Another Colorado senate race


We just finished one U.S. Senate race in Colorado, and now we face another. In the 2008 election, Democrat Mark Udall handily defeated Republican Bob Schaffer by a 52-43 margin to replace retiring Republican Wayne Allard.

But on Dec. 17, president-elect Barack Obama named Colorado's other U.S. senator, Ken Salazar, as his choice for secretary of the interior. Salazar, who was elected in 2004 after a stint as the state's attorney general, will resign from the Senate as soon as he is confirmed by the Senate, and that leaves a vacancy.

In Colorado the governor appoints someone to fill out the term until the next general election in 2010. Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, will doubtless appoint another Democrat, although he's not required to.

It's different in Wyoming. Gov. Dave Freudenthal is a Democrat, but in 2007 he had to appoint a Republican, John Barrasso, to replace Republican Sen. Craig Thomas, who died in office. The law in the Equality State requires the governor to fill a senatorial vacancy with someone of the same party; the governor picks from three names submitted by the appropriate political party's vacancy committee.

Back to Colorado. Gov. Ritter has announced he's open to email ([email protected]). Elsewhere, a lot of names have popped up.

They tend to fall into several categories. There is, for instance, "the distinguished elder statesman who can fill out the term but will not run in 2010," which includes former three-term Gov. Roy Romer (1987-1999), former two-term U.S. Sen. Gary Hart (1975-1987), and former Denver Mayor Federico Pena, who has also served as U.S. Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Energy.

But such an appointment would deprive the Democratic nominee in 2010 of the advantages of incumbency, so it's not a political winner. And Pena has taken himself out of the running.

Another group is "Democratic sitting members of Congress." Foremost among them is Ken Salazar's older brother, John, who has represented Colorado's Third Congressional District since 2005. But he just got a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, where he can swing a bigger stick than any freshman senator might. Further, the Third District is nowhere near a safe Democratic seat -- in the special election to replace John Salazar, a Republican might well win. It was, after all, represented by a Republican, Scott McInnis, from 1993 to 2005.

Another possibility is Diana DeGette of Colorado's First Congressional District, essentially Denver. It's about as safely Democratic as a seat can get -- it hasn't elected a Republican since one-termer Mike McKevitt in 1970 -- but that could be a problem for DeGette, who will be starting her seventh term.

That's because the First District is more liberal than the rest of the state, and that likely wouldn't help in a statewide run for U.S. Senate in 2010. The Republicans have the same issue with the Fifth District (centered in Colorado Springs), which is more conservative than the state. When the Republicans last ran a Fifth District congressman, Ken Kramer, for the Senate in 1986, he was defeated by "Boulder liberal" Tim Wirth.

The other sitting Democrat in Congress is Ed Perlmutter of the Seventh District in the Denver suburbs. He won re-election easily to his second term in 2008, so the seat might well stay in Democratic hands in a special election, and he could have the statewide appeal to win a Senate seat on his own in 2010.

Thanks to the nature of Colorado's TV market, many congressional candidates have some statewide recognition if they've had to advertise in a competitive race. They advertise on the Denver stations, whose signals extend statewide. Thus even in places far from the relevant congressional districts, we saw many John Salazar ads in 2004 and Ed Perlmutter ads in 2006.

But the problem with any of these three is the expense -- and possible uncertainty -- of the special election to replace a U.S. representative, as required by Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. Colorado Democrats might be just a little too tired after an exhausting (and generally successful) year to rev up this soon for another campaign.

A third category of possibilities might be characterized as "Deserving Democrats without office." One leader here is Joan Fitz-Gerald, who was president of the state senate (first woman to hold that office) before resigning to run for Congress (an open seat in the Second District because incumbent Mark Udall was running for Senate), and she lost the primary to Jared Polis, who went on to win easily -- making him Colorado's first openly gay representative.

Another such contender is Andrew Romanoff of Denver, who is stepping down as speaker of the state House of Representatives on account of term limits -- Colorado limits its legislators and governors to eight years in a given office.

There was also state Rep. Bernie Buescher of Grand Junction, in line to replace Romanoff as speaker in January -- but he failed in his bid for re-election in November. He's got a job, though; Ritter appointed him to fill out the term of Colorado's secretary of state after the resignation of Republican Mike Coffman, who ran successfully for U.S, Congress from Colorado's Sixth District.

The fourth category could be called the "Make a statement candidates." That is, Polly Baca, a veteran legislator and public official, should be appointed because she's a she and Hispanic. Or state Sen. Peter Groff because he's black, etc.

And there's a possibility with his own category: Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, now in his second term, interested in the job, and endorsed by the Denver Post, the state's largest newspaper.

Doubtless there are other possibilities -- the Democrats have a surprisingly deep bench in Colorado -- but the ideal candidate would presumably be someone who would be a strong contender in 2010, able to build name recognition and raise a lot of money for what could be a hard campaign.

If it were up to me, I'd appoint Romanoff, who can work both sides of the aisle and has a strong grasp of the big picture as well as a feel for the nuts and bolts of legislating. Though he's based in Denver, he has spoken throughout the state in support of various initiatives. And appointing him would not require a special election.

But it's not up to me, and Gov. Ritter has plenty of good candidates to choose from in this political season that never seems to end. It started with precinct caucuses on Feb. 5, 2008, ran through the Democratic National Convention last August in Denver, then Election Day on Nov. 4. And it might continue through a special congressional election in March or April of 2008. That's a long stretch of politics.

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