Top 12 Legislative Races: June edition

The Colorado Statesman

Following an abbreviated pre-season and an early June primary, this year’s battle for control of the Colorado General Assembly stands to hinge on a dozen close races in competitive districts stretching across the state.

Democrats are eyeing GOP-held seats from the Denver suburbs to Colorado Springs in hopes of retaking the House majority the party lost during the 2010 shellacking, when Republicans wrested control of the chamber by a single seat, won by a mere 197-vote margin. At the same time, Republicans are targeting Democrats in the crucial swing counties that surround the metro area, hoping that a moribund economy might knock loose enough Democrats to make up for a more competitive map statewide following a contentious reapportionment process.

On the Senate side, Republicans have less margin for error in attempts to executive a take-over of the chamber, which has been in Democratic hands for four elections running. Democrats hold a five-seat margin in the Senate, and because just over half the four-year terms are up this cycle, Republicans will have to win every close race on the ballot this fall.

The fallout from the legislative session’s tumultuous end — House Republicans filibustered civil unions legislation and brought down dozens of other bills with it, leading to a brief special session last month — continues to cast a shadow over state races, but it might manifest as a pox on both houses in competitive districts. Candidates say that the state’s prized unaffiliated voters seem to agree that rank partisanship is a major turn-off this year, giving both parties the chance to attack each other’s candidates for sounding more shrill than pragmatic.

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 based on interviews with party strategists, campaign operatives, candidates and neutral observers. Each month as the election approaches, we’ll update our rankings to reflect developments in what’s sure to be a nail-biter of an election season.

The highest-ranked races are likely to stay that way through the fall — both parties have sliced and diced voter data every which way. While fundraising totals are one of the few objective measures for campaigns at this point, disparities between candidates should be taken with a grain of salt and could prove less decisive down the road. None of the top-targeted races on either side stand to lack for money this year, especially as sophisticated third-party campaigns anticipate pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into close contests as the vote draws near.

The only races that fall off the list this month are five primaries that are by now just distant memories. Most of the races replacing the primaries have appeared here before, but the recent entry into the House District 61 race by former state Rep. Kathleen Curry of Gunnison, a one-time Democrat running as an independent, propels that normally Democratic-leaning seat into play and onto the rankings.

A handful of races could turn more competitive and are bubbling under our Top 12 ranking this month.

In the north metro area, Republicans have their sights on three seats: in House District 35, incumbent Democratic state Rep. Cherylin Peniston is facing a determined challenge from veteran Republican candidate Brian Vande Krol, incumbent Democratic state Sen. Mary Hodge is running against Republican John Sampson in Senate District 25, and former state Rep. Dianne Primavera is battling Republican attorney David Pigott for the House District 33 seat. But in each case, the stars will have to align for the challengers to move these seats into truly toss-up territory.

Just one primary ended with results that could influence the general election: Ultra-conservative state Rep. Randy Baumgardner’s win in the Senate District 8 Republican primary over moderate incumbent GOP state Sen. Jean White turns a once-safe seat into a top target for Democratic candidate Emily Tracy. Although district voters have shown an independent streak in the past, in the last election they swung heavily for Republicans, so Democrats — who make up just one-fourth of registered voters — have a tough case to make that this seat is competitive yet.

Keep an eye, too, on two open races in the southern part of the state. The sprawling Senate District 35 — shifted from Denver to the San Luis Valley and points east during reapportionment — could turn into a close contest between Democrat Crestina Martinez and Republican Larry Crowder, while the House District 47 race between Las Animas Republican Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff and Pueblo Democrat Chuck Rodosevich might be the sleeper race to watch this year.

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

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

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

Kagan was considered a perfect fit for this district when it included vast swaths of south Denver, but after losing Democratic-dominated precincts in reapportionment Republicans have had their eyes on this seat and maintain that they have found the ideal candidate in businessman Brian Watson. This is one of a handful of seats the GOP has to win in order to defend its House majority, and the nearly evenly divided electorate will make both sides work for every contested vote.

Who won the month: Watson maintains his fundraising edge, but the race could be taking a turn in coming weeks as Democrats prepare to attack the Republican for his business acumen.

HD 3 race profile:
Geography: Northwestern Arapahoe County, covering Englewood, Cherry Hills Village, Greenwood Village and parts of Littleton
Active Democrats: 11,878 (32.4%)
Active Republicans: 13,320 (36.3%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,184 (30.5%)
Total active voters: 36,682
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 $63,353 and Watson raised $93,380 through the middle of June. On June 18, Kagan reported $37,788 cash on hand, and Watson had $37,606.

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

This race pits two incumbent House members — both have served three terms — in quintessential swing territory. Kerr and Summers have maintained a cordial relationship as legislative colleagues — sponsoring citywide town hall meetings during the session and even collaborating on legislation — and promise to offer voters a straight-up choice between solid representatives of both parties’ principles. The district’s unaffiliated voters have swung toward Democratic candidates in the past, giving Kerr an opening despite Summers’ slim lead in registration.

Who won the month: Summers, who has jumped to an early fundraising lead.

SD 22 race profile:
Geography: Central Lakewood stretching south to parts of Ken Caryl
Active Democrats: 21,638 (32.5%)
Active Republicans: 23,955 (36.0%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 20,414 (30.7%)
Total active voters: 66,506
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 $54,662 and Summers raised $64,724 through the middle of June. On June 18, Kerr reported $36,792 cash on hand, and Summers had $57,425.

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

This is another seat the GOP knows the party has to win in order to keep the House, so expect El Paso County Republicans to form a nearly constant stream of volunteers into the area all summer and into the fall. Lee and George are among their parties’ top campaigners, whether it’s door-to-door or raising money, and are positioning themselves for a four-month slog for every vote.

Who won the month: George stands to benefit once a divisive primary season wraps up and Republicans turn attention to a common foe.

HD 18 race profile:
Geography: Central and west-side Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs
Active Democrats: 10,692 (30.9%)
Active Republicans: 11,840 (34.2%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,511 (33.3%)
Total active voters: 34,570
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 $53,182, including a $3,000 loan to himself, and George raised $68,665 through the middle of June. On June 18, Lee reported $43,721 cash on hand, and George had $45,494.

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

Republicans know that their path to a Senate majority runs through districts like this one, situated in the same territory the Obama and Romney campaigns will be mining furiously for every vote this fall. Newell won this seat by the narrowest margin in the state four years ago and, ever since, Republicans have been relishing the chance to prove her election was a fluke.

Who won the month: Newell could benefit if voters see Kerber, a former chairman of the Arapahoe County GOP and one-time candidate for a nearby House seat, as the more rigidly partisan of the two candidates.

SD 26 race profile:
Geography: Englewood, Littleton and a meandering stretch of Arapahoe County including parts of Aurora, Foxfield and Centennial
Active Democrats: 22,501 (33.1%)
Active Republicans: 24,605 (36.2%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 20,357 (29.9%)
Total active voters: 67,990
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 $78,875 and Kerber raised $50,005, including a $15,000 loan to himself, through the middle of June. On June 18, Newell reported $19,595 cash on hand, and Kerber had $37,275.

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

There is no district in the state that better epitomizes Colorado’s nearly even divide between Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters, and it’s no surprise that this is the seat that turned the House Republican last time around. Ramirez squeaked past an incumbent Democrat by fewer than 200 votes and has been touted ever since as the candidate who made it possible for Speaker Frank McNulty to steer the GOP’s legislative agenda. While the district maintains an almost uncanny registration split into thirds, it has a history of voting for Democrats, giving Kraft-Tharp an edge she appears to be gleefully exploiting.

Who won the month: Kraft-Tharp has been outpacing the incumbent in fundraising while chatter swirls that Ramirez isn’t as enthused about the campaign as he was last time around.

HD 29 race profile:
Geography: Eastern neighborhoods of Westminster and Arvada
Active Democrats: 11,238 (33.4%)
Active Republicans: 11,185 (33.2%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,013 (32.7%)
Total active voters: 33,709
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 $33,637 and Kraft-Tharp raised $46,782 through the middle of June. On June 18, Ramirez reported $13,115 cash on hand, and Kraft-Tharp had $31,453.

6. House District 40
Incumbent Republican state Rep. Cindy Acree vs. Democratic challenger John Buckner (returning to the rankings this month)

Acree’s seat was redrawn from a safe Republican district into one that favors Democrats, and those seeking to oust her believe they have landed the perfect candidate in former Overland High School principal John Buckner. While Acree is still the more proven campaigner — she’s worked tirelessly for her previous terms, even when the outcome wasn’t much in doubt — Buckner’s campaign has every appearance of taking this seat off the table in coming months.

Who won the month: Acree won’t be caught by surprise and knows she has the race of her career on her hands.

HD 40 race profile:
Geography: Southwest Aurora
Active Democrats: 10,995 (34.8%)
Active Republicans: 10,560 (33.4%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 9,806 (31.0%)
Total active voters: 31,627
Hispanic population: 16.16%

• 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%

• Acree raised $25,824 and Buckner raised $10,321 through the middle of June. On June 18, Acree reported $14,079 cash on hand, and Buckner had $5,593.

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

This suburban district is another spot where the presidential campaigns will be fighting it out for Colorado’s electoral votes, and the two seasoned candidates promise to stage a knock-down, drag-out fight for the down-ballot preference. From a distance, Hudak appears like the perfect GOP target, easy to paint as a tax-and-spend liberal, though her longstanding ties throughout the community could blunt Republican efforts at an easy caricature.

Who won the month: Hudak has maintained a serious fundraising edge, nabbing more than double what Sias, a one-time congressional candidate, has posted so far.

SD 19 race profile:
Geography: Westminster and Arvada in northern Jefferson County
Active Democrats: 21,626 (31.7%)
Active Republicans: 24,338 (35.7%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 21,627 (31.8%)
Total active voters: 68,116
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 $81,567 and Sias raised $35,145 through the middle of June. On June 18, Hudak had $57,088 cash on hand, and Sias had $24,506.

8. House District 28
Republican Amy Attwood vs. Democrat Brittany Pettersen (returning to the rankings this month)

Republicans are counting on Attwood to parlay her statehouse experience — at the side of state Rep. Ken Summers, whose Senate campaign overlaps this suburban district — and a past run for Lakewood City Council into strong contention for this Democratic-leaning seat against newcomer Pettersen and are pouring money her way. After skating past a potential primary, Pettersen has been playing catch-up with Attwood, who was running for the seat months before her Democratic opponent even considered a bid. Democrats contend that Pettersen’s New Era Colorado experience organizing voters might make up for the late start, especially when Obama is on the ballot this fall.

Who won the month: Attwood has outraised Pettersen by more than 2-to-1 and kept this race more competitive than Democrats would like.

HD 28 race profile:
Geography: South- and west-central Lakewood
Active Democrats: 11,572 (34.8%)
Active Republicans: 11,095 (33.4%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,331 (31.1%)
Total active voters: 33,246
Hispanic population: 24.41%

• 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 $41,379 and Pettersen raised $18,719 through the middle of June. On June 18, Attwood reported $33,887 cash on hand, and Pettersen had $10,976.

9. House District 59
Incumbent Republican state Rep. J. Paul Brown vs. Democratic challenger Michael McLachlan (up from No. 12 last month)

Brown has a fight on his hands defending a southwestern Colorado seat that has a history of sending Republicans to the statehouse while voting for Democrats higher on the ticket, including handing Democrat Mark Udall a 13-point edge in his Senate run four years ago. The voters at the polls this fall will most likely resemble the ones who showed up when Udall won, giving Democrats a chance to poach a seat Republicans had considered safe.

Who won the month: McLachlan’s powerful fundraising puts Republicans on notice that this seat is up for grabs.

HD 59 race profile:
Geography: This sprawling district in the southwest part of the state includes all or parts of Archuleta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, La Plata, Ouray and San Juan counties.
Active Democrats: 11,342 (30.2%)
Active Republicans: 14,863 (39.6%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,872 (29.0%)
Total active voters: 37,509
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 $27,164 and McLachlan raised $37,975, including a $1,000 loan to himself, through the middle of June. On June 18, Brown reported $23,939 cash on hand, and McLachlan had $28,573.

10. House District 23
Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Max Tyler vs. Republican challenger Rick Enstrom (returning to the rankings this month)

Tyler beat back a strong challenger last time and Democrats predict he’ll keep candy manufacturer Enstrom at bay, especially given the Lakewood district’s propensity to vote for Democrats by double-digit margins, but Enstrom is mounting a near-perfect campaign that could benefit from restless voters.

Who won the month: Enstrom landed a spot on the state GOP’s Trailblazer program for legislative candidates who meet certain benchmarks for fundraising and voter contact.

HD 23 race profile:
Geography: Central Lakewood
Active Democrats: 12,830 (34.9%)
Active Republicans: 12,183 (33.1%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,443 (31.1%)
Total active voters: 36,795
Hispanic population: 12.19%

• 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 $32,281, including a $2,120 loan to himself, and Enstrom raised $45,702, including a $5,000 loan to himself, through the middle of June. On June 18, Tyler reported $20,169 cash on hand, and Enstrom had $38,440.

11. House District 17
Incumbent Republican state Rep. Mark Barker vs. Democratic challenger Tony Exum (returning to the rankings this month)

Last time around, Barker easily ousted the Democrat who snagged this south-side Colorado Springs district in 2008 but Republican plans to count this as a safe seat appear to be teetering after the late launch of Exum’s campaign, which is coming up to speed quickly. The Democrat, a retired African-American firefighter with experience running for office, stands to benefit from a wave of Obama voters, though Republicans point out that Senate candidate Ken Buck carried these precincts in 2010, making it a tough climb.

Who won the month: Barker has shifted his campaign into full gear and appears ready to go all-out defending the swing seat.

HD 17 race profile:
Geography: South-central Colorado Springs
Active Democrats: 6,035 (32.8%)
Active Republicans: 6,273 (34.0%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 5,890 (32.0%)
Total active voters: 18,418
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 $20,717 and Exum raised $17,482 through the middle of June. On June 18, Barker reported $15,352 cash on hand, and Exum had $9,540.

12. House District 61
Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Millie Hamner vs. Republican challenger Debra-Lynn Irvine vs. independent challenger Kathleen Curry (debuting this month).

Democrats will have to spend more resources than they’d anticipated defending this picturesque district for freshman legislator Hamner after Curry jumped in the race earlier this month. Though she hasn’t turned in her petitions yet, the threshold to make the ballot as an independent candidate is low and Curry says she’s already gathered sufficient signatures, setting up a devilish three-way contest in a part of the state known for its fierce independence. Democrats alternately deride and dismiss Curry, who bolted the party during the 2010 legislative session, suggesting that her go-it-alone run will lack the sort of institutional support it takes to break through to voters while privately fretting that Curry’s bid could catch fire. After all, running a shoestring campaign as a write-in candidate last time around, Curry came within fewer than 300 votes of defeating a Democrat for a neighboring seat — before reapportionment jumbled the district lines and drew away her main base of support, some contend. Whatever happens, this race should be the state’s biggest wild-card through the summer.

Who won the month: Curry turned this seat into a toss-up simply by announcing her run.

HD 61 race profile:
Geography: Parts of Gunnison and Delta counties and all of Pitkin, Summit and Lake counties
Active Democrats: 11,865 (31.1%)
Active Republicans: 12,141 (31.8%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 13,788 (36.1%)
Total active voters: 38,164
Hispanic population: 13.13%

• Bennet won the current district with 53.32% to Buck’s 41.00%; Kennedy won with 52.67% to Stapleton’s 47.33%; Hart won with 47.78% to Bosley’s 44.80%

• Hamner raised $27,053, Irvine raised $11,681, including a $3,000 loan to herself, and Curry raised $18,222 through the middle of June. On June 18, Hamner reported $24,539 cash on hand, Irvine had $9,091, and Curry had $1,100. (Curry’s totals reflect repayment of $10,151 in prior-year campaign loans.)

Voter registration figures are current through the last day of May 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 June 13 and reported by June 18, the most recent filing deadline. Candidates are required to update their reports on July 2, when filings could indicate where active party donors are focusing once primaries are finished. In order to best reflect total resources available to candidates, fundraising totals include transfers from other committees, loans and in-kind donations. 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