Control of Legislature is at stake

August, 2012 Top 12 Races
The Colorado Statesman

Actual voters — not just Capitol insiders and political operatives — are about to start paying attention to legislative races, once the kids are back in school and the air turns crisp. After the national parties’ conventions conclude and Labor Day starts to recede into the rear view mirror, mailboxes should fill up and phones should ring off the hook as Republicans seek to keep control of the House and take over the Senate, while Democrats aim for the opposite outcome.

Republicans hold a one-seat majority in the House and Democrats count a five-vote margin in the Senate.

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 the hotly contested battleground state.

This month, Republicans announced more additions to the party’s Trailblazers Program, aimed at publicizing and helping key candidates in close races, but a Democratic strategist suggests the operation could do as much harm to those who don’t make the cut. “Absence speaks louder than words,” the operative chuckled, calling it “fascinating” to see which vulnerable incumbents haven’t received the party’s stamp of approval.

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.

Two House races fall off the list this month, though depending on what happens after Labor Day either one of them could return. In House District 29, incumbent Republican state Rep. Robert Ramirez continues to lag Democratic challenger Tracy Kraft-Tharp in fundraising by a wide margin, while outside groups won’t have as much ammunition to hit Kraft-Tharp with as they did when Ramirez was the challenger.

In addition, independent candidate Kathleen Curry, a former Democrat and former state representative, still might catch fire in House District 61, but after a splashy launch her campaign appears to be slowing down in the race against incumbent Democratic state Rep. Millie Hamner and her Republican challenger, Debra-Lynn Irvine.

Most of Colorado’s legislative contests won’t keep candidates up late on election night, but there are still others that could turn competitive and surprise everybody, so stay tuned.

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 August nears its end, 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)

Both parties’ legislative campaign operations point to their respective candidates in this south-suburban swing district as their star contenders this year, and with good reason. Watson was the first Republican candidate to make the top-tier of the state GOP’s Trailblazers program, passing benchmarks in fundraising and voter-contact, and Kagan is regularly used as an example of the Democrats’ best fundraiser and organizer. Early returns from this district could portend which way Colorado is heading on election night.

Who won the month: Watson is already mailing into the district and whispers that he could be ready to unleash TV ads against Kagan, though Democrats counter that Kagan has the strongest field operation in the state.

HD 3 race profile:
Geography: Northwestern Arapahoe County, covering Englewood, Cherry Hills Village, Greenwood Village and parts of Littleton
Active Democrats: 11,535 (31.9%)
Active Republicans: 13,016 (36.0%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,264 (31.2%)
Total active voters: 36,154
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 $84,131 and Watson raised $134,895 through the end of July. On Aug. 1, Kagan reported $55,369 cash on hand, and Watson had $62,343. Total raised for this race through July: $213,706; total spent: $100,005.

2. Senate District 22

Democratic state Rep. Andy Kerr vs. Republican state Rep. Ken Summers (down from No. 1 last month)

This Jefferson County race pitting two three-term incumbent House members is the best chance Republicans have of taking away a Senate seat and eroding the Democratic majority in the upper chamber, but it’s a solid toss-up between two well-funded veteran campaigners in a quintessential swing district.

Who won the month: Kerr continues to out-raise Summers, making up an early deficit, and Democrats are preparing to bludgeon the Republican with an audio recording of Summers questioning whether Obama is “a true American at heart.”

SD 22 race profile:
Geography: Central Lakewood stretching south to parts of Ken Caryl
Active Democrats: 21,601 (32.2%)
Active Republicans: 23,701 (35.4%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 21,149 (31.6%)
Total active voters: 67,027
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 $90,655 and Summers raised $72,154 through the end of July. On Aug. 1, Kerr reported $66,940 cash on hand, and Summers had $62,773. Total raised for this race through July: $164,388; total spent: $34,674.

3. House District 18

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

Is this west-side Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs district an oasis of liberalism or an aberration in the reliably red El Paso County? It’s no coincidence that when President Barack Obama descended on the Pike’s Peak region earlier this month he landed here, filling a lawn with the largest crowd assembled during his four-city swing through Colorado. Two sterling candidates are fighting it out on territory where Republicans have an edge in registration but where Democrats reliably get the votes.

Who won the month: George continues to impress with the breadth of her reach into the community, winning support from quarters that tend to like seeing a Democrat as part of El Paso County’s delegation, but Lee is pulling close in fundraising and fielding a massive voter-contact operation likely to keep this race knotted-up until election night.

HD 18 race profile:
Geography: Central and west-side Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs
Active Democrats: 10,777 (30.8%)
Active Republicans: 11,790 (33.7%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,809 (33.8%)
Total active voters: 34,950
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 $77,731, including a $3,000 loan to himself, and George raised $95,339 through the end of July. On Aug. 1, Lee reported $64,739 cash on hand, and George had $70,147. Total raised for this race through July: $165,988; total spent: $35,789.

4. House District 59

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

Brown won some of the most Democratic-leaning parts of this district in the last election, but local Donkeys and the Obama campaign are playing heavily here this time around and are banking on the kind of turnout they saw in the last presidential election.

Who won the month: McLachlan continues to surge ahead in fundraising, while Brown’s spin as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Tampa hands opponents more opportunities to tie him to fringe positions.

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: 11,535 (30.0%);
Active Republicans: 14,960 (38.9%);
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,490 (29.9%)
Total active voters: 38,437
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 $46,795 and McLachlan raised $68,257, including a $1,000 loan to himself, through the end of July. On Aug. 1, Brown reported $39,731 cash on hand, and McLachlan had $50,355. Total raised for this race through July: $114,386; total spent: $28,676.

5. House District 47

Republican Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff vs. Democrat Netto “Chuck” Rodosevich (new to the list)

This southern Colorado district is the rare one where Democrats hold the registration edge — albeit only slightly — but Republicans won the vote in the last election. These precincts are notorious for ticket-splitting and have among the lowest percentage of unaffiliated voters among all the most competitive districts, making for a tricky proposition for any candidate hewing too hard a partisan line.

Who won the month: Rodosevich, whose roots in the district go back more than a hundred years, has tripled Navarro-Ratzlaff’s fundraising and appears poised to back his opponent into a corner over the national GOP’s rejection of the wind tax credit, a key jobs-stimulator in the area.

HD 47 race profile:
Geography: Eastern Fremont County, northern and eastern Pueblo County and Otero County
Active Democrats: 12,401 (37.8%)
Active Republicans: 11,806 (36.0%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 8,413 (25.6%)
Total active voters: 32,825
Hispanic population: 34.00%

• Buck won the current district with 49.24% to Bennet’s 45.09%; Stapleton won with 51.82% to Kennedy’s 48.18%; Bosley won with 51.63% to Hart’s 44.08%
• Navarro-Ratzlaff raised $13,913 and Rodosevich raised $35,665, including a $525 loan to himself, through the end of July. On Aug. 1, Navarro-Ratzlaff reported $8,489 cash on hand, and Rodosevich had $23,485. (Rodosevich’s totals reflect the repayment of $500 in loans to himself.) Total raised for this race through July: $50,379; total spent: $18,405.

6. Senate District 35

Republican Larry Crowder vs. Democrat Crestina Martinez (new to the list)

Like HD 47, this district is home to a slight Democratic advantage among active voters but tilted toward Republicans in 2010. Just one in five voters here are unaffiliated, leaving a tight field for Martinez, a Costilla County commissioner, and Crowder, a past Alamosa County Republican Party chairman, who split an almost even number of active partisan voters between them.

Who won the month: Martinez is coming on strong as a fundraiser, banking contributions from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Denver Mayor Federico Peña, but she’ll have to deal with notoriously low turnout among her supporters in the sprawling district.

SD 35 race profile:
Geography: South and southeastern Colorado covering 16 counties, with residents concentrated in Pueblo, Las Animas and Otero counties
Active Democrats: 23,986 (39.7%)
Active Republicans: 23,446 (38.9%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 12,625 (20.9%)
Total active voters: 60,452
Hispanic population: 36.24%

• Buck won the current district with 49.01% to Bennet’s 44.87%; Stapleton won with 51.91% to Kennedy’s 48.09%; Bosley won with 51.21% to Hart’s 43.88%
• Crowder raised $23,955 and Martinez raised $37,631 through the end of July. On Aug. 1, Crowder reported $9,096 cash on hand, and Martinez had $29,859. Total raised for this race through July: $70,241; total spent: $32,552.

7. Senate District 26

Incumbent Democratic state Sen. Linda Newell vs. Republican challenger Dave Kerber (down from No. 5 last month)

Both candidates know what it’s like to stay up late on election night monitoring returns from these south-suburban precincts — Newell squeaked to victory in the Senate seat in 2008 the same night Kerber barely lost a neighboring House seat. Both presidential campaigns are already working these blocks furiously, with an eye toward leaving no voter unturned.

Who won the month: Though he’s lagged in over-all fundraising, Kerber is shepherding his money carefully, banking more cash-on-hand than the incumbent, and keeping pace with Newell at the doors, where this race will be won.

SD 26 race profile:
Geography: Englewood, Littleton and a meandering stretch of Arapahoe County including parts of Aurora, Foxfield and Centennial
Active Democrats: 21,783 (32.5%)
Active Republicans: 24,042 (35.9%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 20,590 (30.7%)
Total active voters: 67,013
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 $108,430 and Kerber raised $64,462, including a $15,000 loan to himself, through the end of July. On Aug. 1, Newell reported $43,490 cash on hand, and Kerber had $50,285. Total raised for this race through July: $171,116; total spent: $75,157.

8. House District 17

Incumbent Republican state Rep. Mark Barker vs. Democratic challenger Tony Exum (down from No. 7 last month)

This south-side Colorado Springs district has among the lowest voter participation of any in the state with its tremendous turnover, making the smaller number of voters who do turn out prime targets for both sides. The usual advantages of incumbency fade here, with as much as half the district’s voters casting ballots for the first time in this district.

Who won the month: Exum maintains his advantage in donations and can thank the NAACP and the Obama campaign for their voter registration drives underway here, where even a few hundred extra votes could be enough to swing things.

HD 17 race profile:
Geography: South-central Colorado Springs
Active Democrats: 6,090 (32.7%)
Active Republicans: 6,207 (33.3%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 6,107 (32.7%)
Total active voters: 18,648
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 $28,956 and Exum raised $35,059 through the end of July. On Aug. 1, Barker reported $18,282 cash on hand, and Exum had $23,934. (Barker’s totals reflect paying off a prior election’s campaign debt and an old loan to himself.) Total raised for this race through July: $70,369; total spent: $20,220.

9. House District 40

Incumbent Republican state Rep. Cindy Acree vs. Democratic challenger John Buckner (down from No. 6 last month)

There’s no harder-working candidate than Acree, though her resources will be taxed to the limit trying to hang on here after reapportionment flipped her district from a comfortably Republican one to a Democratic-leaning seat.

Who won the month: Acree has stepped up her game and is treating Buckner’s challenge with utmost seriousness, while the challenger has yet to prove himself as stellar a fundraiser as he needs to be.

HD 40 race profile:
Geography: Southwest Aurora
Active Democrats: 10,868 (34.6%)
Active Republicans: 10,292 (32.8%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 9,918 (31.6%)
Total active voters: 31,382
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 $37,834 and Buckner raised $27,674 through the end of July. On Aug. 1, Acree reported $24,474 cash on hand, and Buckner had $17,317. Total raised for this race through July: $61,598; total spent: $23,473.

10. Senate District 19

Incumbent Democratic state Sen. Evie Hudak vs. Republican challenger Lang Sias (down from No. 8 last month)

Republicans took control of the House last time around in north and northwest suburban neighborhoods a lot like this Senate district and are looking to repeat the feat here, but the electorate will be different than in 2010 and it won’t be as easy to dislodge Hudak as strategists outside the district believe.

Who won the month: Hudak has maintained a more than two-to-one lead in fundraising over Sias, who will need more money than he’s raising so far to turn voters against an incumbent they’ve known for more than a decade.

SD 19 race profile:
Geography: Westminster and Arvada in northern Jefferson County
Active Democrats: 21,671 (31.6%)
Active Republicans: 24,203 (35.2%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 22,225 (32.4%)
Total active voters: 68,666
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 $119,912 and Sias raised $54,147 through the end of July. On Aug. 1, Hudak had $90,437 cash on hand, and Sias had $40,434. Total raised for this race through July: $168,597; total spent: $37,949.

11. House District 28

Republican Amy Attwood vs. Democrat Brittany Pettersen (down from No. 4 last month)

After leading by most measures for much of the year, Attwood can feel Pettersen breathing down her neck in this Democratic-leaning district, one that Republicans have to win in order to keep their House majority. Because it’s crucial to GOP control, expect this to be among the hardest-fought by outside groups.

Who won the month: Pettersen doubled her cash on hand this month and has nearly closed the early fundraising advantage enjoyed by Attwood, who parlayed a previous run for city council and strong ties to Summers into a quick start.

HD 28 race profile:
Geography: South- and west-central Lakewood
Active Democrats: 11,610 (34.6%)
Active Republicans: 10,930 (32.6%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,689 (31.9%)
Total active voters: 33,514
Hispanic population: 24.41%

• Bennet won with 51.69% to Buck’s 42.53%; Kennedy won with 53.64% to Stapleton’s 46.36%; Bosley won with 47.38% to Hart’s 45.90%
• Attwood raised $49,534, including a $5,000 loan to herself, and Pettersen raised $43,772, including a $400 loan to herself, through the end of July. On Aug. 1, Attwood reported $40,288 cash on hand, and Pettersen had $31,915. Total raised for this race through July: $104,952; total spent: $30,821.

12. House District 23

Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Max Tyler vs. Republican challenger Rick Enstrom (down from No. 11 last month)

In another district, Enstrom could be measuring the drapes for his Capitol office already, but this Lakewood seat leans so heavily Democratic that everything is going to have to break his way to stay competitive, and so far neither candidate has stumbled.

Who won the month: Tyler is catching up with Enstrom when it comes to fundraising and this month notched one of the top Democratic voter-contact efforts, keeping what should be a safe Democratic seat penciled into that column.

HD 23 race profile:
Geography: Central Lakewood
Active Democrats: 12,812 (34.5%);
Active Republicans: 12,032 (32.4%);
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,901 (32.0%)
Total active voters: 37,139
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 $49,093, including a $2,120 loan to himself, and Enstrom raised $61,009, including a $5,504 loan to himself, through the end of July. On Aug. 1, Tyler reported $30,898 cash on hand, and Enstrom had $51,979. (Tyler’s totals reflect the repayment of a $1,500 loan to himself.) Total raised for this race through July: $110,060; total spent: $28,504.

Voter registration figures are current through the last day of July 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 July 26 and reported by Aug. 1, the most recent filing deadline. Candidates are required to update their reports on Sept. 4, covering an entire month of fundraising, and after that will file reports every two weeks until the election. 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. Total fundraising and spending for each race includes third-party candidates, primary challengers and candidates who dropped out after reapportionment or for other reasons.

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 September and October, as both parties are conducting registration drives and work to activate voters.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com