GOP finds some cheer

Legislative results help boost battered morale

By Janet Simons
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

For national candidates John McCain, Bob Schaffer and Marilyn Musgrave, the Election Day sun set on a blue Colorado. In the state Legislature, however, GOP candidates held their own. In the Colorado House of Representatives, Republicans picked up three seats and lost one. That alone was a big boost to the GOP’s battered morale, but the fact that one of the captured seats belonged to the man expected to be the next speaker of the House was almost enough to make the rest of their troubles fade.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, everyone held their breath and waited for a final outcome in Senate District 26, where, at press time, Democrat Linda Newell was holding a sliver-thin lead over Republican Lauri Clapp. If Newell is still ahead when all of Arapahoe County’s provisional ballots are counted, the Democrats will gain one seat, giving them a 21- to 14-seat lead in the upper chamber.

Democrats held onto an open seat in the Jefferson County battleground of Senate District 19, and Republicans retained Senate District 23 in the northern metro area.

Just that Colorado Republicans weren’t swept away by the national anti-GOP tide was a minor coup, said Republican strategist Katy Atkinson.

“In Jefferson County two years ago, a Republican couldn’t have won for dog catcher,” she said. “This year, they won two county commissioner races. I think that having an ‘R’ behind your name was something of a disadvantage, but not as big a disadvantage as it had been.”

Some Democrats said it was difficult for them to pick up more seats simply because they’d picked all the low-hanging fruit in the previous two election cycles and didn’t have many remaining competitive options.

There is one thread that runs through the stories told about the 2008 campaigns by Democrats and Republicans, winners and losers. Once a seat is deemed competitive, it is targeted by the party that doesn’t hold it. And once that happens, negative advertising starts pouring in through 527 and 501(c) 4 committees.

In other words, the higher the stakes, the nastier the race.

So we present the tightest races first, judged according to the margin between winners and the losers — or, in the case of SD 26, between leader and lagger — and continue in descending order of tightness.

Colorado House of Representatives

House District 55 (Mesa County)

Republican Laura Bradford over incumbent Democrat Bernie Buescher, 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent

The House Republicans were supposed to begin their leadership caucus at 10 a.m. on the Thursday after Election Day. But a few minutes after that, Minority Leader Mike May, of Parker, announced that he would wait to convene until Laura Bradford arrived.

When Bradford came through the door a short time later, she was greeted with a standing ovation.

The unimposing first-time candidate had, after all, taken out the designated speaker of the House, one of the Dems’ most valuable players, earning enough GOP gratitude to merit at least a standing ovation.

Not that she didn’t have help in the form of attack ads against Buescher.

“Focus on the Family was toughest to deal with,” said the Grand Junction Democrat. “Someone there apparently decided that Senate Bill 200, which most people haven’t even heard of, allowed men to go into women’s bathrooms.

“It became a very serious issue,” Buescher said. “Don’t laugh. Do you think I could make this up?”

Buescher said SB 200 was a housekeeping measure to bring discrimination statutes up to date by including public accommodations, which had been left out of the original legislation.

All the negative advertising, however, didn’t come from Focus on the Family, he said.

“One guy took out a huge billboard with the message ‘BUESCHER=RITTER=HIGHER TAXES=MEN IN WOMEN’S BATHROOMS=NO MORE ENERGY JOBS.’”

The attack ads went against Bradford, too.

“Half a million dollars was spent accusing me of opposing health care,” Bradford said. “The mailers said I was against funding breast-cancer screenings, which is really terrible because I’m a breast-cancer survivor.

“But I won, so I guess it wasn’t important,” she added, noting that Mesa County’s predominate Republican registration probably was the biggest factor in her victory.

“We have a strong Republican majority in the district, and it’ll stay that way,” she said.

Buescher’s analysis was similar.

“We’ve had some history of Dem rule, but I don’t think there’s been another Democrat elected in Mesa County that I can remember. Maybe the coroner. Obama got 34 percent of the vote in Mesa County. Registration is 21,000 Republicans, 11,000 Dems and 22,000 unaffiliated.

“You know, at the end of day, I represented my district as best I can,” he said. “If citizens want a change, that’s how our constitutional republic works, and I respect that.”

House District 17 (El Paso County, southwestern Colorado Springs, Fort Carson)

Democrat Dennis Apuan over Republican Kit Roupe 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent, in an open seat being vacated by Republican Stella Garza Hicks

Kit Roupe, the losing Republican candidate for House District 17, may have hurt her chance of winning the same day she announced her candidacy.

When asked to discuss her position on abortion, here’s how she responded at the March El Paso County Republican Assembly:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not going to lie to you. I’m a pro-choice candidate. I don’t believe this is a government responsibility. This is a personal right.”

Although Roupe went on to win the nomination, defeating primary opponent Sheila Hicks, some of her supporters believe she failed to receive all the help she needed from the pro-life-leaning El Paso County Republican Party.

HD 17 resident and Republican activist Jo Mitchell says Roupe’s defeat “shook us all.” Mitchell said she thought Roupe’s pro-choice stance might have affected her party support.

“The pro-life faction is very strong here,” Mitchell said. “A lot of people promised to walk with her, and they didn’t. And I don’t think she got much money from the local Republican central committee.”

Roupe, who declined to comment for this piece, did receive last-minute help in the form of an attack mailer saying her opponent, Dennis Apuan, a former director of the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, had been a “violent, anti-war, anti-military protester.”

Roupe defended the mailer’s use of the word “violent” as accurate. The accusation, however, couldn’t be substantiated, and the resulting uproar damaged her credibility.

Apuan believes the controversy helped him win.

“I think the mailer backfired on her. I think people are tired of character assassination and negative campaigning,” he said.

“I think people just want a leader to bring the community together, and not be divisive.”

However, Apuan believes his strong grassroots support was the essential component of his win.

And Mitchell agrees, based on insight she gathered from chatting with a neighbor who’s active in the El Paso County Democratic Party.

“She told me the Apuan campaign was getting everyone out to vote,” Mitchell said. “Her son, who’s 30, voted for the first time, and she made sure her 72-year-old mother also voted.

“And the Dems also emphasized that it was important to vote a straight ticket, all the way to the bottom,” she said. “That helped convince everyone who went to vote for president to vote in the legislative race, too.”

House District 30 (Adams County)

Republican Kevin Priola over Democrat Dave Rose, 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent, in an open seat being vacated by term-limited Democrat Mary Hodge.

The race for HD 30 began with a Democratic primary, in which elementary school principal Dave Rose bested police officer Mike Nicastle for the nomination.

But even with a primary splitting the Democrats, Adams County Democratic Chair Pat Moore had been relatively confident that her party would keep the seat.

“Out of 216 precincts, roughly 23 are highly Republican,” Moore said last spring. “A Republican hasn’t won since the’80s, when Faye Fleming had it. It used to go GOP with Faye because back then the district included the southern part of Weld County, but now it’s all in Adams.”

Still, she had spotted a few storm clouds.

“It’s an open seat, and the Republicans are making sure they’re targeting open seats,” she said. “Although it’s been Democratic, the registration is roughly a third Democrat, a third Republican and a third unaffiliated. I’m sure the Republicans are planning to run as hard as they can.”

On Thursday, after standing to applaud Bradford, members of the Republican House Caucus also stood to honor the victory of Kevin Priola. In praising him, the GOP House leaders focused on his tireless work at the grassroots level.

“When you see signs for Priola next to signs for Obama on the same lawns, you know we’ve been doing the right thing,” said Minority Whip Cory Gardner.

Priola said he’d knocked on a lot of doors.

“I had the advantage because I was born and raised in the district, and I know a lot of conservative Democrats, including my father,” Priola said. “I really connected with the voters.”

Although both Denver dailies have called the race for Priola, Rose says he’s still hoping for a win.

“There are still 5,000 provisional ballots out there that have to be counted,” he said. “He has the edge, but if I get just 577 more votes, I’ll win. I’m not giving up until the final vote is counted.”

Rose ticked off several factors he thought might have weighed against him, including the primary, failing to take time off from his job as a principal in order to campaign, the GOP’s bigger budget and the tendency of presidential voters to “undervote,” checking off just the race at the top of the ticket.

Then there was negative campaigning.

Some of the mailings had been aimed at Rose.

“They said I would raise taxes and eliminate jobs,” he said. “They made fun of my name, saying although it’s Rose, I’m really a thorn.”

The headline-grabbing attack ads, however, were aimed at Priola. Both dailies ran editorials denouncing a mailer that said Priola had been the subject of a restraining order. According to the Denver Post, the mailer said “that he’s not only an ‘imminent danger,’ but a threat to judges’ future abilities to issue restraining orders.”

The restraining order, a legal ploy by a tenant who was behind in his rent, had been dismissed.

“It twisted stuff around to make it sound like I had a criminal record,” Priola said. “I think it backfired against my opponent.”

And Rose?

“I kind of think he’s right,” said Rose, when told of Priola’s thoughts on the mailer. “I wish they’d stayed positive. It backlashed on me.”

Rose credits Priola as a good candidate with a professional campaign plan that he followed well.

“He ran a good campaign,” Rose said. “If I wind up losing, my biggest regret will be that I disappointed the people who supported me. I don’t mind being disappointed, but I hate disappointing other people.

“We gave it our best.”

House District 56 (Eagle, Lake and Summit counties)

Democratic incumbent Christine Scanlan, who was appointed by a vacancy committee to fill the seat vacated by Democrat Dan Gibbs, over Republican Ali Hasan 53.4 percent to 46.6 percent.

Gloomy candidates Buescher, Roupe and Rose might want to take a clue from relentlessly cheery loser Ali Hasan. They all lost their races by less than half of Hasan’s margin, but he sees a glass that’s half full.

“First of all, I want to say that I’m very proud of my team, the campaign’s managers and the race we ran,” said the filmmaker-turned-politician. “At 28 years old, and running for office for the first time, I couldn’t have asked for a better campaign. We knocked on 20,000 doors. In the final weeks, we were standing on street corners waving signs starting at 6 a.m. We didn’t win, but I’m very proud.”

Hasan was cheered to know he was, “the highest performing Republican in all the counties we were in.”

“The only Republican who won was (Senate District 8 candidate) Al White, and we outdid him in Eagle County and district-wide,” Hasan enthused. “We outdid Schaffer and McCain. We lost by only 3 percent. If people loved Republicans just three points more, we’d have won.”

Nor was he discouraged by the 527 attack ads aimed at him.

“The 527s were vicious, slanderous and racist. They played on the fear of Muslims. They trivialized women, saying I wanted to deny them access to breast-cancer screenings. My grandmother died of breast cancer last year. A lot of women are insecure about the screenings, and when we trivialize the issue by making it political, we’re not helping the problem,” he said, almost all in one breath.

However, he said, the effect of the attack ads was only marginal.

“I’m trying to focus on the positive,” he said. “The experience gave me more faith in my party and in Colorado, and I’m very optimistic about the future.”

He said he’s going to start work on a new film project and continue pushing to build a monorail up Interstate 70 to Vail and Beaver Creek, where Hasan, a beneficiary of his father’s HMO fortune, lives.

Even his opponent appreciates Hasan’s breezy outlook.

“He really has a ton of energy. I think he ran a textbook campaign, so I think I learned something from that,” Scanlan said.

She said she’ll continue to focus on fighting the pine-beetle infestation that plagues HD 56 and much of the rest of Colorado’s mountainous terrain, and on solving I-70’s congestion problems.

“I think what we learned is that money is an important factor, but that issues trump everything in the end,” Scanlan said.

House District 40 (Arapahoe and Elbert counties)

Republican Cindy Acree over Democrat Karen Wilde, 58.8 percent to 41.2 percent, in a seat being vacated by term-limited Debbie Stafford. Stafford was elected four times as a Republican, but switched to the Democratic Party during her last year in the Legislature.

No one thought Democrat Karen Wilde had much chance of recapturing this briefly Democratic seat in such a strongly Republican district, and the contest was never targeted by either party. That’s probably what accounts for the relaxed nature of the race, which both candidates say they actually enjoyed.

Republican victor Cindy Acree served twice as Stafford’s campaign manager, and had already started preparing her own campaign when Stafford switched parties.

“Even I was surprised at the switch,” Acree said. “She had to follow her conscience, and when push came to shove, she endorsed me.”

Acree noted that Karen Wilde’s granddaughter goes to school with her children, and she credits the first-time candidate for a “friendly and very cordial campaign.”

As for negative campaigning, “There was none,” Acree said. “We strictly played it on the merits of our positions.”

Wilde also has fond campaign-trail memories.

“I thought it was a very positive experience, and I had a great time,” she said. “Although we differ on the issues, now that she’s my representative, if there’s a need, I’ll sit down and talk to her.”

Colorado Senate

Senate District 26 (Arapahoe County, one Jefferson County precinct)

Democrat Linda Newell has maintained a lead of less than 1 percent over Republican former House District 37 Rep. Lauri Clapp, and a recount is anticipated in this open seat vacated by Steve Ward, who left to make an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in the 6th Congressional District. Even if there’s no recount, results won’t be known until at least Nov. 17, by which time the Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder hopes to have received responses to phone messages and letters requesting proof of identification from more than 500 voters who failed to supply it.

Oddly, there were no nasty mailers or billboards on either side of the Senate District 26 race, which has turned to be the tightest race in the state. The only noticeable attacks came from Democrat Linda Newell, who repeatedly lambasted Republican opponent Lauri Clapp for failing to show up at any forums or debates.

“I went through the entire campaign without laying eyes her,” Newell said.

“I finally got to see her on Election Day. We were sign waving at Belleview and Broadway, and I saw people waving her signs across the street. I thought it would be nice to go over and talk to them, just to be friendly. Then someone said, ‘Look! I think that’s Lauri Clapp,’ and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re right.’

“So I went to the corner to push the button to cross the street, and they all walked away.”

Newell said the Democratic Party didn’t target the district until late in the race.

“As far as I know, the district has always been Republican,” she said. “But over the past four to six years, there’s been a steady increase in variety, and now it’s basically a third Republican, a third Democratic and a third unaffiliated. Last election, the Democrat, Jared Ingwallson, lost by only 1 percent.”

According to Newell, the Democratic Party considered targeting the district earlier, but decided to focus limited resources on districts that stood a better chance of going blue.

“Then I worked hard, and the polling looked good, and they saw I was moving up,” she said. “So they started helping me with resources.”

Newell said that even if SD 26 winds up red again, she’s proud to have demonstrated that, by nature, it’s at least purple.

“This is historic,” she said. “It’s the closest a Democrat has ever come in this district.”

There is speculation that Clapp avoided bipartisan events so her campaign could focus completely on the district’s previously omnipotent Republican base.

She believes the race eventually is going to swing her way.

“It’s been a tough year for the GOP in general,” Clapp said. “But in spite of Obama and the like, we’re going to win, which speaks volumes for how we’ve run our campaign and how hard we’ve worked. We’ve been out there campaigning, and it’s clearly showing.”

Senate District 19 (Jefferson County, Arvada, Westminster)

Democrat Evie Hudak, a member of the State Board of Education over Republican Libby Szabo, 51 percent to 49 percent in an open seat being vacated by term-limited Democrat Sue Windels. Windels won the previously Republican seat in an upset in 2000.

Negative mailings and attack ads on cable television saturated Senate District 19, but they weren’t particularly nasty, and some even had a bit of grounding in reality.

The attacks on Democrat Evie Hudak recycled GOP claims that she wasted taxpayer money by staying in luxury hotels and eating in fancy restaurants while serving on the State Board of Education. Hudak has defended that by saying that since the job required her to travel to remote corners of the state, restaurants and hotels were legitimate reimbursable expenses.

Hudak said Focus on the Family also sent a mailer claiming the help her campaign had received from liberal bankroller Tim Gill obligated her to support “a gay agenda.”

One of the attack ads aimed at Republican Libby Szabo said she had sold out to big oil, which she doesn’t understand at all, considering that her only television spot focused exclusively on development of clean power from wind, solar and natural gas, completely omitting the standard GOP “drill, baby, drill” message.

Another attack ad aimed at Szabo focused on her opposition to abortion, embryonic stem cell research and funding for Planned Parenthood.

“That one was accurate about her record, as I understand it,” Hudak noted.

It was, Szabo acknowledged. Furthermore, she says, it probably helped her more than it hurt her.

“Before Sue Windels, this district was represented by a Republican, Jim Congrove. It’s a swing district, and that ad played well for me. I didn’t see it as a negative,” Szabo said.

“It’s hard to say how much impact the negative advertising had,” she said. “I think it had some, but it’s hard to judge in a race this tight.

“I came so close, dammit,” Szabo said. “We ran a strong race and did everything we could. It was just a rough year for the GOP as a whole. If it had been a better year for the Republicans, I think I would have pulled it out.”

Hudak attributes her win to hard grassroots work.

“I walked the precincts and knocked on doors,” she said.

“I worked really hard, and I have a strong background. I represented the district on the Board of Education, and I’ve been active in Westminster and Arvada for a long time.”

Senate District 23 (Broomfield County, part of Weld County, Westminster)

Incumbent Republican Shawn Mitchell over Democratic challenger Joe Whitcomb, 53.7 percent to 46.3 percent.

Senate District 23 was heavily targeted by the Democrats and heavily defended by the Republicans. Mailers and attack ads sponsored by 527 and 501(c) 4 committees threw mud freely, whisper campaigns flourished, and the resulting trauma provided fodder for local newspapers, blogs and radio talk shows.

Democrat Joe Whitcomb took the most potentially damaging hit, when the Rocky Mountain News reported that — 13 years earlier, when he was an Army ranger stationed in Alaska — three restraining orders had been filed against him. The charges eventually were dropped.

The News reported an anonymous quote from the woman, saying she believed Whitcomb was stalking her.

Whitcomb denied that vigorously.

“I didn’t follow anybody,” he said. “This woman devastated me. I didn’t want to be anywhere near her.”

Republican Shawn Mitchell got the brunt of a 527 group mailing that said he “opposed millions of dollars of funding for the Colorado Division of Veterans Affairs and veterans’ nursing homes,” and that “he even failed to support funding for homeless and disabled veterans.”

The vote cited on the Division of Veterans Affairs was against the entire state budget, which Mitchell considered bloated. The vote on the Veterans Trust Fund took place when he was on an excused absence.

Mitchell also was on the receiving end of accusations that he wouldn’t support health programs for women and children.

In spite of all the fuss surrounding the campaign, Whitcomb and Mitchell have always been civil to one another, and they both believe the attack ads made little or no difference in the outcome of the race.

“I think if the other side hadn’t spent anything (on attack ads), the numbers would have been the same,” Mitchell said.

Said Whitcomb: “I think (the negative ads) might have had some impact, but not enough to make a difference between winning and losing.”

Nevertheless, noted Mitchell, “It’s no fun having all your friends asking why you hate women and children. My negatives are much higher than they were before the campaign. So if you can’t tolerate vicious, unfounded attacks, you’d better not run for office.”

That tone was echoed by Whitcomb, whose voice dripped with sarcasm as he noted that, “It’s always nice when they portray you as a serial stalker in big, colorful, glossy brochures.”

Both candidates also agreed that the factors that actually determined the race were grassroots work and registration numbers.

Mitchell noted that, although the GOP registration has dwindled somewhat, the district “still leans GOP — just less.”

“And I have 10 years of representing the district in the Legislature,” he said. “That’s hard to overcome.”

What’s more, he says he, “worked hard, made phone calls, littered the landscape with yard signs and put my wife’s good looks into every newspaper I could find.”

Whitcomb says he was proud of his efforts, noting that the campaign “hit every milestone except winning,” and came “as close to winning as any Democrat ever has in that area.”

“We couldn’t overcome the uphill battle in Weld County, although we came very close in Broomfield and Adams,” Whitcomb said.

Chris Bragg contributed reporting to this article.