Lost amid the glare of attention focused on Colorado’s gubernatorial race and the soon-to-be open 7th district lies the Republican-leaning 3rd district seat held by freshman Rep. John Salazar (D) — one of the most attractive potential targets for House GOPers heading into the 2006 election.
Much of the political chatter in Colorado has revolved around the political future of 7th district Rep. Bob Beauprez (R), who is widely expected to run for governor in 2006, leaving behind an ultra-competitive suburban Denver seat. A handful of candidates from both parties are already weighing bids to replace him.
Scott Tipton, a pottery gallery owner and the only announced Republican in the 3rd district contest, acknowledged that “the 7th Congressional district and our governor’s race have become the front-burner items politically in the state.”
Flying under the radar suits the low-key Salazar just fine.
“I have been focusing on serving the folks of the 3rd Congressional district,” he said. “I am working real hard every day to make sure I vote for rural Colorado and rural America.”
The Republican field remains amorphous, although Tipton, a longtime party activist, appears to be the likely choice of the party establishment in Colorado and Washington, D.C.
He currently serves as the GOP chairman of the 3rd district, the same position he held last cycle. Tipton said he did not run last time because the size of the field — 11 Republican candidates were in the race at one time or another — essentially prevented his candidacy.
But he believes his willingness to pass in 2004 gives him a leg up over former state Rep. Matt Smith and former Department of Natural Resources Director Greg Walcher — who both ran unsuccessfully last cycle.
“One of my advantages now looking forward to 2006 is that I will be new blood going into this race,” Tipton said in an interview Wednesday.
Tipton is closely aligned politically with former Rep. Scott McInnis (R), who held the seat from 1992 until his retirement in 2004. Smith, too, has close connections with McInnis as the two are brothers-in-law. McInnis is currently weighing a run for governor.
If Republicans hope to topple Salazar they must avoid the sort of divisive primary that hobbled them in 2004 — a prospect that at this point seems unlikely.
Walcher, who narrowly bested Smith in the Republican primary in 2004 before losing 51 percent to 47 percent to Salazar in November, said Wednesday he is considering another race.
“I have a significant amount of money in the bank and the largest organization ever built in the district,” he bragged.
At the end of March, Walcher’s campaign committee showed $72,000 left over from his last race.
Some in the party have soured on Walcher, however, arguing that his stance on a controversial statewide water referendum and other conservative views were largely responsible for the GOP’s defeat in 2004.
Smith is firmly in that camp.
“Regrettably the party selected in the primary a candidate that couldn’t win the general election,” he said. “Republicans missed their opportunity to gain this seat.”
Smith is scheduled to meet with Colorado Republican Party Chairman Bob Martinez next week to discuss the race; he said Wednesday that he will urge Martinez to “look at doing some polling at the outset and run candidates that can win in the end.”
Smith is also awaiting word on whether he will be chosen as the lead water attorney at the Department of the Interior.
He has been pushed for that job by Salazar, who told the Rocky Mountain News in February that Smith has the “technical expertise, government experience and community respect that are essential to addressing the water concerns of rural communities.”
Smith said Wednesday that he will make no decision on his political future, which could also include a run for an open state Senate seat in the area, until he hears about the Interior job.
Salazar and Smith teamed up once before — when they both served in the state Legislature — to oppose Referendum A, a water-sharing proposal in 2003 heavily backed by Walcher and Gov. Bill Owens (R) that failed miserably in the 3rd district as well as statewide.
Aside from the still-raw wounds left from the Republican primary in 2004, the geography of the 3rd district makes it a difficult proposition to unseat an incumbent.
Covering the bulk of the Western Slope of Colorado, the district is roughly the size of the state of Florida and is divided by the Rocky Mountains, making communicating with voters a major challenge.
Seeing an opportunity, House Democrats have moved quickly to cement Salazar’s standing in the seat, naming him as one of the top 10 beneficiaries of financial largess from the Caucus as a whole.
As a result, Salazar raised a solid $196,000 in the first three months of 2005 with $167,000 on hand.
The largest X-factor in the 2006 contest is how Salazar will fare without his brother, Ken, on the ballot with him.
Republicans maintain that when Ken Salazar ran successfully for the Senate in 2004 he provided a major boost — especially on the television airwaves — to his older brother’s House campaign.
“The Salazar brothers and the confusion they created among voters was a bizarre phenomenon that is unlikely to be repeated,” said Walcher, adding that “tens of thousands” of people voted for John Salazar thinking they were voting for Ken Salazar.
John Salazar retorted that he won more votes in the 3rd than his brother did.
“I think he rode my coattails,” Salazar said.