Legislative races come into focus this month

May edition of Colorado’s Top 12 races
The Colorado Statesman

With just two weeks before ballots go into the mail for the June primary election, the state’s top primary races and the battle for control of the General Assembly is coming into sharp focus.

On the heels of a special session marked by partisan bickering — heralded by the demise of a divisive civil unions bill — that could cast a shadow over an otherwise remarkably cooperative legislative session, Democrats and Republicans alike can make a concrete case to voters that control of the legislative chambers makes a big difference.

Already, Democrats are raising money and hope to motivate supporters by branding House GOP leaders, personified by Speaker Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch, as what stood between a majority of lawmakers and a civil unions law. Republicans, for their part, are making the same argument in hopes of retaining or expanding their one-vote majority in the House and are making an aggressive bid for control of the Senate, which Democrats dominate by a wider, five-seat margin.

It remains to be seen whether the fate of the civil unions bill itself will sway many races — word is, candidates aren’t hearing much about it on doorsteps this week — but there’s no question that an avalanche of attention to the final days of the session put a spotlight on the legislature in an election year otherwise dominated by Colorado’s position as a crucial swing state in the presidential race.

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 — 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.

Perhaps surprising — considering the unprecedented number of open legislative seats this year — there are only a handful of hotly contested primary races across the state, but the ones that make our list are racing down to the wire. On both sides of the aisle, the top primary races are asking partisan voters to weigh in on the direction of their parties, pitting establishment candidates against more insurgent challengers.

Dropping off the list this month is just one race, which will almost certainly jump back into the ranking next month, after the five primary races are resolved.

The House District 17 contest between first-term incumbent Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Mark Barker and his Democratic challenger, Tony Exum, promises to be a top-targeted race from both directions — the seat has changed hands in each of the most recent two elections — but after the surprise, late entry of Exum into the race, the candidates look to be girding for a long slog until November.

See below for an explanation how district and race profiles were compiled, including notes on party registration, voter performance and fundraising totals.

As the month of May 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 for the third month running)

There isn’t a more cutthroat election on the ballot next month than the one for this El Paso County seat, home to two sitting House members. Stephens and Looper weren’t the only incumbents drawn into the same district, but theirs is the only race where one didn’t step aside. In one of the most antagonistic primaries in memory, hardly a week goes by without one candidate hurling fresh charges at the other, and the pitched battle should only intensify now that both candidates can campaign full time. This district is renowned as the largest pool of GOP voters in the state, and the chance to represent those hard-core conservatives isn’t one either candidate is taking lightly.

Rated: A clash of the Titans, pitting two prodigious fundraisers, both with avid followings in the sprawling district, this one could go down to the wire.
Who won the month: Stephens can claim credit for blocking the civil unions bill using her power as majority leader to set the House calendar, but it’s an open question whether voters will reward her or side with Looper, who charges that the bill never should have made it to the floor in the first place.

HD 19 race profile:
Geography: Monument and most of El Paso County outside Colorado Springs
Active Democrats: 5,008 (12.2%)
Active Republicans: 24,581 (60.0%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,082 (27.0%)
Total active voters: 40,940
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 $66,506.97 and Looper raised $65,526.34, including an $8,000 loan to herself, through the middle of May. On May 21, Stephens reported $6,037.63 cash on hand, and Looper had a negative balance of $1,490.53.

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

If Republicans hope to keep their House majority, they’ll have to take out Kagan, and their chances improved dramatically after this seat was redrawn into the ultimate swing district. Challenger Brian Watson is living up to expectations, as well, out raising Kagan through the most recent reporting period. A business owner without a voting record, Watson stands to give British-born Kagan a challenge like he’s never seen before.

Rated: Republicans hold the edge among active, registered voters here, but the unaffiliated voters lean toward Democrats. This district — and districts a lot like it in the older suburbs surrounding Denver — will be the arena that decides whether Colorado goes Red or Blue this year, and that fight could have a powerful influence down the ballot.
Who won the month: To the extent Democrats can label last week’s special session a product of Republican obstructionism, Kagan gets an edge, but Watson’s fundraising strength pulls the two roughly even.

HD 3 race profile:
Geography: Northwestern Arapahoe County, covering Englewood, Cherry Hills Village, Greenwood Village and parts of Littleton
Active Democrats: 11,722 (32.3%)
Active Republicans: 13,199 (36.4%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,066 (30.5%)
Total active voters: 36,268
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 $60,328.21 and Watson raised $72,544.99 through the middle of May. On May 21, Kagan reported $35,342.75 cash on hand, and Watson had $31,100.28.

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

While GOP control of the House hangs by a thread, Republicans realize that control of the Senate depends on unseating swing-district incumbents like Newell, and they’ve found a vigorous challenger who could be up to the task. Newell first won this seat four years ago by the slimmest margin in the state, the same year her opponent, a former chairman of the Arapahoe County Republicans, lost a bid to unseat Democratic Rep. Joe Rice. Both candidates know what it takes to run neck-and-neck in these south metro neighborhoods, and that’s the way this race should play out through the election.

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: Newell can take credit for shepherding a key jobs training bill into law this year – one of the few successes either party can claim in the session’s “jobs, jobs, jobs” agenda.

SD 26 race profile:
Geography: Englewood, Littleton and a meandering stretch of Arapahoe County including parts of Aurora, Foxfield and Centennial
Active Democrats: 22,172 (33.1%)
Active Republicans: 24,337 (36.3%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 20,045 (29.9%)
Total active voters: 67,045
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 $76,320.33 and Kerber raised $43,332.59, including a $15,000 loan to himself, through the middle of May. On May 21, Newell reported $24,530.57 cash on hand, and Kerber had $31,103.17.

4. Senate District 10 GOP Primary
State Rep. Larry Liston vs. Owen Hill (holding steady at No. 4 from last month)

Liston, a veteran lawmaker termed out of his House seat, faces an aggressive challenge by nonprofit executive Owen Hill in a bid to move up to the more rarified chamber. No newcomer to politics himself, Hill came within a few hundred votes of unseating Democratic Senate Majority Leader John Morse in a neighboring district in the last election and clobbered Liston at the GOP assembly, taking 64 percent of delegate votes to win top-line on the ballot. Are primary voters content with Liston’s business-friendly brand of Republicanism, or are they itching for the more confrontational style Hill would bring to the Capitol? As much as any race in the state, this contest could help define what direction the Colorado GOP takes in coming years.

Rated: Given a choice, Republicans in Colorado tend to pick a credible insurgent over an established politico, but in this case, Liston’s tenure in the House has yielded the kind of neighborly familiarity with voters that might buck the trend.
Who won the month: As attacks over Hill’s residence and his campaign’s admittedly harsh tactics swirl, Liston looks to have drawn back even with his challenger.

SD 10 race profile:
Geography: North-central Colorado Springs
Active Democrats: 11,706 (18.9%)
Active Republicans: 31,282 (50.5%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 18,512 (29.9%)
Total active voters: 61,970
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 $53,004.64, including a $5,000 loan from himself, and Hill raised $39,974.09 through the middle of May. On May 21, Liston reported $25,063.67 cash on hand, and Hill had $23,569.59.

5. House District 18
Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Pete Lee vs. Republican challenger Jennifer George (holding steady at No. 5 from last month)

Republicans have had their eye on this seat for decades and believe that George, who has deep roots in the community, is the aggressive campaigner who can pry it loose, even though Democrats contend that it’s easy to underestimate Lee’s prospects in this Democratic-leaning district.

Rated: Republicans have to win this seat in order to keep the House, so expect an all-out offensive drawing on volunteers from surrounding, safer GOP seats.
Who won the month: George took the lead in fundraising and has had plenty of time to campaign while Lee was busy at the Capitol.

HD 18 race profile:
Geography: Central and west-side Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs
Active Democrats: 10,340 (30.5%)
Active Republicans: 11,557 (34.1%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,560 (34.1%)
Total active voters: 33,901
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 $46,858.37 and George raised $63,450.25 through the middle of May. On May 21, Lee reported $42,920.70 cash on hand, and George had $40,927.07.

6. Senate District 8
GOP Primary Incumbent state Sen. Jean White vs. state Rep. Randy Baumgardner (dropping from No. 2 last month)

Republicans in this sprawling Senate district — a big chunk of the northwestern part of the state — have a choice between one of the Senate’s most liberal Republicans and one of the House’s most conservative members, at least according to rankings sure to show up in plenty of mailboxes. Appointed to the seat last year, White stepped in for her husband, Al, when the popular senator quit to run the state tourism office for Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. After he was drawn into a district dominated by liberal Boulder County, Baumgardner mounted a primary challenge. Baumgardner had the chance to vote against the civil unions bill more than once in House committees, while White joined Democrats voting for the bill in the Senate, drawing the starkest contrast on the primary ballot over the issue.

Rated: White’s moderate — some would say liberal — reputation could work against her if this district’s primary electorate votes like just about every other Republican primary has in the state in recent years.
Who won the month: Baumgardner could reap the benefits of his civil unions vote among a conservative primary electorate, though Senate District 8 Republicans are known for bucking the party line.

SD 8 race profile:
Geography: Seven counties covering northwest Colorado
Active Democrats: 15,656 (24.8%)
Active Republicans: 25,349 (40.1%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 21,621 (34.2%)
Total active voters: 63,243
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 $41,721.12 and Baumgardner raised $18,999.76 through the middle of May. On May 21, White reported $35,778.47 cash on hand, and Baumgardner had $10,977.92.

7. Senate District 22
Democratic state Rep. Andy Kerr vs. Republican state Rep. Ken Summers (down from No. 3 last month)

Will there be a more genteel, yet highest-of-stakes contest on the ballot this year than this one? It features two incumbent Lakewood House members who decided to run for an open Senate seat rather than take on a third colleague, Democratic Rep. Max Tyler, when they were all three drawn into the same House district. Kerr and Summers have a reputation for keeping their policy disagreements above board, typified by their joint town halls, thrown monthly along with other Lakewood lawmakers. The two even co-sponsored a bill to steer dental services to pregnant women on Medicaid. But make no mistake, even while they’re smiling, these two tough competitors won’t hold back in a race Republicans must win if they hope to challenge Democrats for control of the upper chamber.

Rated: Republicans have more voters on the rolls here, but the district’s unaffiliated voters have shown a propensity to swing toward Democrats in big races, making the fight for this seat a good proxy battle for the state a whole.
Who won the month: Kerr could benefit marginally if voters blame House Republicans for the fiasco that crowned the session, but since Summers managed to stay above the fray and boasts an early fundraising lead, it’s a slim advantage at that point.

SD 22 race profile:
Geography: Central Lakewood stretching south to parts of Ken Caryl
Active Democrats: 21,188 (32.4%)
Active Republicans: 23,530 (36.0%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 20,145 (30.8%)
Total active voters: 65,317
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 $46,475.69 and Summers raised $61,984.18 through the middle of May. On May 21, Kerr reported $31,809.55 cash on hand, and Summers had $57,653.07.

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

Melton took a substantial lead in fundraising this month, perhaps setting Todd back on his heels in a race that shouldn’t have presented such high hurdles for the husband of the district’s term-limited incumbent, Rep. Nancy Todd, who is seeking an open Senate seat. Both candidates are campaign veterans: Todd has successfully helmed four of his wife’s campaigns in the same neighborhoods, while Melton steered the bids of Reps. Angela Williams and Rhonda Fields. Perhaps loathe to get on the bad side of a future state senator, more Democrats than usual are sitting this one out, at least publicly.

Rated: The big question mark surrounding next month’s primary is voter turnout. Older Democrats, who vote in high numbers, appear poised to reward Todd with their support, while Melton’s state-of-the-art campaign methods could flush out sufficient votes among younger Democrats.
Who won the month: Melton appears to be running ahead, but Todd’s advantage with stalwart voters shouldn’t be underestimated.

HD 41 race profile:
Geography: Southwest Aurora
Active Democrats: 11,875 (40.1%)
Active Republicans: 8,801 (29.7%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 8,735 (29.5%)
Total active voters: 29,637
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 $17,234.06 and Todd raised $11,087 through the middle of May. On May 21, Melton reported $3,791.16 cash on hand, and Todd had $3,849.43.

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

This northwest suburban House district splits almost exactly into thirds by voter registration, although the unaffiliated voters there have a history of swinging toward Democrats. Republicans have long touted the 197-votes that handed the seat to Ramirez in the last election as the margin ensuring the GOP’s ability to block bad legislation — a distinction drawn even sharper this month in the civil unions debate. Kraft-Tharp and other Democrats are already hammering Ramirez for switching sides on that question, first telling a radio audience he was inclined to vote for the bill and then telling a conservative audience he would, instead, likely have voted against the bill, citing overwhelming opposition from constituents.

Rated: The closest district in the state last time will be among the most hard-fought races this time.
Who won the month: Had he handled things more deftly, Ramirez might have neutralized the civil unions question but instead handed Kraft-Tharp a bludgeon.

HD 29 race profile:
Geography: Eastern neighborhoods of Westminster and Arvada
Active Democrats: 11,028 (33.2%)
Active Republicans: 11,040 (33.3%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,866 (32.7%)
Total active voters: 33,179
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 $29,454.27 and Kraft-Tharp raised $39,226.97 through the middle of May. On May 21, Ramirez reported $9,487.69 cash on hand, and Kraft-Tharp had $24,383.80.

10. House District 1 Dem Primary
Incumbent state Rep. Jeanne Labuda vs. challenger Corrie Houck (down from No. 8 last month)

Three-term lawmaker Labuda is the only Democratic incumbent facing a primary this year and is taking the threat from newcomer Houck seriously, engaging a powerhouse canvassing outfit to help get out her message and turn out voters. While Houck has pressed her case relentlessly on doorsteps, her fundraising has lagged and it remains to be seen whether she’ll have the resources to make her case that the incumbent has grown out of touch with this “majority-minority” district, which also leads the state in foreclosures. With all the advantages of incumbency, Labuda should have the upper hand, though either campaign could prevail with an efficient voter turnout operation.

Rated: The district’s chattering class — an unusually vocal and contentious bunch — is nearly evenly divided, leaving this primary up for grabs.
Who won the month: Labuda appears to be doing what she needs to do to hang onto her seat, but now that the session is completed, it will be a race to the finish line for both candidates.

HD 1 race profile:
Geography: Southwest Denver
Active Democrats: 10,518 (42.3%)
Active Republicans: 6,682 (26.9%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 7,438 (29.9%)
Total active voters: 24,879
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 $18 720.54, including a $7,500 loan to herself, and Houck raised $3,640 through the middle of May. On May 21, Labuda reported $6,277.59 cash on hand, and Houck had $461.35.

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

The same north-suburban voters who handed control of the House to Republicans in the last election — turning out three Democratic incumbents by narrow margins — could decide control of the Senate this time around as Republicans have set their sites on staunch liberal Hudak, even name-checking her in television ads aimed at defeating last year’s failed education tax hike. Seasoned campaigner Sias — he lost a congressional primary two years ago — knows that this district added to Democrat Michael Bennet’s slim statewide margin over Republican Ken Buck in 2010, and both presidential campaigns will be chasing down every voter, block-by-block.

Rated: This district’s voters like to call themselves Republicans but tend to vote for Democrats in high-profile races. This race won’t be decided early, and many voters might need to install larger mailboxes to handle all the fliers they’re sure to receive.
Who won the month: A draw, as both candidates played to their base before the real contest engages.

SD 19 race profile:
Geography: Westminster and Arvada in northern Jefferson County
Active Democrats: 21,281 (31.7%)
Active Republicans: 24,020 (35.8%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 21,374 (31.8%)
Total active voters: 67,157
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 $76,106.72 and Sias raised $25,590.24 through the middle of May. On May 21, Hudak had $54,782.68 cash on hand, and Sias had $21,736.30.

12. House District 59
Incumbent Republican state Rep. J. Paul Brown vs. Democratic challenger Michael McLachlan (returning to the list after a two-month absence)

Fiercely independent Four Corners voters could turn this race into a nail-biter as Brown, an Ignacio rancher, pivots to represent a district less favorable to Republicans than the one he easily snagged in the last election.

Rated: The well-liked Brown has all the advantages of incumbency, but a well-funded challenge by McLachlan could turn expectations on their head.
Who won the month: Brown sidestepped any obvious pitfalls as the legislative session drew to a close, but McLachlan’s powerhouse fundraising out of the gate aims to reset this contest.

HD 59 race profile:
Active Democrats: 11,180 (30.1%)
Active Republicans: 14,710 (39.5%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,890 (29.3%)
Total active voters: 37,194
Hispanic population: 12.19%

• Bennet won the current district 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 $24,229.03 and McLachlan raised $21,376.37, including a $1,000 loan to himself, through the middle of May. On May 21, Brown reported $21,054.17 cash on hand, and McLachlan had $14,041.01.

Voter registration figures are current through the last day of April 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 received through May 16 and reported by May 21, the most recent filing deadline. Candidates are required to update their reports on June 4, which should present a delayed picture of which races are attracting the most attention from donors, since the most recent reporting deadlines covered periods when the legislature was in session so contributions from lobbyists and some others aren’t yet reflected. Cash on hand totals don’t take in-kind contributions into account and, in some cases, reflect loan repayments.

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.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com