House Whip Hoyer: Don’t write off Tapia in the 3rd

The Colorado Statesman

A top congressional Democrat said this week that congressional candidate Abel Tapia could surprise folks and help the party take control of the House in the fall election.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer — number two in Democratic House leadership — appeared on Tuesday at a fundraiser in Denver for Tapia, a former state legislator from Pueblo and until earlier this year the director of the Colorado Lottery.

Tapia announced in March that he was running for the 3rd Congressional District seat held by two-term Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton of Cortez, who faces an unexpected primary from tea partier David Cox, a Palisade peach farmer. The 3rd District spans 28 counties — it’s the seventh-largest in the country by area, not including states that have only one congressional district — covering the Western Slope, the San Luis Valley and Pueblo County.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland greets Colorado congressional candidate Abel Tapia at a fundraiser for the 3rd Congressional District candidate on June 3 in Denver.

Comparing Tapia’s prospects to those of another underdog who toppled a seemingly entrenched Republican incumbent, Hoyer said that no one thought U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez could take an Orange County seat from conservative Bob Dornan except Sanchez herself.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, former state Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, and former Denver Mayor and Clinton Cabinet member Federico Peña at a fundraiser for Tapia on June 3 high atop the Clock Tower Building in Denver.

“She went out there and she campaigned,” Hoyer told roughly two dozen Tapia supporters at an early morning gathering atop downtown’s scenic Clock Tower Building. “‘This is what Bob Dornan has done, this is what Bob Dornan has said, this is the consequence of Bob Dornan being in Congress.’”

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer embraces congressional candidate Abel Tapia as former state Rep. Norbert Chavez and Josh Rael applaud at a fundraiser for Tapia on June 3 in Denver.

Acknowledging that the 3rd CD isn’t a top-targeted prospect for Democrats — “We all know that, Andrew Romanoff is the target district in Colorado,” Hoyer said, referring to the Democratic challenger taking on U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in the 6th District — the top Democrat argued that, nonetheless, the party is going to have to score some upsets to take back the majority the party lost in 2010.

Former state Sen. Suzanne Williams, U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer and former state House Speaker Ruben Valdez listen as CD 3 candidate Abel Tapia explains how a Democrat can win back the seat at a Tapia fundraiser on June 3 in Denver.

“If we’re going to take back the House and change the direction that America is going in, we’re going to have to win some districts that aren’t the targeted districts,” Hoyer said. He added, “It’s not like this district is an unreachable height — this is a 48-percent district, give or take. This is that close. All we really needed was to have an extraordinarily good candidate.”

Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio visits with Connie Tapia at a fundraiser for her husband, former state Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, on June 3 in Denver. The fundraiser was headlined by House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Palacio’s former boss.
Photos by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Although few political observers believe Democrats have a shot at retaking the House majority, Hoyer sounded confident enumerating the path to victory.

“Colorado can be 1/17th of changing this country,” he said. “We only need 17 new members, Democrats, to change the negative, confrontational, divisive politics of the House of Representatives, which are led by John Boehner and Eric Cantor.”

Tapia — surrounded by Pueblo powerbrokers, including several former legislators, including former state Reps. Gil Romero and Norbert Chavez — said that he was up to the task of reclaiming the seat, which has switched between Republicans and Democrats a dozen times in its history.

“We intend to win,” a smiling Tapia said. “We never got in this to lose. We want to energize the whole ticket. We think we add value to the ticket, and I’m here to prove it.”

Tapia faces a tough climb, his supporters acknowledged, not only because it’s a slightly Republican-leaning district with a well-funded incumbent, but also because he’s only been in the race for a few months.

“It’s an uphill battle for him, this is a tough district,” Romero said, adding that Tapia would be able to run on what he called a strong record representing constituents in the district. “He has always been a champion for those that didn’t have the power to speak for himself,” he said.

We’re going to engage in all the counties,” Tapia said. “Our work has just started. I started late — everybody knows that — I have a disadvantage because I haven’t been out there like other candidates.”

The key, he said, was turning out voters in Pueblo, where he acknowledged Democrats have “had some disappointments” in recent years — last fall voters ousted a state senator in an historic recall election — and by energizing Democrats, particularly the growing Hispanic population, throughout the district.

“I need 11,000 more votes than (Democrats got in) 2010,” Tapia said. Ruefully noting that Democrat John Salazar lost the seat that year to Tipton, he said it “wasn’t a great year, but we know we have sleeping Democrats out there.”

Tipton’s campaign manager downplayed the importance of Hoyer’s endorsement and suggested that Tapia faces a steeper climb than the Democrats are acknowledging.
“We are not too concerned that Steny Hoyer is making the political fundraising rounds for liberal Democrats,” Tipton spokesman Michael Fortney told The Colorado Statesman. “Congressman Tipton has a track record of success in Congress passing bills to create jobs, protect private property rights and restore more local control to county governments. Congressman Hoyer can spend the rest of the summer out here and it won’t change the fact that 3rd District voters know Congressman Tipton and he stands up for their priorities in Congress.”

But one of Tipton’s colleagues, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, told Tapia supporters that the Democratic candidate was the real deal.

“This is a serious race now — you’ve changed the game,” Perlmutter said. “Thank you for getting in this race, because you could win this thing.”

Pointing to Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio — who worked for Hoyer before being elected to the top party position — Hoyer said that the state party’s strong backing could make the difference for Tapia.

“You’ve got an advantage by having a party chairman who doesn’t believe that any district is unwinnable if you have the right candidate, the right attitude, the right energy and we raise money,” Hoyer said.

Hoyer handed Tapia a check for $5,000 and vowed to chip in another $9,000 in the fall if Tapia is polling within single digits of Tipton.

Through the end of March, Tipton reported raising $859,943 and had $714,272 cash on hand, according to FEC filings. Tapia, who jumped in the race just before the end of the 1st Quarter reporting period, raised $39,644 and had $39,398 in the bank, although he also had $15,000 in debt. Cox didn’t make the GOP primary ballot until mid April, after the reporting period had closed, and didn’t report any campaign finance activity. Independent candidate Tisha Casida, who is also running in the 3rd District, reported raising $772 with $1,443 on hand.

The 3rd CD is one of the swingier seats in Colorado, although only in relative terms. Since the Bicentennial, only four congressional incumbents have been defeated, and half of those were from the 3rd: in 1986 Republican Mike Strang lost to Democrat Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who later switched parties after winning election to the Senate, and in 2010 Salazar lost to Tipton. (The other two incumbent losses were back to back in the 4th CD, where Democrat Betsy Markey unseated Republican U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave in 2008 only to lose the seat to U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner in the next election. Markey is running for state treasurer this year and Gardner is giving up the seat to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.)

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com

See the June 6 print edition for full photo coverage.