Open Colorado Seat Is Democrats' to Lose

A western swing district known for its independence and ability to turn recent congressional elections into eagerly awaited events will not disappoint political junkies this year, say analysts who call the 7th Congressional District race in Colorado one for Democrats to lose.

"Essentially, if the Democrats don't win this race, they don't win the House," said Floyd Ciruli, a Colorado pollster who supports Ed Perlmutter, one of the two leading Democrats vying for the chance to win the seat being vacated by two-term Republican Rep. Bob Beauprez, who is running for governor.

"This is a district where Republicans have little margin for error," said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, which puts this race in its "pure toss up" column. "That's when the national environment benefits the Democrats, in a district like this."

Ciruli and other analysts say the Democrats have the edge in the midterm election because the national mood is against the GOP and President Bush. They say the disenchantment is likely to spill over into congressional races in swing states, and Democrats see the 7th District as a choice picking in its bid to take back the House.

"We feel this is a Democratic seat," said Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak. "In addition ... folks are really feeling very strongly favorable towards Democrats in general."

But Republicans -- specifically the GOP's lead candidate to replace Beauprez, Rick O'Donnell -- say Democrats are mistakenly operating on the notion that the race will be decided on national issues and not on local themes important to this greater Denver district.

"It's the same in Colorado as it is just about everywhere else — elections won and lost on local issues," said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

He said O'Donnell is a policy expert with state-level experience in education, finance and technology and is "about as experienced a policy guy as anyone can possibly hope for ... especially in a swing district where elections tend to hinge on local pocketbook issues."

O'Donnell, now the chairman of the board of the Colorado Institute of Technology, acknowledges that the war and two years of rampant spending on Capitol Hill, a lack of global competitiveness and no effective immigration reform plan has irked the Republican base and given the GOP a black eye.

"What I sense among Republicans is that they are worried that some of their party in Washington have lost their way," said O'Donnell, who lost the 2002 GOP primary to Beauprez. "Then send a young guy like me to Washington to renew our party."

After the 2000 census, Colorado was afforded another congressional seat due to a surge in population. The 7th District, which includes three counties and most of the inner, middleclass Denver suburbs like Aurora, Golden and Lakewood, was redrawn as one-third Republican, one-third Democrat and one-third unaffiliated, though in recent years it has been trending Democrat.

This political diversity has made for some interesting contests. In 2002, Beauprez won the open seat over Democratic opponent Mike Feeley by 120 votes. In 2004, he beat Democrat Dave Thomas by 30,000 ballots. In that same year, however, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., won the 7th District by 51 to 48 percent, over Bush.

With those numbers, it's unlikely any conservative ideologues will pay a visit soon to the district, although Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., have reportedly swung by in the past to help O'Donnell raise funds. Ciruli predicted neither congressional liberals, nor Democratic lightening rods like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are going to drop by the district this summer, either.

"This is more of a maverick, independent country and the [congressional] Democrats are a mixed bag," he said.

Republicans hope the Aug. 8 primary battle, notably between former state senator Perlmutter and former state legislator Peggy Lamm will be so acrimonious and resource consuming, that the Democrats will have exhausted themselves before the big match in November.

"Those two are just going to duke it out and bloody themselves up," Collegio said.

So far, O'Donnell has no primary opponent.

"I think that's probably wishful thinking on their parts," said Lamm, who said the widespread lack of health care, a skyrocketing national debt and the war in Iraq are serious national issues that she hears voters talking about all the time.

"This administration, without having any checks and balances, has gotten us in trouble and it needs to be corrected," said Perlmutter, who adds that he gets asked about immigration, education, transportation and high gas prices on the campaign trail.

"[Voters] don't want to see more of the same and that's what they're going to get with Rick O'Donnell," he added.

Perlmutter and Lamm will join Democrat Herbert Ray Rubenstein in the primary. So far Perlmutter and Lamm have raised $706,700 and $407,460 respectively. O'Donnell raised $946,000, as of the March federal election commission filing.

Other contestants in the race are Green Party candidate David Chandler and Prohibition Party candidate John Heckman.

Rubenstein, who has raised $113,940, but only had $22,900 on hand as of the last quarter, said voters care more about getting the troops home from Iraq than his Democratic opponents are willing to concede. Perlmutter and Lamm are for gradual and immediate redeployment of troops from Iraq to the greater Persian Gulf region, respectivly. Rubenstein is offering a plan to withdrawal all troops from Iraq immediately.

"[Voters] want this war over," said Rubenstein, an author and adjunct professor of entrepreneurship Colorado State University. "It's really starting to hit home."

Chandler said that while Lamm and Perlmutter like to say they are agents for change, they have moderated their messages so much to please both ends of the political scale, that they don't seem to speak for those who really are fed up with Washington.

Chandler said he is behind bringing the troops home from Iraq immediately as well as pursuing congressional censure of President Bush for his secret domestic terrorism surveillance operations.

"They talk all around the issues. I'm for vigorous debate — not for mincing words," said Chandler, a writer, who added that if Democrats continue to ignore their "base of liberals and progressives," they "are going to lose no matter what unless they get a backbone."

But Gonzales said that in this district, the unaffiliated voters hold the key to success, and the candidates can learn from Beauprez, who was never ideological.

"This is a case where they will need those independent voters," he said.