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MOUNTAINS: Salazar Victories Would Be Rocky Mountain High for Democrats in Republican Stronghold

Open seat: Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) is retiring
Outlook: Tossup

Campbell’s surprising retirement in March turned the political world on its head and delivered national Democrats a burst of momentum they did not relinquish until late in the summer.

State Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) led in early polling against brewing magnate Pete Coors (R), but the GOP candidate has closed the gap following his resounding Aug. 10 primary victory over former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R).

Schaffer’s attempt to portray Coors as a liberal failed miserably, as he was unable to raise the money necessary to make those claims stick.

Although Coors has made up ground, even Republicans admit that Salazar presents a unique set of challenges for them.

Unlike attorney Tom Strickland (D), who lost to Sen. Wayne Allard (R) in 1996 and again in 2002, Salazar’s political base is not in Denver but in the San Luis Valley in the rural, southern part of the state.

Salazar’s strength in Colorado’s rural areas as well as his base among Hispanic voters, who make up roughly 17 percent of the state’s population, make him a tough target for the liberal label that Republicans affixed to Strickland.

Salazar has played up his rural roots in his television advertising with an ever-present cowboy hat atop his head.

Coors’ campaign to this point has centered on painting Salazar as a career politician and a lawyer, while presenting the Republican as a job-creator and outsider to the political process.

After making an initial flirtation with contesting Colorado, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) has largely abandoned the state. A strong victory by President Bush is likely to help Coors.

The X-factor in the race is Coors’ personal wealth. He spent $400,000 from his own pocket in the primary but, as the head of the third-largest brewery in America, he presumably has unlimited resources to use on the campaign.

If Coors pours several million dollars into the race in the final weeks of the campaign, it might be difficult for Salazar to respond in kind.

Most polls show Salazar with a slight lead. That seems right.

3rd district
Open seat: Scott McInnis (R) is retiring
Outlook: Tossup

Despite the Republican tilt of this district, it appears to be one of Democrats’ best pickup chances this fall.

State Rep. John Salazar (D), brother of the Democratic Senate nominee, eliminated any serious primary competition and, as a result, has spent months building his profile in the huge Western Slope district.

Republicans on the other hand muddled through a crowded August primary with former Department of Natural Resources Director Greg Walcher (R) narrowly defeating state Rep. Matt Smith (R), the brother-in-law of the current Congressman.

Highlighting the importance of this race in the national fight for House control, it is one of only three contests in which both parties were running independent expenditure ads in mid-September.

Not surprisingly, both Salazar and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are attacking Walcher on his support for a controversial water-sharing initiative — known as Referendum A.

Walcher was one of the leading proponents of the referendum in his capacity as head of the resources agency; it failed statewide in 2003 and was defeated even more soundly in the 3rd district.

Salazar was an outspoken opponent of the referendum.

Though Salazar appears to have the momentum in this contest, Republicans clearly have a demographic edge in the district.

President Bush carried it by 15 points in 2002, and McInnis has held it easily since 1992.

Salazar has a slight edge, but even the slightest of Republican winds on Election Day could tip the seat to Walcher.

7th district
Incumbent: Bob Beauprez (R)
1st term (47 percent)
Outlook: Tossup

Beauprez’s 121-vote margin in the 2002 race made him a prime target for Democrats this cycle.

While Beauprez remains among the most endangered Republican incumbents, even Democrats acknowledge that recent developments relating to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School have hamstrung the campaign of Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas (D).

The recently released official report on the shootings and their aftermath found that Thomas and his office withheld documents relating to the crime from the families of the murdered children, prompting an outcry from the community.

The Thomas campaign was further battered when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pulled two weeks of scheduled independent expenditure ads late last month.

Given the demographics of the district, this race is still likely to be decided by a few points. Al Gore carried it 50 percent to 49 percent in 2000, and both Senate candidates are heavily targeting this tossup area.

Beauprez’s future has brightened considerably in the past two weeks, but he is not out of the woods yet.

Incumbent: Mike Crapo (R)
1st term (70 percent)
Outlook: Safe Republican

After Democrats failed to field a candidate before the state’s filing deadline, engineer Scott McClure (D) decided to wage a write-in campaign.

The engineering firm owner and veteran said he switched parties so Crapo would not be unopposed on the November ballot. He also disagrees with Crapo on numerous issues, including taxes and the environment.

Couple the daunting challenge any write-in candidate faces with Idaho’s overwhelming GOP bent and Crapo’s war chest, and McClure has a very hard road to travel.

2nd district
Incumbent: Mike Simpson (R)
3rd term (68 percent)
Outlook: Safe Republican

Both of Idaho’s Congressmen, Simpson and Rep. Butch Otter (R), are safe bets for re-election, though Simpson has drawn a tougher opponent this year.

Former state Sen. Lin Whitworth, who quit state government in frustration over the GOP’s complete lock on it, has decided to give politics one more go.

The 70-year-old retired railroad worker is working hard but trails Simpson badly in the money chase in the extremely Republican 2nd district, which includes Twin Falls and Boise.

Incumbent: Denny Rehberg (R)
2nd term (65 percent)
Outlook: Safe Republican

Rehberg is such a safe bet for re-election that it is hard to imagine he took just 51 percent of the vote his first time out in 2000.

This year, his challenger is Tracy Velazquez (D), a 40-year-old consultant to nonprofit organizations. The Harvard-educated Velazquez seems like a solid, earnest contender, but she is overmatched.

Rehberg, who many political observers believe aspires to run for Senate some day, was sitting on almost $460,000 as of June 30. Velazquez only had about $20,000 in the bank.

Incumbent: Bob Bennett (R)
2nd term (64 percent)
Outlook: Safe Republican

Despite breaking a term-limits pledge, Bennett remains popular and should have no trouble dispatching with former state Attorney General Paul Van Dam (D), who is woefully underfunded in the very Republican Beehive State.

2nd district
Incumbent: Jim Matheson (D)
2nd term (49 percent)
Outlook: Tossup

Matheson is, and probably always will be, a top GOP target as the sprawling second district is usually reliably Republican.

Matheson manages the trick of being a Democrat in solidly Republican territory by distancing himself from liberal orthodoxy and his party’s leadership.

His impressive fundraising also helps.

Matheson was sitting atop a war chest in excess of $1 million as of June 30.

Former state Rep. John Swallow, who fell just 1,600 votes short of beating Matheson in 2002, survived another bruising primary with wealthy businessman Tim Bridgewater, which played out almost exactly as their bitter 2002 primary did.

If recent polls are any indication, however, Matheson should have an easier time this year as he leads Swallow by almost 30 points.

But political observers caution putting too much stock in those numbers, however, as Matheson held substantial leads in 2002 polling only to see Swallow rapidly close the gap by Election Day.

The last poll was conducted in early September on behalf of the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV.

While the Matheson-Swallow rematch seems to be playing out just as the first contest did, a big unknown for Matheson this year is how his brother’s gubernatorial candidacy will affect his own campaign.

Scott Matheson Jr. (D), a law school dean and political neophyte, is seeking the job their father once held. Experts are not sure if Utahans will suffer Matheson overload and refuse to return Jim Matheson to Congress.

Incumbent: Barbara Cubin (R)
5th term (61 percent)
Outlook: Safe Republican

Cubin seems to already have survived her closest call in her bid for a sixth term when she won the GOP primary in August.

Cubin faced four Republican opponents, two of whom were very credible, but she still managed to capture 55 percent of the vote.

Although the Equality State elected a Democratic governor in 2002, Cubin’s November opponent, management consultant Ted Ladd (D), has his work cut out for him in a state that overwhelmingly favors Republicans on the federal level.

Cubin won re-election with 67 percent and 61 percent in 2000 and 2002, respectively.

Cubin also holds a major cash advantage.

— Chris Cillizza and Nicole Duran

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