The Statesman’s Top 12 legislative races

The Colorado Statesman

After spending the first part of the year “walking, knocking and talking,” in the words of a veteran legislative campaign operative, Colorado’s statehouse candidates are preparing to pivot before the end of the summer to the main event. For months, candidates have been introducing themselves to voters, locking up solid supporters and amassing war chests they’ll soon unleash on their neighbors.

In other words, the rubber is about to hit the road as both parties battle it out block by block in key swing districts for control of the General Assembly.

As voters turn their attention to the Olympics and savor the waning weeks of summer — and following a brief lull in campaign activity as the state reels from a shooting last week at an Aurora movie theater — expect to hear plenty from legislative candidates in the most contested races across Colorado.

Republicans are hoping for a replay of the 2010 election, when the party took control of the House after three terms in the minority, but Democrats counter that a presidential election year is a different ball game and intend to turn out voters who sat out the last election. The presidential campaigns of President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney will be chasing voters in the same neighborhoods, practically dragging their supporters to the polls in districts where a slim group of moderate voters could spell victory.

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 Statesman’s ranking is unlikely to change much at the top of the list through the fall. Operatives in both parties agree that a handful of House and Senate seats stand to go down to the wire, drawing hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside spending in districts that will already be inundated by the presidential campaigns. But in a volatile election year already full of surprises, expect races ranked lower on the list to swap places and jump off the list as one side or the other pulls ahead.

While top Republicans tell their donors that there are as many as 14 House seats up for grabs, Democrats dismiss that suggestion and claim they have a clearer path toward a House majority than their counterparts. On the Senate side, because nearly half the chamber carries over to the next election, there are fewer seats in play, and the Democrats’ five-seat majority requires that Republicans win every one of the closest races in order to hope for the gavel.

While the vast majority of legislative contests aren’t competitive — by all indications, this won’t be the kind of wave election that has safe incumbents looking over their shoulders — these dozen races aren’t the only ones whose outcomes are up in the air.

Two toss-up races in southern Colorado are bubbling under our list and could land spots by next month. In the sprawling Senate District 35, centered on the San Luis Valley, Democrat Crestina Martinez and Republican Larry Crowder — both ranchers — will offer voters a clear choice in a district where Democrats have an edge in registration but tend to under-perform. Likewise, the House District 47 contest between Las Animas County Republican Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff and Pueblo Democrat Chuck Rodosevich promises to heat up considerably in one of the most evenly drawn districts in the state.

In addition, Republicans have their eye on Senate District 25 incumbent Mary Hodge, facing a challenge from Republican John Sampson in Adams County. For their part, Democrats are hoping that enough moderate Republicans and unaffiliated voters turn against hard-core conservative state Rep. Randy Baumgardner, who defeated incumbent state Sen. Jean White in a primary a month ago, to throw the Senate District 8 seat to Breckenridge Democrat Emily Tracy.

See below, following 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 July draws to a close, here’s how things stand in the top legislative races:

1. Senate District 22

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

There likely won’t be a more hard-fought race in the state this year than this contest between two incumbent House members — both have deep roots in the community and a devoted cadre of supporters from their three terms winning election in these neighborhoods. Republicans hold an edge in voter registration, but the district’s unaffiliated voters tend to swing toward Democrats in this quintessential swing district.

Who won the month: Kerr has erased an early fundraising lead held by Summers, though rest assured that heavy outside spending will likely drown out any discrepancy between spending by the two candidates.

SD 22 race profile:
Geography: Central Lakewood stretching south to parts of Ken Caryl
Active Democrats: 21,808 (32.7%)
Active Republicans: 24,052 (36.1%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 20,221 (30.4%)
Total active voters: 66,598
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 $65,102 and Summers raised $66,064 through the end of June. On July 2, Kerr reported $47,089 cash on hand, and Summers had $57,409. Total raised for this race through June: $133,281; total spent: $28,782.

2. House District 3

Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Daniel Kagan vs. Republican challenger Brian Watson (down from No. 1 last month)

If Republicans want control of the House, this is one of a handful of seats they must take from Democrats, and the GOP is going all out to make that happen. Kagan lost a big chunk of his old, heavily Democratic district in reapportionment, gaining more evenly divided Arapahoe County precincts, and is facing one of the GOP’s star recruits in businessman Brian Watson. The district leans Democratic, but voters in this district are considered the prize for the presidential campaigns so not a single ballot will be taken for granted this year.

Who won the month: Watson is wearing down his trademark pair of orange sneakers walking the district and maintains a serious fundraising advantage over Kagan, though he’s also burning through his money at a swift clip.

HD 3 race profile:
Geography: Northwestern Arapahoe County, covering Englewood, Cherry Hills Village, Greenwood Village and parts of Littleton
Active Democrats: 12,045 (32.7%)
Active Republicans: 13,494 (36.6%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,993 (29.8%)
Total active voters: 36,859
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 $66,478 and Watson raised $102,130 through the end of June. On July 2, Kagan reported $40,833 cash on hand, and Watson had $46,668. Total raised for this race through June: $164,219; total spent: $80,728.

3. House District 18

Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Pete Lee vs. Republican challenger Jennifer George (unchanged since last month)

To hear GOP leaders talk about this El Paso County district, it’s a personal affront to each and every Republican in the county that Democrats have managed to hold this seat for decades, and this year they aim to take it back. Lee and George are both counting on a vast army of volunteers from the surrounding area to stake a claim to the district as, alternatively, a Democratic oasis or the seat that proves El Paso County is as red as its reputation.

Who won the month: George is hauling in money like nobody’s business and her community-minded approach is finding a welcoming reception among local voters used to more fire-breathing Republicans from nearby districts.

HD 18 race profile:
Geography: Central and west-side Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs
Active Democrats: 10,993 (31.6%)
Active Republicans: 11,977 (34.4%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,414 (32.9%)
Total active voters: 34,770
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 $53,222, including a $3,000 loan to himself, and George raised $78,265 through the end of June. On July 2, Lee reported $45,622 cash on hand, and George had $54,843. Total raised for this race through June: $127,697; total spent: $31,919.

4. House District 28

Republican Amy Attwood vs. Democrat Brittany Pettersen (up from No. 8 last month)

This district shouldn’t be close — Democrats hold a registration advantage and its voters follow through at the ballot box — but Attwood has been campaigning for months longer than Pettersen and has experience chasing the same voters in a previous run for city council, keeping it neck-and-neck. Attwood has strong ties with Summers, whose Senate district overlaps with this territory, and hopes that voters value her business experience over Pettersen’s slimmer resume organizing young voters with New Era Colorado, but that experience means the Democrat is assembling a powerful ground game in a district where turnout matters.

Who won the month: Attwood continues to out-raise Pettersen, and Republicans are confident that the usual attacks won’t stick to their candidate, though Democrats caution against underestimating Pettersen, whose field operation is second to none.

HD 28 race profile:
Geography: South- and west-central Lakewood
Active Democrats: 11,661 (35.0%)
Active Republicans: 11,144 (33.5%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,225 (30.7%)
Total active voters: 33,285
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 $43,694, including a $5,000 loan to herself, and Pettersen raised $25,716, including a $400 loan to herself, through the end of June. On July 2, Attwood reported $34,627 cash on hand, and Pettersen had $16,876. Total raised for this race through June: $81,502; total spent: $28,070.

5. Senate District 26

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

These blocks — and ones a lot like them on the west side of the Denver metro area — are where Obama and Romney will be battling it out for Colorado’s nine electoral votes, and that intensive effort will trickle down to this Senate race, which could keep watchers up late on election night. Newell won the district by the slimmest margin in the state four years ago so knows the importance of every vote; likewise, Kerber lost a close race for a nearby House seat the same year and doesn’t plan on making any mistakes.

Who won the month: A draw. Kerber is ascending the state GOP’s Trailblazers list of key legislative candidates, passing benchmarks for fundraising and voter contact at a fast clip, but Newell is keeping pace with fundraising and recently set a record for contacting more households in a week than any other Democratic Senate campaign.

SD 26 race profile:
Geography: Englewood, Littleton and a meandering stretch of Arapahoe County including parts of Aurora, Foxfield and Centennial
Active Democrats: 22,820 (33.4%)
Active Republicans: 24,903 (36.5%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 20,017 (29.3%)
Total active voters: 68,319
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 $91,985 and Kerber raised $51,435, including a $15,000 loan to himself, through the end of June. On July 2, Newell reported $29,622 cash on hand, and Kerber had $38,689. Total raised for this race through June: $142,329; total spent: $69,250.

6. House District 40

Incumbent Republican state Rep. Cindy Acree vs. Democratic challenger John Buckner (unchanged from last month)

There are no two ways about it, this is going to be tough for Acree in the face of redrawn lines that moved her from a safely Republican seat to one favoring Democrats. And Democrats believe that former Overland High School principal John Buckner is the ideal candidate to appeal to voters in a year when Obama will be on the ballot.

Who won the month: Buckner, who nearly doubled his fundraising between early and late June and nearly tripled his cash-on-hand, all against an incumbent who has yet to make the GOP’s list of top-performing legislative candidates.

HD 40 race profile:
Geography: Southwest Aurora
Active Democrats: 11,205 (35.2%)
Active Republicans: 10,673 (33.6%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 9,641 (30.3%)
Total active voters: 31,802
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 $26,674 and Buckner raised $19,796 through the end of June. On July 2, Acree reported $13,682 cash on hand, and Buckner had $13,510. Total raised for this race through June: $42,853; total spent: $19,328.

7. House District 17

Incumbent Republican state Rep. Mark Barker vs. Democratic challenger Tony Exum (up from No. 11 last month)

The advantages of incumbency in this district — which has changed hands from a Republican to a Democrat and then back again over the past two elections — are fewer than in other districts because of the extremely high turnover among residents. Exum, a retired African-American firefighter, could be in an ideal position to reap some down-ticket support from Obama voters, but this is also one of the few districts on the list carried by Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck in the last election, so Barker starts with a leg up.

Who won the month: Exum, the last Democratic legislative candidate recruited to the ballot this year, has made quick work of mounting an aggressive challenge.

HD 17 race profile:
Geography: South-central Colorado Springs
Active Democrats: 6,130 (33.0%)
Active Republicans: 6,359 (34.3%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 5,824 (31.2%)
Total active voters: 18,549
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 $32,224 and Exum raised $23,603 through the end of June. On July 2, Barker reported $16,190 cash on hand, and Exum had $15,657. (Barker’s totals reflect paying off a prior election’s campaign debt and an old loan to himself.) Total raised for this race through June: $52,194; total spent: $12,408.

8. Senate District 19

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

Both Hudak and Sias like to describe this suburban district as the preeminent battleground in the state, one where face-to-face contact with candidates over-rides shrill political messages. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of shrill messages delivered by outside groups aiming to paint both the Republican and the Democrat as the most extreme examples their parties have to offer. This is one of the few races to garner media attention outside its borders, when a flier distributed by Sias drew some ribbing from national outlets for scrubbing a Tea Party endorsement from a photograph.

Who won the month: Hudak continues to lap Sias in fundraising, though Sias, a one-time congressional candidate, has hinted recently that he’s catching up and promises to post some eye-popping numbers in early August.

SD 19 race profile:
Geography: Westminster and Arvada in northern Jefferson County
Active Democrats: 21,753 (31.9%)
Active Republicans: 24,460 (35.9%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 21,451 (31.5%)
Total active voters: 68,201
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 $92,818 and Sias raised $35,295 through the end of June. On July 2, Hudak had $67,687 cash on hand, and Sias had $24,647. Total raised for this race through June: $123,897; total spent: $31,785.

9. House District 59

Incumbent Republican state Rep. J. Paul Brown vs. Democratic challenger Michael McLachlan (unchanged from last month)

This southwestern Colorado district might not be as friendly for Brown after gaining more Democratic-leaning parts of Gunnison County, whose residents are getting the chance to know both candidates for the first time. McLachlan admits that Brown, a homespun rancher, is well liked, but intends to hammer the incumbent for what Democrats term extremist views. Likewise, Brown is making the rounds and has solid backing from state Republicans, who argue that the district’s voting patterns favor their candidate.

Who won the month: A draw. McLachlan’s early jump to a fundraising lead appears to be slowing as the state GOP throws support behind Brown.

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: 11,403 (30.3%);
Active Republicans: 14,920 (39.7%);
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,834 (28.8%)
Total active voters: 37,592
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 $33,879 and McLachlan raised $43,175, including a $1,000 loan to himself, through the end of June. On July 2, Brown reported $30,653 cash on hand, and McLachlan had $34,389. Total raised for this race through June: $77,389; total spent: $16,723.

10. House District 61

Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Millie Hamner vs. Republican challenger Debra-Lynn Irvine vs. independent challenger Kathleen Curry (up from No. 12 last month)

While third-party and unaffiliated candidates might swing the needle slightly in a few contests this year, this is the only race in the state where a candidate without major-party backing stands a chance of winning. Democrats are furious that Curry — a former House member who abandoned the party in 2010 and nearly won later that year as a write-in candidate — will be siphoning off votes from Hamner, a former school superintendent who was appointed to the seat at the beginning of last year. Notably, this mountain district has the highest percentage of unaffiliated voters of any competitive seat in the state, creating an opening for Curry if she can raise enough money to compensate for lacking a party apparatus — all while Irvine relishes the chance to surprise everyone if Curry and Hamner split what is normally a strongly Democratic vote.

Who won the month: Curry, who just received word at press time from the Secretary of State’s office that her petitions were indeed sufficient to make the general election ballot, has been racking up strong support from agriculture and mining interests, which play big in the district.

HD 61 race profile:
Geography: Parts of Gunnison and Delta counties and all of Pitkin, Summit and Lake counties
Active Democrats: 11,914 (31.1%)
Active Republicans: 12,217 (31.9%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 13,755 (35.9%)
Total active voters: 38,265
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 $31,533, Irvine raised $9,431, including a $3,000 loan to herself, and Curry raised $18,997 through the end of June. On July 2, Hamner reported $28,325 cash on hand, Irvine had $7,937, and Curry had $1,549. (Curry’s totals reflect repayment of $10,151 in prior-year campaign loans.) Total raised for this race through June: $65,398; total spent: $33,381.

11. House District 23

Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Max Tyler vs. Republican challenger Rick Enstrom (down from No. 10 last month)

Tyler shouldn’t have to break a sweat in this strongly Democratic suburban district, but by running a top-notch campaign, challenger Enstrom is turning up the heat. Still, Tyler fended off a strong challenge in 2010 — when the district was more competitive and in a year more favorable to Republicans — and is hopeful that Enstrom’s fundraising advantage won’t endure. This race also features what some wags are calling the “truck-off,” after Enstrom decorated his newer Ford pickup with political signs, mimicking Tyler’s signature campaign vehicle, a classic Chevy.

Who won the month: Enstrom vaulted up a notch last week on the state GOP’s Trailblazer Program for legislative candidates, underlining his prowess as a fundraiser and his record contacting voters, though Democrats rank Tyler among their top door-knockers as well, keeping it close.

HD 23 race profile:
Geography: Central Lakewood
Active Democrats: 12,937 (35.1%);
Active Republicans: 12,251 (33.2%);
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,326 (30.7%)
Total active voters: 36,864
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 $33,538, including a $2,120 loan to himself, and Enstrom raised $51,262, including a $5,000 loan to himself, through the end of June. On July 2, Tyler reported $21,335 cash on hand, and Enstrom had $42,894. Total raised for this race through June: $83,479; total spent: $20,571.

12. House District 29

Incumbent Republican state Rep. Robert Ramirez vs. Democratic challenger Tracy Kraft-Tharp (down from No. 5 last month)

Every month the Secretary of State’s office updates voter registration figures, and every month this suburban district maintains a nearly even three-way split between active Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. Couple that with this seat’s symbolic value to both parties — Ramirez won it by 197 votes last time, handing the speaker’s gavel to the GOP — and it’s no surprise this remains a top-targeted race. But if trends continue, and if the chatter of Capitol lobbyists proves accurate, it could be moving off our list in coming months as Kraft-Tharp pulls ahead by most objective measures.

Who won the month: Kraft-Tharp maintains her fundraising lead and posted the highest number of voter contacts among Democratic House candidates in competitive races this month. In addition, a Ramirez flier that probably should have been run by a proofreader drew a flurry of attention from bloggers, creating what Capitol watchers were calling “the worst kind of negative buzz.”

HD 29 race profile:
Geography: Eastern neighborhoods of Westminster and Arvada
Active Democrats: 11,309 (33.5%)
Active Republicans: 11,245 (33.3%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,927 (32.3%)
Total active voters: 33,764
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 $36,142 and Kraft-Tharp raised $54,782 through the end of June. On July 2, Ramirez reported $15,308 cash on hand, and Kraft-Tharp had $39,115. Total raised for this race through June: $82,169; total spent: $32,951.

Voter registration figures are current through the last day of June 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 third-party registration. The share of Hispanic residents in each district is based on Census data and was reported by the Colorado Reapportionment Commission.

Fundraising totals cover contributions received through June 25 and reported by July 2, the most recent filing deadline. Candidates are required to update their reports on Aug. 1, covering an entire month of fund-raising. In order to best reflect total resources available to candidates, fund-raising 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. Total fundraising and spending for each race includes third-party candidates and primary challengers.

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 are conducting registration drives and work to activate voters.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com