Top 12 Legislative Races of 2012 (September edition)

‘Still up for grabs’ is theme again in this month’s ratings
The Colorado Statesman

In just over two weeks, Colorado voters start receiving ballots in the mail, and nearly a year’s worth of groundwork will start to bear fruit in a tight contest for control of the state legislature, where Republicans wield the speaker’s gavel in the House by a one-seat majority and Democrats preside over the Senate with a more comfortable, five-seat margin.

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. We’ll update our rankings one last time near the end of October to reflect developments in one of the most evenly divided battleground states in the country.

While the House appears to be entirely up for grabs this year, Republicans will have to run the table and win every competitive Senate race in order to take over that chamber. On the House side, both parties are looking at roughly equal numbers of vulnerable incumbents and toss-up open seats, so while top strategists on both sides predict slim majorities in the lower chamber, until the votes start rolling in by mid October, it’s anybody’s guess who has the edge.

One House race drops off the list this month, as voter registration, fundraising and third-party spending all point toward increasingly difficult reelection chances for state Rep. Cindy Acree, an Aurora Republican who saw her district shift dramatically toward one favoring Democrats in last year’s reapportionment battle. Her Democratic challenger, former principal John Buckner, is going to have to stumble hard in order to move this race back into the most competitive ranks.

Plenty could change in the next month as the election draws near and as many as half of Colorado voters cast their ballots early, but if current trends continue, each of these dozen races will likely still be tough to call right up to Election Day.

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 September nears its end, here’s how things stand in the top legislative races:

1. House District 18

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

If there’s one race in the state that will keep candidates up late at night on Nov. 6, bet on this one. Both parties count this westside Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs district as an aberration in otherwise mostly Republican El Paso County: Democrats aim to maintain their toe hold in the region’s most liberal parts of town, while Republicans are determined to retrieve a seat they lost decades ago. Tellingly, operatives on opposing sides of the aisle credit both Lee and George with running top-notch campaigns that will determine which of the two parties’ get-out-the-vote machines can deliver.

Who won the month: George got the spotlight earlier this month when she introduced GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan at a Colorado Springs rally, but the association could turn double-edged if Democrats are successful tying her to more contentious social issues when she wants to keep the focus on fiscal policy.

HD 18 race profile:
Geography: Central and westside Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs
Active Democrats: 11,311 (31.4%)
Active Republicans: 12,034 (33.4%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 12,061 (33.5%)
Total active voters: 36,025
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 $114,903, including a $3,000 loan to himself, and George raised $141,681 through the middle of September. On Sept. 17, Lee reported $97,701 cash on hand, and George had $97,830. Total raised for this race through the middle of September: $234,027; total spent: $43,184.

2. Senate District 22

Democratic state Rep. Andy Kerr vs. Republican state Rep. Ken Summers (unchanged from last month)

Likely to go down to the wire on election night, this Jefferson County race features the most evenly matched opponents in the state. Both Kerr and Summers have spent three terms representing these neighborhoods in the House, and both know what it takes to turn out every one of their voters.

Who won the month: Kerr has blasted past an early fundraising lead by Summers, who is facing scathing attacks on TV and in the mail over hot-button positions opponents describe as too extreme for this middle-of-the-road district.

SD 22 race profile:
Geography: Central Lakewood stretching south to parts of Ken Caryl
Active Democrats: 22,385 (32.2%)
Active Republicans: 24,262 (34.9%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 22,280 (32.0%)
Total active voters: 69,543
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 $138,133 and Summers raised $96,520 through the middle of September. On Sept. 17, Kerr reported $70,265 cash on hand, and Summers had $82,302. Total raised for this race through the middle of September: $236,191; total spent: $83,623.

3. House District 59

Incumbent Republican state Rep. J. Paul Brown vs. Democratic challenger Michael McLachlan (up from No. 4 last month)

This sprawling southwestern Colorado district has plenty of Republicans, but in presidential years the unaffiliated voters tend to lean toward Democrats, making this an unexpected swing seat.

Who won the month: Brown has been stockpiling plenty of cash and is taking McLachlan’s challenge seriously, but Democrats are licking their chops at the chance to attack the rancher on positions they tout as out of step with a less reliably conservative district.

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: 11,866 (30.0%)
Active Republicans: 15,200 (38.4%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,981 (30.3%)
Total active voters: 39,544
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 $92,679 and McLachlan raised $107,628, including a $1,000 loan to himself, through the middle of September. On Sept. 17, Brown reported $84,401 cash on hand, and McLachlan had $70,529.31. Total raised for this race through the middle of September: $199,144; total spent: $48,590.

4. Senate District 19

Incumbent Democratic state Sen. Evie Hudak vs. Republican challenger Lang Sias (up from No. 10 last month)

Viewers in this northwest-suburban district are among the few in the state to be subjected already to heavy TV advertising: a third-party ad swings hard at Hudak on several cable channels, repeating attacks that came up short when she first won the seat in 2008. It’s a sign Republicans view this swing seat as essential to their over-all turnout picture, including driving votes up and down the ticket for the presidential, congressional and state House races that could be decided by these Arvada voters.

Who won the month: While outside groups are already spending heavily in this race — dumping an estimated $70,000 a week into anti-Hudak TV ads, on top of enough fliers to choke a mailbox — Hudak’s nearly two-to-one fundraising dominance gives her the edge.

SD 19 race profile:
Geography: Westminster and Arvada in northern Jefferson County
Active Democrats: 22,408 (31.6%)
Active Republicans: 24,740 (34.9%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 23,166 (32.7%)
Total active voters: 70,943
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 $174,772 and Sias raised $89,653 through the middle of September. On Sept. 17, Hudak had $100,311 cash on hand, and Sias had $63,230. Total raised for this race through the middle of September: $258,519; total spent: $95,201.

5. House District 47

Republican Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff vs. Democrat Netto “Chuck” Rodosevich (unchanged from last month)

Among the most independent-minded districts in the state, this southern Colorado seat counts more Democrats than Republicans among active voters but tends to vote a decidedly more GOP ticket. This is another race that should come down to the wire, relying on the winning candidate’s ability to chase ballots across difficult terrain.

Who won the month: Rodosevich maintains a fundraising edge, though not as overwhelming as he held over the summer.

HD 47 race profile:
Geography: Eastern Fremont County, northern and eastern Pueblo County and Otero County
Active Democrats: 12,838 (37.8%)
Active Republicans: 12,064 (35.5%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 8,840 (26.0%)
Total active voters: 33,962
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 $38,478 and Rodosevich raised $64,025, including a $525 loan to himself, through the middle of September. On Sept. 17, Navarro-Ratzlaff reported $17,075 cash on hand, and Rodosevich had $42,371. (Rodosevich’s totals reflect the repayment of $500 in loans to himself.) Total raised for this race through the middle of September: $103,054.; total spent: $43,608.

6. House District 3

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

This is the one race that both sides argue has turned less competitive in the past month, though Republicans and Democrats make competing claims that it’s their candidate who has pulled ahead by a substantial margin. We agree that this south-suburban seat probably will swing one way or the other when votes are counted, most likely mirroring the statewide presidential vote. As spending in this district reaches the stratosphere — nearly twice as many dollars have been poured into this contest than any other in the state — both candidates will be able to say they haven’t left any votes on the table.

Who won the month: In addition to his cash-on-hand advantage, Kagan benefits from a series of brutal mailers attacking Watson’s record as a businessman, though Watson is vehemently denying the charges in a district-wide mailing.

HD 3 race profile:
Geography: Northwestern Arapahoe County, covering Englewood, Cherry Hills Village, Greenwood Village and parts of Littleton
Active Democrats: 11,936 (32.0%)
Active Republicans: 13,323 (35.7%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,740 (31.4%)
Total active voters: 37,371
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 $129,889 and Watson raised $211,158 through the middle of September. On Sept. 17, Kagan reported $69,891 cash on hand, and Watson had $56,032. Total raised for this race through the middle of September: $331,868; total spent: $209,955.

7. Senate District 26

Incumbent Democratic state Sen. Linda Newell vs. Republican challenger Dave Kerber (unchanged from last month)

As mailers start to flood this south-suburban swing district, Republicans are painting Newell as a generic liberal, while Democrats are attempting to corner Kerber — a past Arapahoe County GOP chairman — as the more rigidly partisan of the two. Both candidates are hoping for a turnout boost from the solid ground games wielded by Kagan and Watson, whose house district falls inside this senate seat.

Who won the month: Though he’s been out-raised by Newell, Kerber is stockpiling his funds and could come on strong right as voters start receiving ballots.

SD 26 race profile:
Geography: Englewood, Littleton and a meandering stretch of Arapahoe County including parts of Aurora, Foxfield and Centennial
Active Democrats: 22,730 (32.7%)
Active Republicans: 24,613 (35.4%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 21,519 (31.0%)
Total active voters: 69,514
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 $154,733 and Kerber raised $113,367, including a $15,000 loan to himself and the nearly $20,000 non-monetary contribution of mailings by the state Republican Party, through the middle of September. On Sept. 17, Newell reported $38,799 cash on hand, and Kerber had $77,661. Total raised for this race through the middle of September: $246,722; total spent: $128,125.

8. Senate District 35

Republican Larry Crowder vs. Democrat Crestina Martinez (down from No. 6 last month)

Alone among the most contested Senate contests this year, this district’s voters are almost certain to tilt toward Romney — it’s a solid toss-up in the other three races — presenting a steeper climb for Martinez despite a slight Democratic advantage among active registered voters.

Who won the month: Martinez continues to outpace Crowder in fundraising, drawing attention far beyond the confines of this sprawling seat.

SD 35 race profile:
Geography: South and southeastern Colorado covering 16 counties, with residents concentrated in Pueblo, Las Animas and Otero counties
Active Democrats: 24,399 (39.6%)
Active Republicans: 23,801 (38.6%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 13,049 (21.2%)
Total active voters: 61,656
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 $49,983 and Martinez raised $78,172 through the middle of September. On Sept. 17, Crowder reported $25,035 cash on hand, and Martinez had $30,385. Total raised for this race through the middle of September: $136,632; total spent: $82,499.

9. House District 17

Incumbent Republican state Rep. Mark Barker vs. Democratic challenger Tony Exum (down from No. 8 last month)

Traditionally one of the toughest electorates to peg — its unusually high turnover accounts for a voting pool about half the size of most house seats — this district gives Democrats an opportunity to retake an El Paso County seat that’s seesawed between parties twice in the last two elections.

Who won the month: Exum has not only continued to out-raise Barker but is building a nearly two-to-one cash-on-hand advantage moving into the final month of the campaign.

HD 17 race profile:
Geography: South-central Colorado Springs
Active Democrats: 6,582 (33.4%)
Active Republicans: 6,386 (32.4%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 6,443 (32.7%)
Total active voters: 19,692
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 $42,916 and Exum raised $67,011 through the middle of September. On Sept. 17, Barker reported $28,723 cash on hand, and Exum had $48,212. (Barker’s totals reflect paying off a prior election’s campaign debt and an old loan to himself.) Total raised for this race through the middle of September: $115,845; total spent: $31,071.

10. House District 29

Incumbent Republican state Rep. Robert Ramirez vs. Democratic challenger Tracy Kraft-Tharp (returning to the list after dropping off last month)

This toss-up district returns to the list this month after Ramirez — who considered a run against Hudak earlier this year but stepped back to let Sias have at it — posted some strong fundraising numbers and vows he’s in it to win it. Two years ago, this was the contest that handed control of the House to the GOP, and it’s still a top-targeted race by any measure, though few think it will wind up as close as the 197-vote margin that propelled Ramirez into office in a Republican wave election.

Who won the month: Kraft-Tharp sailed past the $100,000 mark in fundraising this month, though Ramirez is starting to catch up after a slow start earlier this summer.

HD 29 race profile:
Geography: Eastern neighborhoods of Westminster and Arvada
Active Democrats: 11,706 (33.2%)
Active Republicans: 11,389 (32.3%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,871 (33.6%)
Total active voters: 35,301
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 $68,806 and Kraft-Tharp raised $112,196. through the middle of September. On Sept. 17, Ramirez reported $39,027 cash on hand, and Kraft-Tharp had $59,624. Total raised for this race through the middle of September: $170,316; total spent: $76,870.

11. House District 23

Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Max Tyler vs. Republican challenger Rick Enstrom (up from No. 12 last month)

It’s an uphill climb for any Republican running in a district that broke for Democrats in the 2010 election, but Enstrom is giving Tyler a run for his money. Third-party TV ads on near continuous rotation on some cable channels are attempting to paint an unsavory picture of Tyler, who referred to schoolchildren as “maggots and worms,” but Democrats counter that the same attack fell short two years ago and is unlikely to gain traction in a presidential year.

Who won the month: Enstrom benefits from the heavy advertising aimed at his opponent, though Democrats report an upsurge in volunteers and small-dollar donations by Tyler fans angered by the attack ad.

HD 23 race profile:
Geography: Central Lakewood
Active Democrats: 13,335 (34.5%);
Active Republicans: 12,329 (31.9%);
Active Unaffiliateds: 12,569 (32.5%)
Total active voters: 38,669
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 $72,522, including a $2,120 loan to himself, and Enstrom raised $91,054, including a $5,504 loan to himself, through the middle of September. On Sept. 17, Tyler reported $41,448 cash on hand, and Enstrom had $77,502. (Tyler’s totals reflect a partial loan repayment.) Total raised for this race through the middle of September: $163,534; total spent: $45,905.

12. House District 28

Republican Amy Attwood vs. Democrat Brittany Pettersen (down from No. 11 last month)

Veteran campaigner Attwood has been doing everything right in this Lakewood district, but it’s a district that votes heavily Democratic even in Republican-wave years, ramping up the challenge to even the most stellar Republican candidate.

Who won the month: Pettersen surpassed Attwood’s fundraising this month and boasts a field operation honed in her years as an organizer for New Era Colorado.

HD 28 race profile:
Geography: South- and west-central Lakewood
Active Democrats: 12,019 (34.5%)
Active Republicans: 11,241 (32.2%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 11,300 (32.4%)
Total active voters: 34,870
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 $77,014, including a $5,000 loan to herself, and Pettersen raised $88,178, including a $400 loan to herself, through the middle of September. On Sept. 17, Attwood reported $63,154 cash on hand, and Pettersen had $46,502. (Attwood’s total reflects a partial loan repayment.) Total raised for this race through the middle of September: $176,992; total spent: $65,408.

Voter registration figures are current through the last day of August 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 Sept. 12 and reported by Sept. 17, the most recent filing deadline. Candidates are required to update their reports on Oct. 1, covering the most recent two weeks of fundraising, and will continue to 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 before the Oct 9 deadline, as both parties are conducting registration drives and work to activate voters.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com