WASHINGTON – What a difference an election cycle makes. Two years ago, Republicans were elbowing each other to run in Colorado's 3rd Congressional District and the party helped to raise more than $1.6 million to secure it.
Today, Democratic Rep. John Salazar is in the seat and Republican Scott Tipton is campaigning against him largely without the help of national Republicans, whose priorities now lie with securing incumbents in uncertain districts and saving money from what they say is a long shot, even in a Republican-leaning district.
"We all understand the politics involved. And what the Republican National Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee have to do, which is protect the incumbents," said Tipton, calling from the car on one of his endless treks across the 54,000-square mile district.
"We're doing the hard work and I think were getting attention of the folks in Washington," he added. "We will win this seat."
Tipton's hard-charging campaigning in a district the size of North Carolina and home of the Rocky Mountains, ranchlands, farms and open range has not gone unnoticed by the party people in Washington or Republican activists at home. The latter warns not to underestimate this Cortez business owner, who has raised more than $549,000 from mostly individual contributions.
"I absolutely think that people are underestimating him — people outside the 3rd Congressional District, that is," said Shannon Richardson, chairwoman of the La Plata County Republican Party. "Tipton is exactly what is right with the Republican Party; he's just wonderful."
But observers say he has a tough opponent in incumbent Salazar, who won the seat in 2004, 51 percent to 47 percent over Republican Greg Walcher despite a GOP advantage of about 18,000 voters. He did so while President Bush, at the top of the ticket, won the 3rd District over Sen. John Kerry 55 to 44 percent.
"[Salazar is] doing a great job. He's stayed absolutely connected with the community," said Kelly McCullar, chairwoman of the La Plata County Democratic Party. "I'm feeling really optimistic and certainly I am not the only one. We (Democrats) are going to make gains, and definitely keep this seat."
"(Salazar) is a voice of reason in Congress," said Rep. Mark Udall, R-Colo. "He is also a relentless advocate for rural communities and for veterans."
Salazar says he has remained true to his district, which is conservative but independent-minded. He points out that his family has worked and lived on the same potato ranch in San Luis Valley since the mid-1800s.
“We have some real roots. We understand the district and the problems rural communities face,” Salzar said, noting that he has worked hard to address the concerns of farmers, ranchers and small business owners in the district.
A former state lawmaker and Army veteran, he says he has also been instrumental in bringing home federal dollars for veteran services.
“Even when I was in the state Legislature, I pledged to represent the district the best way I could, and the best way to represent a district like mine — moderate to fairly conservative — is to represent everyone,” he said. “When people say I’m voting with the Republicans or voting with the Democrats, that’s not exactly right. I vote my district.”
But critics say Salazar votes more often than not with the Democratic Party, and has not been as tough on illegal immigration as he promised he would be when campaigning in 2004. Employment needs for farmers and ranchers in the 3rd District frequently are filled by illegals.
"He's apparently running away from the words he spoke," said Tipton, who opposes any guest worker plan that includes so-called hidden "amnesty" provisions that allow illegal immigrants to pay a fine and get on a path to citizenship.
Salazar notes that he voted for the House immigration reform bill, which is considered too tough by many in the Senate because it focuses on enforcement over integration. He said he does support more comprehensive legislation if and when Congress passes a bill that includes a guest worker plan. The Senate first must approve its version of an immigration reform bill and then take it to a conference with House negotiators.
“We in this country need immigrant labor,” he said, noting that he is not for “amnesty.”
“Immigration is a very emotional issues, but I do know that may of my farmers and ranchers, many from small businesses and the U.S Chamber of Commerce — they are all supporting a comprehensive immigration reform plan,” he added.
Meanwhile, Alex Burgos, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign, said the party is far from ignoring Tipton, and he believes, as do other Republicans, that the seat was lost to Salazar in 2004 only after a grueling Republican primary. Tipton has no primary opponent in the August 8 Colorado qualifier.
“When you look ahead, it's really an opportunity for Republicans to knock off a Democrat," said Burgos, who insisted that the national party does not start investing seriously in candidates until after Labor Day.
"It's roughly about three months, during which time Scott Tipton could certainly raise a lot more money and certainly get together the operation he needs to be successful in November," he said. The general midterm election is Nov. 7, nine weeks and a day after Labor Day.
Still, unlike in open seat races that the GOP is targeting across the country or in incumbent campaigns the party is reaching out to protect, no parade of high-powered politicos are traipsing through to fundraise for Tipton.
"It's an uphill battle from the start," said Bob Martinez, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. Martinez said Tipton's conservative, pro-business approach — as well as his dogged stumping throughout the district — has created good word-of-mouth buzz. "It's gotten on my radar, I will tell you that."
He said the congressman better watch out, and suggested the Democrat won in 2004 on the coattails of his brother, Ken Salazar, who won a U.S. Senate seat in the same election.
"We haven’t seen too much of Salazar," he said, "Scott could sneak up on him."
“The Democrats may pretend [Salazar] is safe, but the fact that the DCCC has him in the top tier of incumbents to protect says otherwise,” adds Tipton campaign manager Dirk Hallen.
Salazar's colleagues and supporters say he has been out in the public eye, knows the district and has been representing it just fine in the last term.
“He has really responded to the needs of this district,” said Pat Waak, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party. She said because Salazar has proven himself over the last term, the party did not think his seat was in jeopardy.
“That doesn’t mean were not putting a ground campaign together,” she added.
Tipton, on the other hand, says he doesn’t mind that his opposition may not be taking his efforts too seriously.
“I’m impassioned with what would certainly be the greatest honor of my life, to represent this district ... and make this a better place to live,” he said. “That’s what drives me and what our campaign is going be all about.”