Analysis: Colorado’s Top 10 Legislative Races to Watch

February 21, 2012

As state legislative races begin to heat up around Colorado, it’s good to remember that usually only a handful of them end up being competitive. Not to knock candidates who insist they can overcome a 30-point registration gap, but let’s be honest, most races fall off politico’s radars pretty quickly.

With the House majority, and potentially the Senate majority, in the balance this year the competitive races can have an outsized impact on the state’s politics.

As election season roars in, we’ll be updating and re-analyzing these races. Some candidates may prove better fundraisers or worse messengers than originally expected. Other races may see stronger challengers enter, or see one of the competitors fall to an unforeseen scandal.

Fundraising, as observers of state legislative races over the last couple cycles have realized, isn’t as important as it used to be. Outside groups will spend vastly more money than the candidates themselves, but fundraising is still a good measure of the support each candidate receives from their party’s donor base. It doesn’t matter as much, but it still matters.

All fundraising numbers referenced in this article refer to the latest filings from January 31, 2012, which covered fundraising up until January 25.

Most races are currently rated Toss Up as it’s early in the cycle, no public polling is available and not enough is known about each candidate to determine much either way.  At this juncture in the race, here are the Top 10 state legislative races we think will be most competitive.

1. House District 3: Brian Watson vs. Daniel Kagan: The British-accented Democratic state Representative Daniel Kagan is about to get an electoral challenge like he has never faced before. What was a safe seat in 2010 could become a nail biter in 2012. In the new district configuration, the Republican Regent candidate won in 2010 by six points, but the Democrat Treasurer Cary Kennedy won by two. Kagan is facing Republican business leader Brian Watson who was previously the Colorado GOP Finance Co-Chairman, which likely means he’ll raise substantial sums of campaign cash. Kagan’s latest fundraising report was quite light, only raising $660 in January, but that will certainly change in the near future. (Current Status: Tossup)

2. House District 28: Amy Attwood vs. Brian Carroll / Brittany Petersen: While Democrats enjoy the registration and past partisan performance edge, Republicans believe they have recruited the stronger general election candidate in Amy Attwood. Democrats Brian Carroll and Brittany Petersen will primary each other, which could deplete their resources and up their negatives, depending on how vicious the race becomes. Carroll previously dropped his primary bid against State Rep. Andy Kerr (D-Lakewood) after angering much of the Democratic Party establishment, which could give Petersen an edge in the primary. But both Carroll and Petersen are relative newcomers to the Lakewood district. Attwood, on the other hand, has walked the district for years as an aide to state Rep. Ken Summers (R-Lakewood) and has already raised nearly $14,000 according to the latest campaign finance filings. Even liberal blog JeffCo Pols acknowledges Attwood currently has the upper hand in the race. This race will be heavily influenced by the eventual GOP Presidential nominee. (Current Status: Lean GOP)

3. Senate District 19: Lang Sias vs. Evie Hudak: The best sign this race is a big target? There have already been TV ads assailing incumbent Senator Evie Hudak for her support for the $3 billion tax hike Prop 103. Sias presents a strong challenge to the incumbent, with a Congressional race under his belt and experience running John McCain’s veterans coalition in the 2008 Presidential election. Both candidates are expected to raise significant sums of money — Hudak has already raised $58,000. As Senator Hudak has never hid her support from any tax hike, this race will present a clear contrast on government spending. US Senator Michael Bennet won the district by 3 points in 2010, but Republican Regent Steve Bosley cleaned up with a 7-point victory. This district is likely to see some of the highest outside group spending, though that doesn’t necessarily worry Hudak. She won a tough race in 2008, with plenty of outside spending influence and nasty attacks, against now state Rep Libby Szabo (R-Arvada) and will likely not go down without a fight. (Current Status: Tossup)

4. Senate District 22: Ken Summers vs Andy Kerr: This will be one of the most watched legislative races in the state because it pits two House incumbents, and their voting records, against each other. Both are expected to fight hard for the seat. Summers currently holds the advantage as he has a nearly 3:1 cash on hand advantage, with approximately $54,000 to Kerr’s $19,000. Kerr is also the lead plaintiff on a lawsuit over TABOR and GOP operatives are licking their chops over the attack pieces that could create. But Kerr was almost elected House Minority Leader in 2011, so he is a high ranking member of the Democrat’s caucus. When Brian Carroll, now running for HD28, originally ran against Kerr, the Democrat establishment came out forcefully for Kerr, making clear he will have the full weight of the party behind him in his bid for the Senate. The district has about the same partisan performance history as HD3 – it’s a tossup. (Current Status: Tossup)

5. Senate District 26: Dave Kerber vs. Linda Newell: This district has a very similar profile to SD22, with Michael Bennet winning the district, but Republican CU Regent Steve Bosley winning by very nearly the same margin. Kerber is the former Arapahoe County GOP Chairman and lost to conservative Democrat state Rep. Joe Rice in 2008 in the HD38 race. Kerber raised $15,000 in January, but has to compete with the $27,000 that Newell has on hand. She has a high burn rate though, having raised $71,000 this cycle but spending $43,000 already (including expenditures like $742 on a 32GB wifi iPad in 2011). Newell’s race in 2008 was one of the tightest in the state, with Newell beating Lauri Clapp by less than 100 votes. The district had a higher Republican registration advantage in 2008, when the GOP had a five point lead, which is now virtually even, though the district in its current configuration saw a two point GOP registration increase from 2008 to 2010. As Newell was a supporter of Prop 103, outside conservative groups are expected to hit her hard in direct mail and on TV. Kerber can expect the same from the Democrats’ outside groups. (Current Status: Tossup)

6. House District 19 (GOP primary) Marsha Looper vs Amy Stephens: By far the nastiest and most hard fought primary so far this season, the HD19 race is sure to earn plenty of ink, and already has. Both sides have fired nasty attacks at other, describing the other as liberal on topics from immigration to healthcare. As liberal is a dirty word in El Paso GOP primaries, the question is who will get the label to stick. Majority Leader Stephens has to contend with the weight of SB200, the healthcare exchange bill derisively labeled as “Amycare” by opponents. But Stephens is no political lightweight. Her team is blasting out regular opposition research dumps on Looper and as of January 31 had raised $47,700 to Looper’s $10,600. This race is already at full throttle, as the February 7 GOP precinct caucuses selected delegates who will vote at the HD19 assembly on April 21. (Current Status: Tossup)

7. House District 40: Cindy Acree vs. Travis Grant: Much as Rep. Kagan saw his district go from safe to toss up, state Rep. Cindy Acree (R-Aurora) found herself in a tough race after reapportionment, losing the conservative Elbert County portion of her district. As Acree is from Aurora and the district became more Arapahoe County-centric, she still retains home field advantage. Grant, also from Aurora, filed for the race on January 4, but reported not raising a single dime before January 25. It is not known how much he might have raised since then. This race appears similar to HD28, where the Democrats have a slight advantage in terms of the partisan nature of the district, but Republicans currently have the better prepared candidate. (Current Status: Lean GOP)

8. House District 35: Brian Vande Krol vs. Cheryl Peniston: This race leans Democrat, with a slightly more favorable environment for Democrats than in HD40 or HD28. Brian Vande Krol knows the sting of competitive districts, losing his HD34 race by less than 300 votes in 2010. He earned himself some goodwill with the press in that race, blasting an outside group attack on his opponent. For the 2012 race, Vande Krol raised a respectable $4,000 before January 25, a few hundred more than Peniston did in the same time period, but Peniston currently has $20,000 on hand. Known as a hard worker in 2010, Vande Krol has another tough race on his hands. Peniston will not be easy to knock off. (Current Status: Lean Dem)

9. House District 29: Robert Ramirez vs Tracy Kraft-Tharp: This will be a tough race for the incumbent, Republican state Rep Robert Ramirez. The district was redrawn to favor Democrats during reapportionment and was won by Democrats in the US Senate races in 2008 and 2010, as well as the Democrat State Treasurer in 2010. The silver lining for Ramirez is the district was taken by Republican Regent Steve Bosley in 2010 by two points. Ramirez was known for his dogged effort, walking his district multiple times in 2010, and he’ll need the same work ethic to squeeze out a victory in 2012. Tracy Kraft-Tharp is a lobbyist at the state Capitol and has brought her resources to bear in fundraising, raising $22,000 already this cycle, though like Senator Newell she has a high burn rate, having spent $10,000 already. Ramirez reported raising $18,984 by January 25. The Chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party and veteran of state legislative races, Chris Kennedy, is running Kraft-Tharp’s campaign, making clear Kraft-Tharp is playing to win. (Current Status: Lean Dem)

10. House District 23: Rick Enstrom vs. Max Tyler: This is probably the strongest Democratic district on the competitive list. US Senator Michael Bennet won the district by 11 points in 2010 and even the Democratic CU Regent candidate won it by 2 points. It’s competitive due to two reasons: Enstrom’s ability to fundraise and incumbent state Rep Max Tyler’s ability to put his foot in his mouth. Enstrom candy executive Rick Enstrom is widely expected to raise substantial sums for his race, though that has yet to happen. In the first 10 days Enstrom was in the race he reported raising nothing. Rep. Tyler has raised $22,000 for the race and has $16,000 on hand. He became infamous in 2010 when he compared school children to maggots in flour when trying to make a point about education reform. As Tyler has supported billions in new taxes, he will be hit hard by outside groups, but it will take a lot for the GOP to overcome the raw registration and partisan performance history of the district. (Current Status: Lean Dem)

CORRECTION: Due to a labeling error in the Secretary of State database, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Rep. Ramirez had not raised any money for his 2012 House re-election campaign. He has raised $18,984. We regret the error.

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