Two years ago, Vande Krol came within a couple hundred votes of unseating state Rep. John Soper, D-Thornton, but after redistricting finds himself in Peniston’s district. This race could heat up considerably once the summer’s campaign season gets under way.

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

1. House District 19 GOP Primary

Incumbent state Rep. Marsha Looper vs. incumbent Majority Leader Amy Stephens (holding at No. 1 from last month)

The rivalry in this quintessentially conservative El Paso County district — established by a Democratic-sponsored reapportionment map that threw Stephens and Looper into the same sprawling district — is shaping up to be a no-holds-barred fight to the finish. It’s one of the most aggressive legislative primaries in memory, and a week hasn’t passed without a flurry of charges and counter-charges hurled between the camps. At the center of the contest is Senate Bill 200, a 2011 Stephens-sponsored, bipartisan measure that created a state health care exchange. Stephens argues that the law allows Colorado to chart its own course independent of federal health care reform mandates, but Looper has kept up the pressure, charging that “Amycare” is just shorthand for “Obamacare.” Delegates to the state GOP assembly agreed with Looper this month, passing a platform plank calling for the repeal of SB 200 by a wide margin.

Rated: Remains the most evenly matched primary in the state, pitting two giants from often-conflicting wings of the GOP.

Who won the month: Following up a surprise win at the district assembly, Looper stands to benefit mightily from the overwhelming rejection of Stephens’ signature legislative achievement by state Republicans.

HD 19 race profile:
Geography: Monument and most of El Paso County outside Colorado Springs
Active Democrats: 4,957 (12.3%)
Active Republicans: 24,336 (60.2%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,860 (26.9%)
Total active voters: 40,416
Hispanic population: 7.24%

• Buck won the current district 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 8 GOP Primary

Incumbent state Sen. Jean White vs. state Rep. Randy Baumgardner (up from No. 12 last month)

This primary pits White, ranked as one of the most liberal GOP senators, against Baumgardner, one of the House’s most conservative Republicans. White was appointed to the seat last year, taking over for her husband, Al, when he stepped down to run the state tourism office for Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, and Baumgardner joined the fray after he was drawn into a district dominated by liberal Boulder Democrats. The candidates represent competing wings of the GOP — not just split along the usual ideological lines, but also divided over the district’s unique tensions between mining and tourism.

Rated: The Whites represent a solid political brand in the sprawling district, but veteran campaigner Baumgardner could hold an an edge among the hard-core Republicans likeliest to vote in the June primary.

Who won the month: Baumgardner steamrolled White to take top line on the ballot in what could be a preview of a vicious primary.

SD 8 race profile:
Geography: Seven counties covering northwest Colorado
Active Democrats: 15,491 (24.8%)
Active Republicans: 25,099 (40.2%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 21,191 (34.0%)
Total active voters: 62,367
Hispanic population: 17.62%

• Buck won the current district 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.

3. Senate District 22

Democratic state Rep. Andy Kerr vs. Republican state Rep. Ken Summers (down from No. 2 from last month)

This Jefferson County race is the one to watch for the general election. If Barack Obama wants to repeat his 2008 win in Colorado, he’ll almost certainly need to win this swing suburban district in the middle of a crucial swing county. Likewise, Mitt Romney can probably carry the state’s nine electoral votes if he can win here. The contest between legislative veterans Kerr and Summers — occasioned when they were drawn into the same house district as a third Jeffco lawmaker, Democratic state Rep. Max Tyler — could stand in for the state’s own decision, whether Colorado is ultimately a Red state or a Blue state.

Rated: Republicans hold a slight edge in voter registration, while district voters have swung toward Democrats in the past, making this district a study in the state’s conflicting characteristics.

Who won the month: Neither candidate stumbled at the Capitol, and both appear to be laying the groundwork for a block-by-block battle — a tie.

SD 22 race profile:
Geography: Central Lakewood stretching south to parts of Ken Caryl
Active Democrats: 21,148 (32.6%)
Active Republicans: 23,426 (36.1%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 19,856 (30.6%)
Total active voters: 64,884
Hispanic population: 22.04%

• Bennet won the current district 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.

4. Senate District 10 GOP Primary

State Rep. Larry Liston vs. Owen Hill (up from No. 6 last month)

While the HD 19 primary gets more attention, this El Paso County primary pitting an aggressive challenger against a more established veteran could give just as clear a glimpse into the heart of the GOP. Fresh off a razor-thin loss to Democratic Senate Majority Leader John Morse in the last election, Hill is hoping to harness unruly Republicans to deny Liston a pass into the upper chamber. As in all the primary races, the earlier June primary throws turnout projections up for grabs, but if Republican voters in this Colorado Springs district mirror their delegates at the district assembly, Hill could come out on top.

Rated: Republican primary voters have demonstrated that grassroots conservatism can trump establishment credentials in a primary — just ask Jane Norton — giving Hill the edge here.

Who won the month: Hill drew blood at the El Paso GOP assembly and appears to have Liston on the ropes.

SD 10 race profile:
Geography: North-central Colorado Springs
Active Democrats: 11,517 (18.9%)
Active Republicans: 30,959 (50.7%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 18,173 (29.7%)
Total active voters: 61,090
Hispanic population: 13.27%

• Buck won the current district 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.

5. House District 18

Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Pete Lee vs. Republican challenger Jennifer George (down from No. 4 last month)

It’s a testament to the inroads made by Democrats over the past decade that two of the top swing districts in the state are in El Paso County, usually assumed to be a bastion of the Republican Party. While this part of town has been sending Democrats to the statehouse for years, Republicans have never conceded the seat, and first-termer Lee will be subject to an unprecedented barrage if he aims to keep it. George rivals Lee as a door-to-door campaigner and will have no shortage of GOP volunteers from surrounding districts to try to pry the seat from the opposition.

Rated: The district tends to vote for Democrats, but this seat is one of a few that Republicans must win in order to keep their majority in the House, so expect a pitched battle for every vote.

Who won the month: Both candidates have been striving to out-hustle the other — call it a draw at this early stage.

HD 18 race profile:
Geography: Central and west-side Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs
Active Democrats: 10,149 (30.5%)
Active Republicans: 11,432 (34.4%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,268 (33.9%)
Total active voters: 33,268
Hispanic population: 13.87%

• Bennet won the current district 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.

6. House District 3
Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Daniel Kagan vs. Republican challenger Brian Watson (down from No. 3 last month)

Republicans know that their path to retaining a House majority runs through this district, which turned decidedly more competitive after reapportionment. Kagan lost his core of Democratic support in south Denver and gained more heavily Republican neighborhoods in affluent parts of Arapahoe County. Watson represents the epitome of Republican legislative candidate recruitment this time around — a business owner without a voting record — and promises to mount a relentless and well-funded campaign in what’s sure to be among the top-targeted districts in the state.

Rated: This isn’t turning into the easy pick-up opportunity Republicans might have hoped, but Kagan is going to have a down-to-the-wire race on his hands against a solid challenger who checks off all the right boxes.

Who won the month: Kagan has been out front on key Democratic issues at the legislature, potentially stirring enthusiasm among supporters while simultaneously painting some fresh targets on his back.

HD 3 race profile:
Geography: Northwestern Arapahoe County, covering Englewood, Cherry Hills Village, Greenwood Village and parts of Littleton
Active Democrats: 11,682 (32.4%)
Active Republicans: 13,131 (36.5%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,920 (30.3%)
Total active voters: 36,004
Hispanic population: 15.91%

• Bennet won the current district 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.

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

It’s no coincidence that Republicans are banking on unseating an incumbent Democratic senator in a swing district smack in the ring of swing counties surrounding Denver, because that’s been where the state has battled it out for the past three elections. After the more established suburbs helped elect Democrats Ken Salazar and Bill Ritter in 2006, followed by unexpectedly high margins for Mark Udall and Barack Obama in 2008. The same suburban voters chipped in enough of an edge to elect Michael Bennet last time around, though Democrats lost control of the House in the neighborhoods surrounding this district, alerting Sias to the incumbent’s vulnerability and putting Hudak on notice that she’ll have the fight of her life.

Rated: This district’s voters like to call themselves Republicans but tend to vote for Democrats in high-profile races. If Republicans hope to vie for control of the Senate, they’ve got to win this seat, so voters should prepare themselves for a deluge.

Who won the month: Hudak got some good attention and some bad this month for sponsoring the Senate Democrats’ lead jobs package, and Sias has been quick to pounce by point-
ing to a pair of critical Denver Post editorials that raked Hudak over the coals.

SD 19 race profile:
Geography: Westminster and Arvada in northern Jefferson County
Active Democrats: 21,206 (31.8%)
Active Republicans: 23,908 (35.9%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 21,093 (31.6%)
Total active voters: 66,682
Hispanic population: 14.06%

• Bennet won the current district 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.

8. House District 1 Dem Primary
Incumbent state Rep. Jeanne Labuda vs. challenger Corrie Houck (debuting this month)

It’s clear that some Democrats in this “majority-minority” district (more than half its residents are ethnic minorities) aren’t thrilled with three-term incumbent Labuda, handing her little-known challenger a strong second-place finish at the assembly. But, while Labuda’s string of seemingly tone-deaf comments have kept insiders’ tongues wagging, she’s taking Houck seriously and plans an all-out door-to-door offensive. Houck has sharpened her attack on Labuda, branding her as out-of-touch and in the pocket of industries Democrats tend to revile, such as payday lenders, but Labuda is no push-over.

Rated: Voters are restless this year, giving Houck an opening if she can exploit it, but it remains to be seen whether discontent with the incumbent translates to an endorsement of the unproven Houck.

Who won the month: Though Labuda found herself on the defensive at the nominating assembly, an entire house district could be a tougher sell for her rookie opponent, who remains the underdog.

HD 1 race profile:
Geography: Southwest Denver
Active Democrats: 10,332 (42.4%)
Active Republicans: 6,622 (27.1%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 7,219 (29.6%)
Total active voters: 24,396
Hispanic population: 50.06%

• Bennet won the current district with 56.33% to Buck’s 37.80%; Kennedy won with 59.37% to Stapleton’s 40.63%; Hart won with 53.60% to Bosley’s 41.31%
• Labuda raised $5,490 and Houck raised $1,910 through January.

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

Newell won the nickname “Landslide Linda” when she first won election to this south-metro seat by the year’s slimmest margin, and supporters say she’s never lost the lean-and-hungry approach to politics. Likewise, her opponent, a former chair of the Arapahoe County Republicans, knows what it’s like to run a close race in these neighborhoods, having lost a run against state Rep. Joe Rice the same year Newell won her seat. Along with a handful of other suburban contests in the state, this one should look a lot like the presidential clash, which will be fighting it out in the same territory.

Rated: Newell stands to benefit from the direction the presidential contest appears to be taking, along lines established by Bennet when he bucked the Republican tide in districts like this one two years ago. But this race won’t be decided this spring and could go down to the wire.

Who won the month: Both candidates are working their core supporters hard and putting in long hours traveling the district — call it a toss-up this month.

SD 26 race profile:
Geography: Englewood, Littleton and a meandering stretch of Arapahoe County including parts of Aurora, Foxfield and Centennial
Active Democrats: 22,041 (33.1%)
Active Republicans: 24,279 (36.5%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 19,742 (29.7%)
Total active voters: 66,539
Hispanic population: 14.88%

• Bennet won the current district 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.

10. House District 41 Dem Primary
Jovan Melton vs. Terry Todd (holding at No. 10 from last month)

In a rare dramatic moment that actually deserves the billing, a third Democratic primary candidate, activist Andrew Bateman, stunned delegates at the district assembly last month by dropping out and endorsing Melton. Delegates gave the young political operative top line in a primary against district stalwart Todd, whose wife, Nancy, has represented the area for four terms and is running for an open Senate seat. Melton, who managed the campaigns of state Reps. Angela Williams and Rhonda Fields, was a late entry to the race against Todd, who managed his wife’s successful runs for the seat, but has been playing catch-up quickly with crack organization and a youthful approach. But it’s still going to be a tough slog against Todd, a candidate who knows the district inside and out, and one who can draw on older, more reliable primary voters.

Rated: By all rights, this should be Todd’s seat in a walk, but Democrats don’t seem willing to establish an Aurora dynasty without first making him earn it.

Who won the month: Melton consolidated support at the district assembly and has been hammering the question whether “two Todds” would offer Aurora voters the kind of diverse representation they might be seeking.

HD 41 race profile:
Geography: Southwest Aurora
Active Democrats: 11,743 (40.1%)
Active Republicans: 8,777 (30.0%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 8,555 (29.2%)
Total active voters: 29,293
Hispanic population: 19.72%

• Bennet won the current district 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%
• Melton raised $6,162 and Todd raised $8,342 through January.

11. House District 29
Incumbent Republican state Rep. Robert Ramirez vs. Democratic challenger Tracy Kraft-Tharp (down from No. 7 last month)

This House district is the state’s most evenly divided by voter registration, though these north-suburban voters lean toward Democrats most of the time. Ramirez snuck past Democratic state Rep. Debbie Benefield by a 197-vote margin in 2010, handing Republicans control of the chamber. Though Ramirez is a formidable campaigner, he isn’t running against an unsuspecting opponent this time.

Rated: The closest district in the state last time could duplicate that distinction this time, though Kraft-Tharp will have help from Obama voters and a Libertarian candidate siphoning off votes from Ramirez.
Who won the month: As the legislature has nearly finished its session without the kind of knock-down, drag-out slugfests anticipated at the beginning of the year, Ramirez wins this month by keeping his head above divisive issues.

HD 29 race profile:
Geography: Eastern neighborhoods of Westminster and Arvada
Active Democrats: 10,969 (33.3%)
Active Republicans: 10,993 (33.4%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,698 (32.5%)
Total active voters: 32,901
Hispanic population: 16.37%

• Bennet won the current district 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.

12. House District 17
Incumbent Republican state Rep. Mark Barker vs. Democratic challenger Tony Exum (debuting this month)

Barker, who unseated rookie Democratic Rep. Dennis Apuan in 2010 on a Republican wave, nearly escaped a serious challenge for his second term, but at the last minute Democrats unveiled a humdinger. Rather than running against a community organizer with an arrest record for an anti-war protest — admittedly a tough sell in this law-and-order district — this time, Barker will be facing a retired African-American firefighter with experience running for office and a candidate profile right out of central casting for a year when Obama will be on the ballot.

Rated: If Democrats have a pick-up opportunity in the most unlikely of places, this El Paso County district is it.

Who won the month: Exum made a strong debut at the end of last month, but until Barker starts campaigning full time next month, it’s hard to say what this race will look like.

HD 17 race profile:
Geography: South-central Colorado Springs
Active Democrats: 5,597 (32.0%)
Active Republicans: 5,990 (34.2%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 5,762 (32.9%)
Total active voters: 17,526
Hispanic population: 33.13%

• Buck won the current district with 45.77% to Bennet’s 45.64%; Stapleton won with 51.86% to Kennedy’s 48.14%; Bosley won with 49.11% to Hart’s 44.95%
• Barker raised $21,174 through January and Exum hadn’t entered the race by the last filing deadline.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com