On election night two years ago, Colorado’s 4th Congressional District went blue for the first time in decades. This year Democrat Betsy Markey is fighting hard to hold onto her seat in the face a strong Republican challenger and a lot of national interest.
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Betsy Markey hasn’t had an easy time of it this year -- national pundits have constantly rated her as one of the most threatened Democratic incumbents and some outside supporters have pulled money from her race. But Markey had to work hard to win her seat the first time and she says she was prepared to continue the fight.
Markey: "I never had any illusions that it would be an easy race again this time and I’ve been working very, very hard to be accessible, to be responsive to people in my district and to run a good campaign."
The 4th CD is split between the cities of Fort Collins, Loveland, and Greeley and the vast rural eastern plains. Candidates talk a lot about the importance of agriculture here, but these growing urban areas are what helped Markey win last time. On a recent afternoon, Markey was out meeting the some of those voters, knocking on doors in a quiet Fort Collins neighborhood.
One of the first women to open her door tells Markey she's not sure what to think about the future. She's supporting her son who lost his job in the construction industry and the economy has her worried.
This is the big hurdle Markey faces. She’s got to convince skeptical voters that the positions she’s taken for the past two years are helping move the country in the right direction. And Markey is quick to point out that those positions have not always put her on the same side as president Barack Obama.
Markey: "I voted against the president’s budget, I thought it was too big. I voted against the last extension that we did of unemployment benefits."
Markey says she couldn’t support that extension because it wasn’t paid for by cuts elsewhere in the budget. She also touts her opposition to the second round of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. But Markey has voted with Democrats on some of the administration’s biggest, and most controversial policies, including health care reform. It’s a position she defended at a debate earlier this week in Loveland.
Markey: “One thing I’ve fought for which will allow small businesses to get a 35% tax credit if they chose to cover their employees, which will allow insurance companies to write policies across state lines. I think these are very important and I think they represent the wishes of the 4th Congressional District. I’m proud of my record in Congress.”
That response brought both cheers and boos from the audience. Markey’s opponents attack her voting record as too liberal for her constituency. But Markey supporter Nancy Bryan says it’s impossible to please everyone in such a politically divided district.
Bryan: "It surprises me a little bit that some people feel they haven’t been listened to, just because she hasn’t always voted... I mean, she hasn’t always voted the way I wanted her to either. But I know that she has paid attention to the issues and to the people."
Needless to say, Markey’s Republican opponent, state representative Cory Gardner, doesn’t feel the same way, and he told her so during the debate.
Gardner: “I wouldn’t be running for Congress if I was proud of your record.”
Instead, Gardner is pledging to try to roll back or oppose many of the policies Markey supports. He singled out things like the attempt to control emissions that contribute to climate change and legislation to make it easier for workers to unionize. Both those bills foundered in the Senate, but Gardner says just the possibility has business paralyzed with uncertainty.
Gardner: "There’s 1.8 trillion dollars of money sitting on the side lines and we’ve got to get rid of the failed health care take over, the cap-and-trade policy, a card-check bill that makes businesses more and more hesitant to create jobs in this nation."
First appointed to his seat in the state House five years ago, Garnder has worked his way up to Minority whip. Among his legislative accomplishments, he touts his role in helping to establish the Colorado Clean Energy Development Authority, which helps finance renewable energy projects, and an attempt to create a state rainy day fund. Like other Republican congressional candidates in the state, Gardner wants to take several ideas from Colorado’s government to Washington with him -- including a balanced budget amendment and a single-subject rule for legislation
Garnder: "Colorado has a single-subject requirement. The idea is about dogs, it can’t be about cats. Not quite that simple, but the idea is you have a single subject and it greatly narrows the scope of the legislation so that people can understand what it is that you’re dealing with. I think that would be a great solution in Washington, DC."
Gardner is sitting in a cavernous hall at the county fairgrounds in Akron, Colorado. Around him, supporters grab their plates and take their seats for a fundraising lunch. Akron is a small town on the Eastern plains -- the kind of place dominated by its grain elevator and railroad tracks. Gardner’s roots run deep in area; he grew up, and still lives, in Yuma, just a few miles down the road. A handful of people turn out for Gardner’s townhall here, and for some of them, like retired teacher Louise Pilcher, the concern seemed to be less what he might do in Washington, than what Washington might do to him.
Pilcher: "I am excited about the way the election is going. But the thing that concerns me is the culture in Washington. Have you thought about, how are you going to meet the culture that’s been there head on and do your part to change it?”
Gardner told Pilcher he didn't adopt "Denver" habits when he went to the state legislature, and he doesn't intend to go "Washington" if she sends him to DC. While Pilcher is supporting Gardner, she has a warning for him and other Republicans: even if you do win, watch your step.
Pilcher: "I would caution all the conservatives that we’re electing you and we’ll be watching. So if you don’t do what we want to you, you’re not going to be there very long."
While conservatives are pleased with the polls suggesting Gardner has a good shot at the seat, neither party can afford to get complacent here. Markey’s victory two years ago suggests the 4th C-D may stay a swing district for a quite while.