Colorado Senate race steps into national spotlight

Democrats look to regain seat and hold the line in the U.S. Senate

  • Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, center, with Congressman Mark Udall, left, and Rutt Bridges, another Democrat who deferred to Salazar

    Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Caesar had the Ides of March; for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., March 3 is the date to beware. Nine years ago on that day, Campbell, the only American Indian in the U.S. Senate, shocked Democrats by switching his party affiliation to the GOP. This March 3, Campbell dropped a bombshell on Republicans by announcing he would not seek re-election for his Senate seat, unleashing a free-for-all on Colorado’s political landscape and sending national pundits chattering.

Since 2002, the Republicans have held a slim Senate majority of 51 seats. And before Campbell’s resignation, they were almost certain to solidify that in November: Democrats are leaving five open seats in the conservative South, while Republicans had only two open seats to defend, in Illinois and Oklahoma. Both parties also expect tight races in South Dakota and Alaska.

Then Campbell, a four-term senator currently under ethics investigation, decided not to run. Citing health problems, he gave little warning to party officials at the state or national level. "It surprised everybody," says Ted Halaby, Colorado GOP chairman. Initially, state and national Republicans looked to Gov. Bill Owens to run for the Senate seat. But after considering the run for less than a week, Owens announced he would remain in the governor’s mansion, citing family reasons and his responsibilities to the state.

At the same time, Democrats scrambled to find the ideal contender. Attorney General Ken Salazar, the only Democrat elected to a major office in the state, and U.S. Congressman Mark Udall both contemplated a run at the now-open Senate seat. Salazar and Udall, good friends who together fought off a Republican redistricting plan last year, considered a friendly battle in the Democratic primary. But within 24 hours, Udall ended the "shortest Senate campaign in history" and withdrew to endorse Salazar.

Salazar campaign chair Mike Stratton says the feel-good alliance arose from the recognition that Ken Salazar "is the best candidate the Democrats have had to run (for Senate in Colorado) in a long, long time." The Hispanic state attorney general is a fifth-generation Coloradan from a rural ranching family who has championed long-term water planning and instream-flow protection, while opposing a $2 billion dam-building referendum on last year’s ballot. He won 60 of 64 counties in his last election for attorney general, an impressive victory in a state with 180,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats.

Meanwhile, Republicans turned their attention toward six-term U.S. Congressman Scott McInnis and Lt. Gov. Jane Norton. Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief political strategist, even called McInnis several times, urging him to run. McInnis declined, as did the lieutenant governor, despite an endorsement from Owens. As one potential candidate after another stepped back from the fight, rumors flew that party officials were even courting Interior Secretary Gale Norton (who preceded Salazar as Colorado’s Attorney General) and former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway.

Now, former U.S. Congressman Bob Schaffer — a staunch conservative who refused to attend President Clinton’s State of the Union address after Congress acquitted Clinton in his impeachment trial over the Monica Lewinsky scandal — has emerged as the Republican front-runner. During his six years in Congress, Schaffer supported oil and gas drilling in national monuments and Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and voted to exempt the military from environmental laws. He left the House in 2002 after a self-imposed term-limit pledge and has since been working for a group that advocates for school vouchers.

Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, says that with few tight Senate contests around the country, Colorado will receive national attention, especially since Campbell’s retirement makes Democratic control of the Senate "mathematically possible." The race will "bring some money and resources to the state, and Bush and Kerry might spend some more time there," says Duffy. Both party nominees will also be forced to map out their positions on the energy bill and other legislation affecting the West and looming before Congress.

The author writes from Paonia, Colorado.

Colorado Republican Party 303-758-3333,

Colorado Democratic Party 303-623-4762,

Ken Salazar’s campaign office 303-437-7307

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