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,
www.cologop.org.

Colorado Democratic Party 303-623-4762,
www.coloradodems.org.

Ken Salazar’s campaign office 303-437-7307

High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...