For all the financial resources that both national parties will expend to win the open seat in Colorado’s 3rd district, it is a natural resource — water — that may well become the defining issue of both the Republican primary and this fall’s general election.
All three top-tier Republicans played an active role last year either in support or opposition to Referendum A, a $2 billion proposal to finance water projects in the state, as did state Rep. John Salazar, the Democratic nominee for the seat.
The measure was defeated by statewide voters in 2003 and was especially unpopular in the 3rd district, which encompasses the western half of the state.
The potency of the issue in the Congressional race will get its first real test on Aug. 10, when Republican primary voters head to the ballot box to choose a nominee.
Former State Department of Natural Resources chief Greg Walcher and state Reps. Gregg Rippy and Matt Smith comprise the top tier of Republican candidates, although Pueblo County Sheriff Dan Corsentino and Navy pilot Matt Aljanich are also seeking the nomination.
Walcher was one of the leading proponents of the referendum in his capacity as head of the resources agency, while Smith — along with current Rep. Scott McInnis (R), Smith’s brother-in-law — was one of the loudest voices in opposition.
Walcher and Smith even debated one another on the issue at Club 20, a combination regional chamber of commerce and council of governments on the Western Slope that Walcher once headed.
Rippy’s record is more mixed on the issue, as he cast a procedural vote to move the referendum out of committee but campaigned against it once it went on the ballot.
“It doesn’t make for good sound bites but under the rules I felt it was a vote I had to make,” Rippy explained.
Smith is pushing his opposition to the referendum as a selling point to GOP voters, fretting that “as Republicans fight over water, it strengthens the Salazar campaign.”
Salazar campaign spokesman Jeff Bridges echoed that sentiment, arguing that “if our opponent stood against the interests of the 3rd Congressional district [on water] then we’ll talk about it a lot” in the general election. Salazar was an outspoken opponent of the referendum.
Referendum A failed 67 percent to 33 percent statewide but by an even more convincing margin in the 3rd district, where it was perceived as an attempt to take water from the Western Slope and divert it to the fast-growing Denver region.
The 3rd district seat has become one of the hot spots for the two national parties as they joust for control of the House. It is one of just 11 open seats that are expected to be competitive this fall.
McInnis has held it easily since 1992 and President Bush carried it by 15 points in 2000, but the district has a substantial Hispanic population that gives Democrats hope.
Salazar, who is Hispanic, easily won the Democratic convention in May and has watched as his potential primary challengers have dropped out of the race since then.
Walcher won the Republican convention, boosted by the support of former Sens. Bill Armstrong and Hank Brown, but Smith also received the requisite 30 percent of delegate votes to qualify for the primary.
Some Walcher allies argue that his strong showing at the convention repudiates the idea that his stance on Referendum A will hurt him.
The typical Republican convention-goer was ardently opposed to the referendum and yet gave Walcher a majority of the vote, they point out.
Rippy, Corsentino and Aljanich all skipped the convention and petitioned their way onto the ballot.
While all three top Republicans acknowledge that Referendum A will play a role in the campaign, they disagree about the extent to which it will affect voters’ ultimate choice.
Smith has placed his opposition to the referendum at the center of his campaign.
“I am the only Republican that has been on the 3rd district’s team when it comes to protecting water,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind this race will be settled on the water issue.”
Smith, whose sister is married to McInnis, said that both Walcher and Rippy avoid talking about water at their own peril.
For Walcher, Referendum A was simply one in a long line of water initiatives in the state, and he said that on the vast majority of them, he has been aligned with voters in the 3rd district.
“Walcher brings a history of fighting for Western Colorado water that these other candidates don’t bring,” said campaign manager John Marshall. “Voters are going to take a hard look at the totality of the résumés of these candidates.”
Marshall quickly pivoted, arguing that his candidate is the “one conservative running against four moderates” in the primary.
On several key social issues, Walcher has clearly staked out the most conservative ground.
He opposes abortion rights, supports a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and opposes any “footnotes” to the Second Amendment, according to Marshall.
Both Smith and Rippy are pro-abortion rights. Smith supports a ban on gay marriage; Rippy does not.
In recent days Walcher has also attacked Rippy as a “flip-flopper” on taxes.
Smith responded by describing Walcher as a “mudslinger.”
“He has thrown every issue at the other candidates that he can get his hands on,” said Smith. “He is trying to take eyes off the main issue, which is water.”
It remains unclear whether any or all of the Republican candidates will have the resources to push their messages.
Rippy appears the most likely to be well-
financed due to his personal wealth.
At the end of March, Rippy had $153,000 on hand, having given $61,000 of his own money to the effort at that point.
Walcher had $116,000 on hand at that time; Smith had not yet filed a report with the Federal Election Commission and admitted he got a “slow start” in the race.
Salazar had $157,000 on hand at the end of March.