Salazar-Tipton rematch a different contest

Much has changed since U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., faced off against Republican Scott Tipton in 2006.

Then, Salazar was seeking his second term, generally the most dangerous time for a House incumbent.

Then, Salazar easily outdistanced his opponent in terms of campaign cash raised and, ultimately, at the ballot box as his party took over control of the House for the first time in a dozen years.

Now, Salazar no longer is saddled by the disadvantages of being a first-termer and he can brag about being a member of the House Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful positions in the House.

But Salazar is running for all he’s worth against an opponent he vanquished once, only to see Tipton rise up with help from the same kind of anti-Washington, D.C., winds that aided Salazar originally.

Back then, in 2006, Tipton was a political unknown. He had labored in the background as a volunteer for Salazar’s predecessor, Republican Scott McInnis, for much of McInnis’ 12 years in Congress.

Then, the headwinds for the Democrats were beginning to gust, and Salazar dusted Tipton 62 percent to 38 percent.

Tipton, however, got elected in 2008 to the state Legislature, and now is challenging Salazar as a state legislator, the same perch from which Salazar ran in 2004.

Some of the political terrain of the 3rd District has shifted slightly in Salazar’s favor since 2006.

The district, which encompasses some of Colorado’s highest peaks and driest deserts, and croplands of corn, beans, potatoes and other high-elevation foodstuffs, has long been characterized by a slight Republican advantage among registered voters, but that ground has shifted slightly in Salazar’s direction since 2006.

The district’s 160,000 registered Republicans grew to 168,000 over the past four years, but the ranks of Democrats grew more, from 141,000 in 2006 to 152,000 as of Sept. 1. Unaffiliated voters increased during the period from 136,000 to 149,000.

In all, that means a 20,000-vote registration advantage that Republicans enjoyed over Democrats four years ago has shrunk to 15,000.

The 3rd Congressional District, however, has defied partisan identification — Democrat Ben Nighthorse Campbell preceded McInnis’ run in Congress.

The contest marks the first time in the modern political era that there has been a rematch for a seat in the House of Representatives from Colorado, pollster and political observer Floyd Ciruli said.

Ciruli, a native of Pueblo, the largest city in the 3rd District, heads Ciruli and Associates in Denver.

To Ciruli, the race looks like a kind of role reversal in which Salazar is running as a challenger and Tipton as an incumbent.

Early name-calling

Salazar has put his campaign in attack mode, picking up a theme he used last time around, criticizing Tipton in a 2006 debate for his service on the board of Zion Bancorp. This campaign, he attacked Tipton for serving on the board of VectraBank, which is a subsidiary of Zion. Zion Bancorp received bailout money in 2008, three years after Tipton left the VectraBank board.

Tipton called the attack questionable and noted that Salazar also has served on the board of a financial institution, a Monte Vista credit union.

Name-calling early on became a part of the contest.

Tipton’s campaign has dubbed the incumbent “No Show Salazar” to highlight Salazar’s failure to conduct town hall meetings, especially on health care legislation, in his district.

Tipton is meeting in “town-hall” sessions around the district with voters as part of his campaign.

Salazar brags, though, that he put together the biggest town-hall meeting of them all, bringing President Obama to Central High School in Grand Junction to discuss health care.

Not to be outdone, Salazar’s campaign calls the challenger “Two-Way Tipton” to highlight the changes in Tipton’s political stances since he defeated tea party-backed candidate Bob McConnell in the August primary election.

Among them: Tipton said he incorrectly filled out a questionnaire in which he advocated returning the election of senators to the state legislatures; and his position on dismantling of the U.S. departments of education and energy.

Salazar brought on campaign staff in late August, prompting Ciruli to wonder whether Salazar realized too late that his bid for a fourth term might not go smoothly.

Financial edge

Salazar, after all, has a $1.2 million to $380,000 money advantage over Tipton, though another player, Americans for Job Security, is weighing in with $480,000 worth of anti-Salazar ads blaming Democrats for job losses.

In his first race, Salazar ran with his brother, then-Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, on the same ballot. Ken Salazar was advertising statewide and “helping to create the brand,” and John Salazar reaped the benefit, Ciruli said.

After defeating Tipton in 2006 and cruising again in 2008, Salazar this time is “very much alone,” Ciruli said. “I think he also is very, very late discovering that he had a problem.”

Salazar, Ciruli said, is “clearly a Democratic moderate” who has been unable to connect with conservatives in his district so far this election cycle and seems to be paying the price.

Tipton has painted Salazar, however, as a liberal in the mold of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with whom Salazar “votes 92.7 percent of the time.”

The statistic is drawn from an examination by The Washington Post aimed at determining how often a representative votes with the majority of his or her party.

Salazar’s 92.7 percent rank on that scale, based on 1,500 votes, places him with U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder. By that standard, he’s a less reliable vote than fellow Blue Dog Democrat Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, who gets a 97.5 percent rating.

Democrats average 92.2 percent on the ranking, Republicans 88.4 percent.

Salazar has missed 2 percent of more than 4,600 votes over his career in Congress.

Tipton is running heavily against Salazar’s record of having voted for health care legislation supported by Obama, the president’s stimulus measure and debt-ceiling increases.

Salazar, also voted against cap-and-trade legislation and has called for the yearlong extension of the Bush tax cuts.

“The fight for the tax cuts isn’t over yet,” Salazar’s campaign said. The tax-cut debate will “clearly be a major part” of the debate then and Salazar will support the one-year extension.

He passed on the opportunity to cast a vote for the tax cut this session, though, and the president might be more comfortable with a veto after the election, Tipton said Thursday.

Salazar jokes that as a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of Democrats who argue for less spending, he’ll never be a leader of the House Democrats.

National Journal and, a website that monitors voting habits of Washington, D.C., officeholders, list Salazar as a moderate, and describes him as “somewhere between a leader and a follower” among House Democrats.

Perceived missteps

Tipton has courted tea party backing since he won his primary but isn’t as conservative as many tea partiers might like, Ciruli said.

This time around, though, “It’s just a great year to have a Republican nomination out there,” Ciruli said. “Tipton just needs to execute as well as he can.”

Salazar’s campaign has seized on perceived Tipton missteps and inconsistencies.

Last week, Salazar’s campaign went after Tipton for carrying legislation he said was aimed at increasing the number of police officers in Montezuma County.

The legislation, though, was described in news reports as being intended to increase salaries for elected officials.

Tipton said Thursday the officials’ salaries hadn’t been increased and that he was responding to local officials’ requests.

Salazar spokeswoman Tara Trujillo said she didn’t know “which is scarier for Coloradans,  that as a state representative, Tipton doesn’t understand a bill he wrote and now he’s running for Congress or that he’s flip-flopped on another position.”

Salazar also has attacked Tipton, as he did last time around, with criticism about wanting to privatize Social Security and painting him as a “multimillionaire.”

Tipton owns a successful business, a pottery shop in Cortez, not far from Mesa Verde National Park .

Salazar, who raises canola and seed potatoes on the family ranch in Manassa, counts a billionaire among his closest supporters. This year, he introduced a measure that would allow William Koch, owner of Oxbow Resources and a hunting companion of Salazar, to swap land that separates two parts of his ranch near Somerset for land near Blue Mesa Reservoir and in Utah, allowing Koch to own a single, large parcel behind Paonia Reservoir.

Salazar’s grip on the district might hinge on how strong the national mood is in the coming weeks. now lists the contest as a toss-up, moving it from one that leaned Salazar’s way. Another prognosticator, The New York Times’ 538 blog, ranks it has having a 58 percent chance of flipping.

Ciruli’s theory once was that if the Republican wave was strong enough to capture 70 or 80 seats, it might claim Salazar’s.

Now, Ciruli said, “I think if the Republicans get to 50, John may be gone.”


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