Analysis: Colorado’s Top 10 Legislative Races to Watch

April 27, 2012
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With the legislative nominating assemblies behind us, it’s time to check in on the top 10 most competitive state legislative races in 2012.

We published the first legislative race ranking in Colorado a little over two months ago, and have since seen the Colorado Statesman produce their own Top 12 list.

Most of these races are rated as pure toss-up, and will likely remain so for much of the cycle, as there is little a legislative candidate can do this early to break through.

Many, if not most voters, will have no idea who the legislative candidates are heading into the election, especially in a Presidential year. That means the top of the ticket and overall partisan turnout will have an enormous influence on legislative races, both factors that are largely beyond of the control of individual campaigns.

A recent poll by Ciruli Associates breaking down President Obama’s approval rating by metro area county has given Republican candidates some positive news, as Obama’s approval sits at a dismal 36% in Jefferson County, host to a number of competitive races, and 42% in Arapahoe, another highly targeted county. But the general election for the presidency is just beginning, so candidates can expect those numbers to change.

Additionally, as we have seen in the last couple of cycles, the targeted legislative races generally see outside groups spending many times more than the campaigns themselves, further dwarfing the impact the candidates’ campaigns can have on their own races. That means candidate fundraising has less of an impact overall, as a single six-figure ad buy from a super PAC can erase a fundraising advantage in seconds.

That’s not to say candidate fundraising isn’t important — solid fundraising attracts outside group interest. Money begets money. It’s also a useful and ostensibly objective way for the media to handicap and cover races. Raising more than your opponent is a solid way to draw positive press, never a bad thing.

Two notes on some changes to the rankings. We have added an additional category at the end: Honorable Mention. These are races that politicos are watching with interest, but are not necessarily proving to be top targets at the moment. Some primaries are also in this category, as observers generally struggle to properly handicap legislative primaries. There aren’t useful partisan histories to analyze and turnout is nearly impossible to predict with very little contested higher level primaries this year.

There is also a note about the change in ranking from our previous list.

1. HD3 — Brian Watson (GOP) vs State Rep. Daniel Kagan (DEM) — Destined to see heavy amounts of outside group spending, this suddenly competitive district has a successful GOP businessman going up against a Democratic pol who has yet to have a competitive general election in his career. The presidential race will have an outsized impact on this race, as much of the new part of the district is in Arapahoe County, destined to be one of the hardest worked places in the state by the Romney and Obama campaigns. The district has a slight Republican lean, but if the Presidential polling starts leaning heavily in one direction that could affect this race more than anything. (Current Status: Tossup) (Unchanged)

2. HD33 (OPEN) — Dave Pigott (GOP) vs Former State Rep. Diane Primavera (DEM) — An open seat, with GOP Rep. Don Beezley stepping down after one term, this could be one of the marquee match ups that decides control of the State House. Republicans were given a huge opening after Primavera allowed a lobbyist to co-host a fundraiser for her during the legislative session, which drew an ethics complaint and a string of bad press in the local paper. State House races won’t see much press this cycle, especially with Colorado potentially set to decide the Presidency, making Primavera’s ethical mishap even more damaging. GOP strategists see Pigott as a strong recruit, but Primavera will not be easy to defeat, starting with vastly higher name ID having been the incumbent before Beezley narrowly defeated her in 2010. To boot, HD33 is one of the tightest races in partisan performance in the state. (Current Status: Tossup) (*New to list)

3. HD19 — State Rep. Marsha Looper vs House Majority Leader Amy Stephens (GOP PRIMARY) — By far the most vicious race in the state so far this cycle, these two GOP incumbents were forced into the same district after reapportionment. While in many cases where incumbents were paired together one chose to drop out, neither Stephens nor Looper are planning on going quietly into the night. Looper took top-line on the primary ballot, winning the GOP nominating assembly 52-48, but that is by no means a guarantee of victory in the primary. As Majority Leader, Stephens is raising big money in contributions and outside groups are spending significantly on her behalf as well. Looper is self-funding to a substantial degree and has been hammering Stephens for her sponsorship for the healthcare exchange bill SB200, a piece of legislation officially rebuked at the GOP State Convention by delegates. This race could break either way at this point. (Current Status: Tossup) (Up 3 spots)

4. HD28 (OPEN): Amy Attwood (GOP) vs Brittany Pettersen (DEM): This is one race where the candidates might make a real difference to the outcome. Attwood has a long history in the district, as a small business owner, former city council candidate and former aide to incumbent Rep. Ken Summers. Pettersen, who kept her primary opponent Brian Carroll off the ballot at the Democratic nominating assembly, is much less well known in the district. She has been an organizer with liberal outside group New Era Colorado, giving her some political savvy and enough insider Democratic connections to oust Carroll, but is much less known to the constituents of HD28. The district leans slightly Democratic, but the optics of a community organizer going up against a small business owning mother who has been to plenty of front doors in the district over the years presents a challenging environment for Pettersen. Like many races, the presidential race will likely overshadow the efforts of Attwood and Pettersen. (Current Status: Tossup) (*Down 2 spots)

5. SD22 (OPEN): State Rep. Ken Summers (GOP) vs State Rep. Andy Kerr (DEM): Many observers see this race favoring Summers slightly, both because of its Republican tilt and because of Summers’ storied canvassing efforts. Summers has walked his district more than anyone else in the State House and is widely respected down at the Capitol, which will make it harder for negative attacks to stick. That’s not to say a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of negative mail and TV won’t have an effect, but it will be harder than in other races. Kerr is likely to see outside groups play heavily on his behalf, ensuring this race will probably never break away for Summers, but Kerr will have his work cut out for him. This race is pivotal to the GOP, as without a win here, there is virtually no chance of taking the Senate majority. (Current Status: Lean GOP) (*Down 1 spot)

6. HD40: State Rep. Cindy Acree (GOP) vs John Buckner (DEM): Acree is in for the challenge of her career, after reapportionment drastically changed her district, stripping it of its conservative Elbert County and eastern Arapahoe County portions. Little movement has happened publicly in this race, with Buckner recently entering the race. Fundraising reports aren’t due until later in May, leaving little objective criteria to judge the strength of his candidacy. As principal at Overland High School he will start with some name ID and a reputation to build off of, but at this point, strategists on both sides see this race as key to control of the House and will probably play heavily in the race. (Current Status: Tossup) (Up 1 spot)

7. SD19: Lang Sias (GOP) vs. State Sen. Evie Hudak (DEM): A race that could very well decide control of the state Senate, both sides are preparing for massive outside onslaughts. A moderate, swing district that will be watched by Presidential and Congressional campaigns alike, Hudak has some serious vulnerabilities going into the race. With a long record of public and vociferous support for a long list of tax hikes and a few recent Denver Post editorials criticizing her for a state bidder preference bill, Republicans are hoping to paint Hudak as out of touch with the district. With a history of going Democratic towards the top of the ticket in recent years, Hudak won’t go down easily. Sias proved to be a formidable candidate in the CD7 Congressional race last year, but still has to prove his chops this cycle through fundraising and building a strong canvassing program. This race will likely come down to the wire. (Current Status: Tossup) (Down 4 spots)

8. HD18: Jennifer George (GOP) vs. State Rep. Pete Lee (DEM): New to the list this month, George has impressed outside observers with her fundraising and political chops. The district leans Democratic, and Lee defended the seat in the Republican wave year of 2010, but being a Democrat in El Paso County in a presidential year is never an enviable position. George will have her work cut out for her, but keep an eye on this race. (Current Status: Lean Dem) (*New to list)

9. HD50: Arthur “Skip” Carlson (GOP) vs. State Rep Dave Young (DEM): The most likely Democratic House seat to flip to the GOP, Young will have a tough time both because the seat leans Republican and because he hasn’t been on the ballot before. Young was appointed to the seat after Rep. Jim Riesberg became Governor Hickenlooper’s Insurance Commissioner. Carlson, who shares the same name as another GOP State House candidate in Arapahoe County, has yet to report fundraising numbers. With the seat a strong pickup opportunity for the GOP, who will need it to keep control of the House, Carlson shouldn’t struggle to raise funds. Young, to his political benefit, is a more moderate Democrat, but the partisan performance of the district will make it an uphill battle for him. (Current Status: Lean GOP) (*New to the list)

10. SD26: Dave Kerber (GOP) vs. State Sen. Linda Newell (DEM): Like Rep. Young’s seat, this Senate seat is the most likely to flip to the GOP. If Republicans can’t win this race, there is no hope at taking the Senate majority. Newell barely won her race in 2008, a banner year for Democrats in Colorado, and the district leans Republican. Despite being tagged with support of Prop 103, a proposed $3 billion tax increase, Newell has earned some positive press for her non-economic legislation. Kerber will be a tough opponent, as he has already run for the Legislature before, losing to conservative Democrat Joe Rice in 2008. Being that the race is in Arapahoe County, which the Obama campaign has said they will target heavily, the presidential race will matter greatly to the outcome. (Current Status: Lean GOP) (*Down 5 spots)

Honorable Mention:

GOP Primaries: SD23 (GOP State Rep. Glen Vaad vs Vicki Marble), SD8 (State Sen. Jean White vs. State Rep. Randy Baumgardner), & SD10 (Owen Hill vs. State Rep Larry Liston)

DEM Primaries: HD1 (State Rep. Jeanne Labuda vs. Corrie Houck) & HD41 (Jovan Melton vs. Terry Todd)

General Election: HD23 (State Rep. Max Tyler (DEM) vs. Rick Enstrom (GOP)), HD29 (State Rep. Robert Ramirez (GOP) vs. Tracy Kraft-Tharp (DEM)), & HD52 (OPEN)

Comments made by visitors are not representative of The Colorado Observer staff.

3 Responses to Analysis: Colorado’s Top 10 Legislative Races to Watch

  1. Marilyn Jean
    April 27, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Why is HD 52 considered “open”? That’s Fort Collins and, as far as I know, there is a dem (Joann Ginal) and a repub (Morain) in those slots.

    Thanks,
    M

  2. April 30, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    You forgot to list the Libertarian candidates involved in these races.

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