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McInnis Mystery

Retirement Leaves ‘Em Guessing — And an Open-Seat Battle

Rep. Scott McInnis’ (R-Colo.) stunning announcement over the weekend that he would not seek a seventh term in 2004 has altered the short-term and long-term political landscape in the Centennial State, particularly in his sprawling 3rd district.

“It was a huge surprise,” said Chris Gates, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party. “Everybody assumed that Scott was going to go again.”

McInnis’ district, which covers roughly the western half of Colorado, will likely be the site of intensely competitive primaries in both parties and could be one of the most closely fought open seats of the cycle.

Already a dozen names of potential Republican contenders are being floated, along with a half-dozen Democratic names. The Democrats’ list includes Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, who is far and away the most popular Democratic politician in the state and would be the heavy favorite.

“It’s like at the beginning of the football season, trying to pick who’s going to win the Super Bowl,” said Sean Tonner, a Denver-based Republican consultant.

Meanwhile, McInnis’ own plans are also a topic of great interest. Most political observers believed McInnis would retire after one more term in Congress and run for governor in 2006, but it is now unclear whether his decision to step down earlier increases or diminishes the likelihood of a statewide run.

Adding to the intrigue, McInnis made his announcement on the eve of a Colorado state Supreme Court hearing Monday on a Democratic challenge to the new Congressional redistricting plan that Republicans pushed through the Legislature earlier this year. If the court rules in the Democrats’ favor, the 3rd could become a near tossup, with Democratic turf in Pueblo and Aspen restored to the district.

Many Democrats — and even some Republicans — believe the state’s highest court, which is dominated by Democratic appointees, will reverse the GOP redistricting plan, potentially sending the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.

McInnis did not make a formal retirement announcement, but disclosed his plans in an interview published Sunday in his hometown newspaper, the Glenwood Post Independent.

“I’ve concluded my mission,” McInnis said.

Blair Jones, a spokesman for McInnis, said Monday that his boss would hold a news conference later this week to discuss his plans at greater length — though he did not know whether it would be in Colorado or Washington, D.C. McInnis becomes the 10th Republican House incumbent to announce his retirement in 2004.

“This seat is open two years earlier than Republicans expected and it reflects a growing retention problem for House Republicans,” said Greg Speed, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the GOP is confident it can retain McInnis’ seat. Even before the lines were redrawn by the Legislature last spring, it was a district that would have given George W. Bush 54 percent of the vote in the 2000 presidential election.

“Even his old seat wasn’t that competitive,” Forti said.

But McInnis’ first race against the sitting lieutenant governor in 1992 was close, and the seat was held by moderate Democrats — including now-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) before he switched parties — for 12 of the previous 14 years.

“If we win this redistricting lawsuit, it’s a very competitive district,” Gates said.

Yet unless Salazar — the popular, two-term attorney general — enters the race, the Democrats have no obvious superstars ready to run in the 3rd. Although Salazar’s name has surfaced in discussions of possible Democratic candidates, he is considered far more likely to run for governor in 2006.

But Democrats may conclude that any Salazar is better than none. The attorney general’s older brother, freshman state Rep. John Salazar (D), is also regarded as a possible candidate for the McInnis seat. Salazar, who upset a Republican incumbent in 2002, comes from the heavily Hispanic San Luis Valley, a Democratic stronghold in the 3rd.

Also mentioned as possible Democratic candidates are former state Senate Majority Leader Bill Thiebault, who hails from Pueblo, the most populous part of the district; state Sen. Jim Isgar; University of Colorado Regent Gail Schwartz; and Bernie Buescher, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 1998.

If the court keeps the new Republican-drawn Congressional lines intact, Thiebault and Schwartz will both reside outside the district. Thiebault is highly respected and fairly well-known nevertheless.

Schwartz, like John Salazar, upset a Republican incumbent to win a six-year term on the Board of Regents in 2000. Regents in Colorado are elected by Congressional district.

No sooner did McInnis announce his plans than a dozen Republican names surfaced as possible candidates for his seat — a byproduct, GOP insiders said, of the impatience of ambitious officeholders, especially after McInnis broke his pledge to serve only four terms.

The most striking thing about the Republican list is that there is no obvious frontrunner, which is particularly noteworthy in such a diffuse, diverse district with no dominant region.

“They all are very credible people,” said one Republican insider who is intimately familiar with Colorado. “It’s such a clash of equals. They all have credibility but no one really has broad-based support.”

Among the GOP possibilities: state Rep. Gayle Berry, who is term-limited in 2004; state Sen. Ken Chlouber, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the 1st district last year; Pueblo County Sheriff Dan Corsentino; former state Sen. Gigi Dennis, who now heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Office in Denver; former state House Speaker Russ George, who now heads the state Division of Wildlife; state Rep. Mark Larson; state Rep. Gregg Rippy; state Rep. Matt Smith, who is McInnis’ brother-in-law; state House Speaker Lola Spradley; state Sen. Ron Teck; Scott Tipton, a politically active businessman from Cortez; and state Department of Natural Resources Director Greg Walcher, a onetime chief of staff to former Sen. Bill Armstrong (R).

Spradley would be considered in the top tier if she ran. But her leadership position could hamper her ability to campaign, if she has to preside over the House in Denver during next year’s legislative session while opponents are back in the district stumping.

Corsentino is a highly ambitious, media-savvy law-and-order type who wins regularly in a Democratic county.

Dennis is highly regarded and is one of the best known of the potential candidates. But she may be unwilling to give up her job with the Bush administration, for which she moved to Denver.

Walcher is also highly regarded and well-known, and headed a regional business organization on Colorado’s Western Slope after leaving Armstrong’s office. But as a member of Gov. Bill Owens’ (R) administration Walcher has been forced to defend an Owens proposal on water projects that is highly unpopular on the Western Slope.

Teck could stand out in a crowded GOP field by being the most vocal opponent of abortion rights, though he is not well-known otherwise.

Because the district is so big, candidates will have to target four or five media markets — and two of them are in New Mexico.

Meanwhile, Colorado politicians are left guessing at what McInnis’ next step might be. In an interview with the Glenwood newspaper, Kohler McInnis, the Congressman’s father, dismissed the rumor that his son will run for governor in 2006.

McInnis had been considered the early frontrunner for the 2006 gubernatorial nomination — though state Treasurer Mike Coffman (R) is likely to run, and Campbell’s name occasionally surfaces as a possible candidate for governor.

“I’m going to do something where I will get to spend more time in Colorado,” McInnis told his hometown paper.

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