Democrats dominate Colorado’s Congressional delegation right now. But Republicans have high hopes for changing that come November. One of the seats they’re eyeing is Colorado’s 3rd, which John Salazar has represented for the past three terms. But he’s fighting hard to make it back to Washington for a fourth.
Thursdays this month, Colorado Public Radio is tracking the state's most competitive Congressional races:
Oct 14 - CD7: Perlmutter vs. Frazier
Oct 21 - CD4: Markey vs Gardner
The city of Pueblo may just be the bluest part -- that is, the most Democratic part -- of the 3rd District, which sprawls down the more conservative Western slope and across Southern Colorado. But don’t tell that to the dozens of enthusiastic Republicans who rallied at their party’s Pueblo campaign center on a recent morning.
They came to greet Republican Chairman Michael Steele on his cross-country tour to win back the House.
Steele: I got a question. I get off the bus and it’s like, “Wow, you’re in Pueblo. Why are you in Pueblo?” Right here -- that’s why I’m in Pueblo. Scott Tipton’s why I’m in Pueblo.
Steele is only the most public face of how interested Republicans are nationally in this race. One outside group has already spent nearly a half-million dollars opposing incumbent John Salazar. On the surface all this the attention may seem a little strange -- after all, when Tipton first challenged Salazar four years ago, he lost by twenty-five points. But this year is a whole new ballgame. Polls have been showing many voters are angry at incumbents in general and Democrats in particular. And according to Steele, that’s enough to make Republicans think they can pick up this seat.
Steele: We’ve got to get to 39 to get a majority. And so from my perspective, how many different ways can we get to 39 has motivated our organization within the RNC of looking at these Congressional races in particular.
The Tipton of this race is also a different candidate from the political newcomer who lost four years ago. For one thing, he’s just completed a session in Colorado’s House. Among his legislative accomplishments, Tipton points to Katy’s Law -- which requires police to gather, and keep, DNA samples from felony suspects. But Tipton’s legislative record is also providing ammunition to his opponent. Salazar has hammed him on a bill to raise salaries for Montezuma county officials.
In a year when having any political experience is a negative with some voters, Tipton would rather talk about his history as a small business owner than his time in the state legislature. But he does say he’s learned a thing or two about politics.
Tiptonr: You know, when you get to Washington can you stand up to party pressure when it’s not in the best interest of your district? I’ve proven I can. You know, are you going to be able to deal with lobbyists that are coming in, pushing for their agenda when it doesn’t best reflect the interests of your district? I’ve proven that I can.
Like many in his party, Tipton is pitching himself to voters as a warrior for smaller government. He's calling for a federal balanced budget amendment, repeal of the recently enacted health care reform, and reduced federal spending overall. But in a debate in Grand Junction last month, Tipton’s focus was more on his opponent than on himself.
Tipton: We have a Congressman who voted for the failed stimulus package. A congressman who voted to better than triple the national deficit. We have a congressman who had an opportunity to fight to kill the death tax, but voted to re-up it.
For his part, Salazar is trying to peg Tipton as a flipflopper -- saying he took far-right positions to win his primary and is now trying to backpedal to more moderate ground. Salazar has seized on a May press release reported by the Durango Herald in which Tipton called for cutting the entire federal government in half.
Salazar: Do you want someone who’s vision for Colorado and America is to slash Social Security, Medicare, Veterans Affairs, the FBI, Homeland Security, border security, by fifty percent?
Tipton has backed off that position and currently calls for a 10-percent reduction to the discretionary side of the federal budget -- cuts that wouldn’t touch Defense or Social Security.
Attacking Tipton for what he’s said doesn’t take the heat off what Salazar’s done. He’s got to convince voters that Democratic policies really are reviving the economy. He argues it’s just taking a while to recover from the mistakes of the last Republican administration.
Salazar: And people need to understand that. But you know, it’s been very difficult because the economy’s been a little slow coming back. But the economy was in a ditch. And I liken it to like a person who’s gone to the hospital with a bad injury. When you get out, you’re not going to be able to run a marathon, but it’s going to take you a while to recover.
Salazar was speaking in front of the Steelworkers union hall in Pueblo, after rallying members inside for a morning of voter canvassing. It was a part of statewide effort by unions to energize their members.
Postal worker Amy Nawrocki left Salazar's speech to bang on doors in North Pueblo. Most of the union members who answered seem to be on the same page.
Nawrocki: “We definitely think that in order to keep Colorado moving forward, like I said, that we need to send John Salazar back to Congress.” Resident: “John Salazar has always been a great supporter of firefighters and he can count on my support.”
Union issues haven’t grabbed a lot of headlines in this race. But Salazar does support the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize. Business groups, and Salazar’s challenger, strongly oppose the measure.
Nawrocki says she thinks all the media coverage of Republican enthusiasm and Democratic troubles is actually helping her get-out-the-vote effort.
Nawrocki: If you were to ask anybody in Pueblo county a month and a half ago, if they thought John Salazar’s going to be in a tight race, there’s nobody who’s a registered Democrat who would’ve (sic) said, “No way, he’s gonna be fine.” But to actually have him now in this tight race and we’re getting information out, I think it is starting to stir people up, it’s starting to get them awake.
Nawrocki and her side still have a lot of work ahead of them, even in Pueblo. At a farmer’s market a few blocks away, several voters said they’re ready to try something new in Congress. Judy Read was a registered Democrat until recently. She’s taken a pay cut from the recession and is worried about illegal immigration -- two issues she feels Democrats haven’t handled well.
Read: The change we were promised turned out to be a change for the worse, I believe. So I am currently not a fan of Obama, I’m not a fan of the current houses. And I am really going to vote for a change from the change.
It will be Read, and voters like her, who Salazar will have to win back, or counter with a more loyal turnout, if he hopes to return to Washington again.