3 Western Slope districts among hotly contested seats in Colorado House

There are anywhere from eight to a dozen legislative seats that are being targeted by the two major parties in this year’s races, depending on whom one asks.

While most of those closely contested races are on the Front Range, three are on the Western Slope.

One is House District 61, which stretches from Delta County to the Summit Valley. It’s up in the air, in part, because there are three viable candidates in the race, including former state Rep. Kathleen Curry, an unaffiliated candidate who represented the district before it was redrawn last year.

This year’s contests are being highly targeted by both parties because each sees an opportunity to take, or keep, control of the Colorado House and Senate.

Republicans have a one-vote lead in the House, while Democrats have a more comfortable five-vote majority in the Senate.

Here are some of the races that could go either way:

BIG MONEY

In House District 59, Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, is facing a stiff challenge from a well-known — and well-financed — Democrat, Michael McLachlan.

While Brown is a freshman legislator who had never served in public office before, McLachlan’s ties to political circles in the Durango area and statewide go back decades.

As the former county attorney for La Plata County, McLachlan has made many friends, including now U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

McLachlan served as the state’s solicitor general, the No. 3 person in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, when Salazar held that position nearly 15 years ago.

The race also is one of the most highly funded in the state, and possibly in the history of House races. The district has had more registered Republican voters than Democrats in recent elections, but the GOP hasn’t always held that seat.

McLachlan has raised nearly $117,000 so far, $12,000 in the past two weeks alone. Brown, meanwhile, is starting to catch up, raising more than $98,000 so far. Nearly $22,000 has come in since mid-September.

By comparison, freshman Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, has raised about $20,000, while his Democratic opponent, Dan Robinson, has nearly $17,000.

NEW MOUNTAIN DISTRICT

When the Legislature approved new legislative district lines during last year’s reapportionment, the Western Slope got a new House seat.

That is House District 26, which encompasses Eagle and Routt counties, though both candidates are from Steamboat Springs.

There, Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush is running against Republican Charles McConnell.

Though the district is evenly matched between Democrats and Republicans, with more than 10,000 voters each, there are 14,000 unaffiliated voters in the district.

Past elections, however, show they tend to vote Democratic.

In 2010, Democrat Michael Bennet easily defeated Republican Ken Buck for the U.S. Senate seat 54 percent to 40 percent, with the rest going to third-party candidates.

A similar thing happened in 2008, when Democrat Mark Udall won the district with nearly 60 percent of the vote on his way to winning a U.S. Senate seat.

ENSTROM CHALLENGE

In Jefferson County, an incumbent Democrat is trying to hold on to his seat in House District 23. He’s running against a former Grand Junction resident who has a well-known name, particularly around the Grand Valley.

That man is Rick Enstrom, the grandson of Chet Enstrom, the founder of Enstrom Candies.

The district, now held by Rep. Max Tyler, D-Golden, favors the Democrat if judged solely by voter registrations and past elections. Democrats hold a nearly 2,000-vote edge over Republicans, and Bennet won the district by 4 percentage points two years ago.

But the Democrats are worried about losing the seat, if a recent mailer they sent out attacking Enstrom for something that happened nearly 30 years ago is evidence.

The mailer highlights a 1985 summons the now 58-year-old Enstrom received on suspicion of selling drug paraphernalia at a Grand Junction record store he operated when he was in his 20s.

The charges were dismissed, but that didn’t stop the Democrats from calling Enstrom “the nose-candy man” in their campaign flier, which was sent out by a shadow Democratic committee last week.

UNSEATING INCUMBENTS

Part of the strategy for both parties is not only to win open seats, but also to unseat incumbent lawmakers.

Candidates in five of the eight races the Colorado Republican Party has included in its “trailblazer” program fit that category. That program was created to highlight GOP races that need the most attention, and the most campaign donations.

While some of those races include freshman Democrats, most are experienced legislators who find themselves not getting much help from the new reapportionment maps that redrew their districts.

■ Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Denver, represents House District 3, which now has slightly more Republicans than Democrats. Republican Brian Watson is hoping to take advantage of that.

■ A similar thing happened to Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, whose Senate District 19 now has more Republicans and unaffiliated voters than Democrats.

■ Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, is similarly situated, though her registration numbers aren’t as troubling. Still, she’s had to raise more than $175,000 to defend her seat against Republican Dave Kerber.

Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping to unseat some Republican incumbents, including Reps. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora, and Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster. Both have Democratic challengers who have outraised them in campaign contributions by many thousands of dollars.


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