In What Should Have Been A Safe District, Rep. Scott Tipton Is In A Battle For His Job

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Photo: Gail Schwartz, Scott Tipton, Headshot Pair
Former Democratic state senator Gail Schwartz is challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton in Colorado's 3rd District.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton represents the poorest, least educated part of the state. It’s also the most beautiful, home to premier ski resorts and multi-million dollar estates. Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District -- from the Western Slope to Pueblo -- is full of contradictions.

Like how a Republican congressman in a conservative district is fighting to save his seat.

Incumbency has its advantages, name recognition and contributions are part of the benefit of holding a congressional seat. But Republican Scott Tipton is also part of an institution that most Americans think poorly of. The attack ads almost write themselves.

Democrat PACs, and his challenger Gail Schwartz, are slamming Tipton on the airwaves. One ad, headlined “Washington is Broken,” tells viewers about the influence oil and gas donors had on a piece of draft legislation.

For his part, Tipton argues it’s important to get input from industry on legislation that affects them -- also, the draft didn’t even become law. The fact is, not much of anything gets done in a divided and contentious Congress, as Tipton himself acknowledges.

“You know when the American people, when the people of my district, have a frustration, believe me, that is shared,” says Tipton.

A congressman for six years, Tipton has sponsored only one bill that’s become law. That was back in 2013, and it cleared the way for small hydroelectric projects.

Still, Tipton says he’s best equipped to represent Colorado’s struggling 3rd District.

“As I travel through our district, I was just in Monte Vista, Alamosa, Del Norte, stores that I used to look at had vibrant jobs and business going, now closed and ‘For Sale’ signs.”

The district, which includes big metros like Pueblo and Grand Junction, has the lowest overall education levels (only 30 percent of residents have a bachelor's degree or higher), lowest incomes (median household income is $49,885), and lowest home values (median value of owner-occupied housing units $203,200) of any of Colorado’s seven congressional districts, according to Census data.

Map: Colorado Congressional District 3 2016
Colorado's 3rd Congressional District

Ryan Call, the former chair of the Colorado Republican Party, admits it’s a “challenging district.”

Call speaks fondly of Tipton, noting that the Congressman was a small business owner for 30 years, and that Tipton was a champion of rural Colorado from his earliest days in party politics. Yet Call, and others in the party, admit that Tipton’s challenger, a former Democratic state senator, is formidable.

“Gail Schwartz is a tough competitor,” Call says. “She’s been able to raise significant resources, and a lot money coming in from out of state.”

Truth is, out of state money is flowing in on both sides. The House Majority PAC on the Democratic side and the Congressional Leadership Fund, on the Republican side have invested millions in advertising for this race.

Tipton has out-raised Schwartz in direct contributions, and though he’s been outspent by Schwartz, he has a 4-1 advantage in cash on hand as the campaign comes to a close.

Those in the GOP that worry about Gail Schwartz, say she’s been hitting the district hard, putting lots of miles on her car. One recent trip took her to a Rotary lunch and candidate forum in Steamboat Springs. Tipton sent a surrogate, and Schwartz didn’t let that go unmentioned.

“I’ve dedicated myself to showing up in communities,” Schwartz boasted to the crowd.

Photo: Gail Schwartz Campaign Stop, Steamboat Springs Rotary
Rep. Tipton's challenger, Democrat Gail Schwartz, addressing a Rotary meeting in Steamboat Springs, October 2016. Tipton did not attend, instead sending a surrogate, Chuck McConnell, who is seated next to Schwartz.

After the forum, Tipton’s absence stuck with PJ Wharton, a registered Republican.

“Yeah, I think it’s conspicuous by its absence, and I understand very busy schedules, so to me making that extra effort to be here in person is very material.”

Wharton says he cares less about party politics, and more about Congress getting stuff done.

Schwartz later said her message is one of working together for compromise, claiming that 95 percent of her bills during an eight year legislative career had bipartisan support.

“Let’s talk to other communities that have similar challenges no matter what side of the aisle, let’s find a way that we can get the support of a majority, because the people of this nation expect that,” Schwartz says.

But in a region lacking jobs and opportunity, Republicans are hammering her votes, like supporting renewable energy, as job killers for the coal industry. They’re also painting her as a ski-town elitist (she lived outside Aspen, and now lives in Crested Butte).

Ian Silverii, head of the liberal political group ProgressNow Colorado, says that criticism isn’t working. He notes the surprising endorsement of Schwartz by The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, which argued Tipton was part of the GOP obstruction in D.C.

“The Sentinel endorsement means a lot, I mean if you can make some inroads out there in Mesa County and some of those more right-leaning, like western Colorado counties, then I think that it’s super problematic for a guy like Scott Tipton.

Also problematic, is the top of the ticket. Silverii says Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s sagging poll numbers will hurt other GOP candidates.

Still, national political observers, like the Cook Political Report, believe Tipton will defend his seat, so if Schwartz wins in November it would illustrate just how big a wave year this would be for Democrats.

Read More: The Colorado Voter's Guide To The 2016 Election