Republicans’ quest to regain control of the U.S. House could run through Colorado’s seventh district, where redistricting and Rep. Ed Perlmutter’s retirement have thrown open the race for this longtime Democratic seat.
“If there ever was a year for Republicans to have a shot,” said former state Rep. Rob Witwer, who lives in the district, “this would be the year.”
But to get that win, even with a favorable climate nationally for Republicans, the upcoming primary could be key.
“For Republicans that means putting up the kind of candidate who can win the seventh congressional district, because the seventh is very, very competitive,” said GOP political consultant Dick Wadhams.
This competitiveness is in part due to the new boundaries from redistricting. The district’s population center remains Jefferson County, with a slice of Broomfield. But it now also includes a large swath of the mountains to the west and south, from Park and Lake counties down to Chaffee and Teller and finally to Fremont and Custer. But while these counties are generally more purple and red than the metro area, they’re also much more sparsely populated. Taken altogether, CO-7 has an almost seven-point advantage for Democrats.
There are three candidates vying for the nomination, all arguing they could be that competitive candidate this fall.
A call to duty
The way he tells it, Erik Aadland never planned on running for office. But the Republican from Pine, located on the western edge of Jefferson County has become increasingly concerned about the direction the country is headed.
“I think we have a lot of career politicians in Washington in both parties and they're not serving their constituents. So at the end of the day, I'm doing this as an act of duty and a heart of service,” he said in an interview with CPR News.
Aadland graduated from West Point and served in the Army for more than 8 years before going to work for an energy company. He left that job to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology. The first-time candidate originally entered the field for U.S. Senate, before switching to run in CO-7 late last year just before Perlmutter’s announcement.
He describes himself as a conservative Republican, but one who, if elected, would listen to everyone in this Democratic-leaning district. “I'm going to represent all the constituents of district seven, not just Republicans. I'm going to listen first. And then I'm going to consider information and vote with my conscience and not be beholden to special interests.”
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Aadland added he would break with his party when necessary. The example he gave was on spending; he’s said he would introduce a balanced budget bill if elected to Congress.
“There are a lot of Republicans who claim to be fiscal conservatives, but continue to raise the debt ceiling, continue to approve bills that are abusive in their spending,” he said.
When it came to spending, the vast majority of House Republicans in this most recent Congress did not vote to lift the debt ceiling or vote for recent spending bills, such as funding the government or the infrastructure package.
And in these hyper-partisan times, breaking with your party happens less and less frequently, and the penalties can be severe. The handful of Republicans who broke with the party on infrastructure or impeachment found themselves attacked by fellow House Republicans.
Aadland has the backing of several former and current elected officials and service members.
For the most part, Aadland hits the usual GOP talking points. He’d strengthen the southern border by building a wall, eliminate the department of education, tackle higher gas prices and inflation, and defend the 2nd Amendment. But when it comes to the issue of abortion, and in the nod to the political realities of the district, Aadland walks a fine line.
He said Roe should be overturned because the legality of abortion is a states right issue. “I don't want the federal government involved. I want the states to decide,” he said.
Colorado lawmakers this year passed a bill cementing legal access to abortion in state law, a move Aadland does not agree with. But he said he respects the legislative process.
After failing to make the ballot by petition, Aadland won the top line at the Republican assembly – usually a sign of frontrunner status. But he comes in second in another sign of campaign strength — who has the most campaign cash. Aadland has raised nearly a half-million dollars — including a $144,000 he’s loaned the campaign — and currently has just over $50,000 cash on hand. He trails well behind economist and business owner Tim Reichert.
Appealing to the middle class
Reichert jumped into the campaign a few weeks after Perlmutter announced his retirement. The millionaire from Golden is partially self-funding his run; so far he’s loaned his campaign at least a half-million dollars, while also raising several hundred thousand dollars more. He goes into the primary with more than $700,000 cash on hand.
Most of Reichert’s endorsements come from business owners, although he is listed as an “On The Radar” candidate for the NRCC, the House campaign arm.
Reichert, who emphasizes his background as an economist, is running on a platform of strengthening the middle class. His campaign declined an interview request from CPR News.
“I'm trying to find these paths to the middle class that we've been closing off for 30 years and find ways to reopen them,” he told KOA’s Ross Kaminsky last month.
To do that, Reichert has a number of proposals, from deregulation for small businesses and tax policies favoring franchises over corporate ownership to letting manufacturers set prices, not retailers, and creating a system for internet users to profit from the data companies harvest from them. To make higher education affordable, he proposes requiring colleges to unbundle their offerings, for example, allowing students to only pay for classes, but not for athletic programs or counseling. Think of it like college a la carte.
What Reichert doesn’t get into on his campaign website are some of the more controversial issues of the day — like gun policy, election security or abortion. Still, his stance on the last of those is clear.
“Every abortion is a human sacrifice,” Reichert said when accepting an award from the Catholic Charites of Denver last year. “Every abortion feeds the demonic and thereby contributes directly to the demise of the church, the demise of America, and the demise of the West.”
And in 2010 he wrote a piece for a religious journal arguing “contraception is socially damaging” and leaves women and children in particular worse off.
While Reichert has not highlighted these views in his campaign, Democrats are likely to make them an issue if he is the nominee.
Consultant Wadhams thinks it could come down to framing with voters: “If they think he’s a one-issue person who opposes abortion and is against birth control then he will have a difficult time.”
But, “if voters are convinced that he’s more concerned about those other issues they care about” — like inflation, crime or gas prices — “He can make a run at winning this thing.”
Another issue Wadhams would warn candidates to stay away from is the baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen.
It's not advice Republican Laurel Imer, who’s been in the race the longest, is interested in taking; she’s clear that she believes former President Trump won two years ago, despite no court finding credible evidence of misdeeds.
However, she said she’s not focused on relitigating the past.
“Just because I believe the election was stolen doesn't mean that I'm looking backwards,” she said in an interview with CPR News. “I'm looking forward with solutions and that's what a good Republican candidate should be doing, is understanding that there is a major problem in our electorate and we need to do something about it.”
Imer knows she is the underdog in this race. She came in second at the assembly and has far less cash on hand, with only $12,000 in the bank at the end of March. She’s a high school dropout, who is still working her day job as an administrative assistant for a financial firm while running for Congress. But she views that as an advantage.
“I think that it's time to go back to a citizen legislator, who really has the understanding of what the people who struggle every day in this country are struggling (with) — average citizens, middle-class Americans, lower-middle-class Americans.”
Like Aadland and Reichert, Imer lives in Jefferson County, the population center for this new 7th congressional district. She served as the Trump campaign’s Jefferson County chair in 2016 and was picked to be one of the state’s nine Electoral College voters that year (a duty she didn’t get to perform because the state was won by Hillary Clinton). And unlike the other two candidates, Imer is wholly embracing the former president and his policies in the race.
“I'm really frustrated and fed up with the attitude that somehow as a Republican, in order to win, you have to move to the middle and appease and appeal. And I think that that's where we've lost for decades,” she said. “I think all it does is make us look mushy.”
Whichever candidate makes it to the general, they all share one hurdle: they’re not known quantities — at least politically. None have held elected office before. And they'll be going up against Democrat Brittany Pettersen, a state senator with a legislative record and local name recognition who’s already managed to raise more than a half a million dollars for her effort.
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