Top 12 Legislative Races approach final lap

The Colorado Statesman

Colorado voters are less than two weeks away from awarding control of the state House and Senate to one party or the other, and there has never been a more energetic — and expensive — campaign than the one waged this year, in the shadow of an equally overwhelming presidential contest for the state’s coveted nine electoral votes. Nearly two weeks after mail ballots started arriving in mailboxes, and a few days after early voting has started, the pitched battle to turn out every last voter will only intensify until the polls close on Nov. 6.

Republicans hold a slim, one-vote majority in the state House, having wrested control of the speaker’s gavel from Democrats in the last election by a 197-vote margin in one suburban seat. Democrats have a stronger hold on the Senate, with a five-vote majority. Of the 85 legislative contests on the ballot — all 65 House seats and 20 of the 35 Senate seats – these dozen races are generating the most heat, drawing the most attention, and could be the closest to call.

For the final time this election season, The Colorado Statesman has updated its ranking of the state’s Top 12 legislative races based on interviews with party strategists, campaign operatives, candidates and neutral observers.

Control of the Senate appears likely to stay in Democratic hands after the election, though the party’s margin could dwindle. Republicans would have to win every one of the state’s four competitive Senate seats — and avoid surprises elsewhere — in order to take over the chamber, a feat that appears increasingly less likely as the population of active voters becomes clear. It’s less clear in the House, where every seat is up for election and candidates are looking at a jumbled map following reapportionment.

The difference between the 2010 electorate — which sent a handful of suburban Democrats packing — and the voters lining up at the polls this year is stark. Put simply, the massive wave of Obama voters who turned the state bright blue in 2008 stayed home in droves last time around, while fired-up Republicans didn’t, but this year at least a hefty chunk of the Obama voters could be back.

A single race falls off the list this month. Despite working the central Lakewood neighborhoods hard all year, Republican Amy Attwood is looking at an even steeper climb in the Democratic-leaning House District 28 after voter-registration season ended. Her opponent for the open seat, community organizer Brittany Pettersen, is blanketing the sidewalks with hundreds of canvassers while the third-party spending tells a similar story: Outside Republican spending has lagged in this district but the third-party Democratic money hasn’t let up one bit.

By all accounts, this isn’t going to be the kind of wave election that carries along less competitive candidates in marginally swing districts — few expect either Obama or Romney to win the state by more than a couple percentage points — but there have been so many twists and turns in the past two months that anything is possible. If the state goes red in a big way, then look for the toss-up races to follow suit and don’t be surprised by squeakers from Attwood and GOP candidates Brian Vande Krol and state Rep. Cindy Acree in their otherwise Democratic-leaning districts. On the other hand, if Obama wins big, a blue tide could sweep Democrat Tim Allport into office in his race against state Rep. Libby Szabo, but the safe money is on few, if any, shockers on election night.

This is the most sliced-and-diced electorate in history, and when it comes to competitive races, the battle lines are drawn.

See below, following the rankings, for an explanation how district and race profiles were compiled, including notes on party registration, voter performance and fundraising totals.
As the election nears, here’s how things stand in the top legislative races:

1. House District 18

Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Pete Lee vs. Republican challenger Jennifer George (unchanged from last month)

This race will go down to the wire. Encompassing the more liberal, not to say quirky, parts of El Paso County, this seat could determine which party controls the House, and both sides are sparing nothing in order to claim it. Lee and George have both been scouring these streets for votes all year and have maintained a rough parity in fundraising, voter contact and establishing solid images of themselves in front of voters. Since the beginning of the year, like in most of the districts on the list, Republicans have lost an early lead among active, registered voters here, teeing up a classic voter-turnout contest.

Who won the month: Lee got up early on broadcast TV, a rarity in a state House race, and heavy outside spending has been chipping away at George’s image as a moderate on social issues and energy policy in this swing district. But no one in the state has run a more strategically effective campaign, keeping this race squarely at the top of the toss-ups.

HD 18 race profile:
Geography: Central and west-side Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs
Active Democrats: 14,032 (32.2%)
Active Republicans: 13,299 (30.5%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 15,342 (35.2%)
Total active voters: 43,562
(In February, Republicans had 34.5%, Democrats had 30.6% and unaffiliateds had 33.7% of active voters.)
Hispanic population: 13.87%

• Bennet won the current district with 51.74% to Buck’s 42.19%; Kennedy won with 53.57% to Stapleton’s 46.43%; Hart won with 48.88% to Bosley’s 45.29%
• Lee raised $147,085, including a $3,000 loan to himself, and George raised $168,289 through the middle of September. On Sept. 17, Lee reported $47,647 cash on hand, and George had $73,999. Total raised for this race through the middle of October: $289,816; total spent: $172,858.

2. Senate District 19

Incumbent Democratic state Sen. Evie Hudak vs. Republican challenger Lang Sias (up from No. 4 last month)

No incumbent has been hammered as relentlessly as Hudak, who first saw her face appear in unflattering attack ads a year ago, when Republican interests tried to soften her up by tying her to an ultimately unpopular statewide tax hike that appeared on 2011 ballots. But what looked like easy pickings for a Republican seat has stayed competitive even as the GOP fielded a star candidate, former congressional hopeful Lang Sias, who has lagged in fundraising all year despite a late infusion of cash from the state Republican Party. It was in these same northwest metro suburban neighborhoods that Democrats lost control of the House in the last election, and voters here are notoriously cantankerous, making for a tough proposition for either side.

Who won the month: It could be easier to peg who didn’t lose. This part of town has a notoriously high penetration of satellite television subscribers, to an extent curbing the effectiveness of a high-volume negative cable ad that has run against Hudak since early September.

SD 19 race profile:
Geography: Westminster and Arvada in northern Jefferson County
Active Democrats: 25,934 (31.7%)
Active Republicans: 26,784 (32.8%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 28,068 (34.3%)
Total active voters: 81,714
(In February, Republicans had 36.0%, Democrats had 31.9% and unaffiliateds had 31.5% of active voters.)
Hispanic population: 14.06%

• Bennet won the current district with 48.54% to Buck’s 45.16%; Kennedy won with 50.01% to Stapleton’s 49.99%; Bosley won with 50.16% to Hart’s 43.54%
• Hudak raised $204,292 and Sias raised $131,606, including a $19,500 in-kind donation of a mail piece by the state Republican Party, through the middle of October. On Oct. 15, Hudak had $46,291 cash on hand, and Sias had $49,287. Total raised for this race through the middle of October: $309,971; total spent: $214,617.

3. Senate District 22

Democratic state Rep. Andy Kerr vs. Republican state Rep. Ken Summers (down from No. 2 last month)

This is the only competitive race in the state featuring two incumbents — both Kerr and Summers have represented this area for three terms in the House, before finding themselves drawn into the same district after reapportionment — and the relentless doggedness of the campaign bears that out. While this Jefferson County district started the year with voter registration favoring Republicans, like a pair of Arapahoe County seats also on the list — Senate District 26 and House District 3 — it finds itself as voting begins in a statistical tie between active Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

Who won the month: Kerr continues to maintain a strong lead in fundraising, though money raised and spent by either candidate is already dwarfed by enormous outside spending. The attacks against Summers for his standing on social issues might be winning over more undecided voters than similar broadsides leveled against Kerr for his role as lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, but both are feeling the heat.

SD 22 race profile:
Geography: Central Lakewood stretching south to parts of Ken Caryl
Active Democrats: 26,418 (32.6%)
Active Republicans: 26,438 (32.6%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 27,202 (33.6%)
Total active voters: 81,013
(In February, Republicans had 36.2%, Democrats had 32.7% and unaffiliateds had 30.4% of active voters.)
Hispanic population: 22.04%

• Bennet won the current district with 49.41% to Buck’s 44.89%; Kennedy won with 50.88% to Stapleton’s 49.12%; Bosley won with 49.52% to Hart’s 44.74%
• Kerr raised $172,540 and Summers raised $119,284 through the middle of October. On Oct. 15, Kerr reported $49,388 cash on hand, and Summers had $43,147. Total raised for this race through the middle of October: $291,176; total spent: $198,641.

4. House District 59

Incumbent Republican state Rep. J. Paul Brown vs. Democratic challenger Michael McLachlan (down from No. 3 last month)

Like the other sprawling, rural districts on the list, this southwest Colorado seat’s voter registration split doesn’t tell the whole story. Although Republicans still hold the edge among active voters after the registration deadline, their advantage has dropped by 4 points since the beginning of the year, but these voters are less likely to hew to party labels than their urban or suburban counterparts.

Who won the month: When Brown told a forum, “I disagree with government subsidies. Right or wrong, I took advantage of them, but I don’t agree with having government subsidies,” he did a lot to erode his credibility as a small-government shepherd, and outside spenders have been hitting him relentlessly on it.

HD 59 race profile:
Geography: This sprawling district in the southwest part of the state includes all or parts of Archuleta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, La Plata, Ouray and San Juan counties.
Active Democrats: 13,624 (30.1%)
Active Republicans: 16,344 (36.1%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 14,561 (32.1%)
Total active voters: 45,263
(In February, Republicans had 40.0%, Democrats had 30.3% and unaffiliateds had 28.6% of active voters.)
Hispanic population: 12.19%

• Bennet won the current district with 48.10% to Buck’s 46.88%; Stapleton won with 51.89% to Kennedy’s 48.11%; Bosley won with 50.79% to Hart’s 42.99%
• Brown raised $109,436 and McLachlan raised $129,326, including a $1,000 loan to himself, through the middle of October. On Oct. 15, Brown reported $39,591 cash on hand, and McLachlan had $24,396. Total raised for this race through the middle of October: $237,572; total spent: $177,960.

5. House District 3

Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Daniel Kagan vs. Republican challenger Brian Watson (up from No. 6 last month)

For most of the year, this race appeared near the top of our list but is moving into slightly less toss-up territory as the election looms closer. It’s been an uphill climb for Kagan, a British-born attorney who resides in one of the south-metro seat’s pricier neighborhoods. He was appointed to the seat a few years back when the district included plenty of reliably Democratic votes in Denver, but after reapportionment he found himself in a more sharply divided, swing district entirely inside Arapahoe County, paving the way for moderate businessman Watson to make it a race. Attacks against Kagan for his foreign ancestry have been met with a powerful rebuttal telling the story how his parents, both Holocaust survivors, met in a concentration camp.

Who won the month: Despite his attempts to push back against a series of scathing attacks on his qualifications as a businessman, polling shows that the hits against Watson have done serious damage. A third-party cable ad in heavy rotation tags the Republican for “Lying in his ads, cheating on his taxes,” and could prove fatal.

HD 3 race profile:
Geography: Northwestern Arapahoe County, covering Englewood, Cherry Hills Village, Greenwood Village and parts of Littleton
Active Democrats: 14,118 (32.4%)
Active Republicans: 14,575 (33.5%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 14,280 (32.8%)
Total active voters: 43,551
(In February, Republicans had 36.7%, Democrats had 32.6% and unaffiliateds had 29.9% of active voters.)
Hispanic population: 15.91%

• Bennet won the current district with 50.25% to Buck’s 44.71%; Kennedy won with 50.94% to Stapleton’s 49.06%; Bosley won with 50.02% to Hart’s 44.80%
• Kagan raised $194,944, including a $39,000 contribution to himself after the Oct. 15 filing period, and Watson raised $250,936 through the middle of October. On Oct. 15, Kagan reported $21,884 cash on hand, and Watson had $34,934. Total raised for this race through the middle of October: $397,701; total spent: $344,894.

6. House District 47

Republican Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff vs. Democrat Netto “Chuck” Rodosevich (down from No. 5 last month)

This district is rife with what used to be called Reagan Democrats — nominally they’re Democrats, but when it comes to pulling the lever, they don’t like urban liberals, and they’re likely to pick Republicans, tilting toward Senate candidate Ken Buck last time. If Navarro-Ratzlaff succeeds in making this race one between the national parties, she wins. But R0dosevich has been making a game effort to ply his 120-year-old roots in the area into a contest over outside interests, particularly power companies, and has been keeping it close.

Who won the month: Navarro-Ratzlaff won endorsements from both the Pueblo Chieftain and the Denver Post, which could prove decisive in a district where it’s more difficult to conduct the kind of door-to-door campaigns under way elsewhere in the state.

HD 47 race profile:
Geography: Eastern Fremont County, northern and eastern Pueblo County and Otero County
Active Democrats: 14,818 (37.9%)
Active Republicans: 13,165 (33.7%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 10,750 (27.5%)
Total active voters: 39,118
(In February, Republicans had 36.3%, Democrats had 37.5% and unaffiliateds had 25.7% of active voters.)
Hispanic population: 34.00%

• Buck won the current district with 49.24% to Bennet’s 45.09%; Stapleton won with 51.82% to Kennedy’s 48.18%; Bosley won with 51.63% to Hart’s 44.08%
• Navarro-Ratzlaff raised $50,878 and Rodosevich raised $83,319, including a $525 loan to himself, through the middle of October. On Oct. 15, Navarro-Ratzlaff reported $14,560 cash on hand, and Rodosevich had $17,105. (Rodosevich’s totals reflect the repayment of $500 in loans to himself.) Total raised for this race through the middle of October: $131,879; total spent: $100,250.

7. Senate District 26

Incumbent Democratic state Sen. Linda Newell vs. Republican challenger Dave Kerber (unchanged from last month)

It’s hand-to-hand combat in this southeast metro district, where the outside spending has been gushing in as voters receive mail ballots. Newell, who won the seat by the slimmest of margins four years ago, has been portraying herself as a bipartisan problem-solver, and an endorsement by cross-partisan Stand for Children hasn’t hurt projecting this image. Kerber, who narrowly lost his own race for a nearby House seat the same year Newell was first elected, has been running an efficient and aggressive campaign, but the turnout activity by House candidates Kagan and Watson, whose district falls within these lines, could spill slightly up-ballot and prove decisive here too.

Who won the month: It’s a close race, but Newell hasn’t made any mistakes, while Kerber hasn’t done the kind of damage he needs to do — yet.

SD 26 race profile:
Geography: Englewood, Littleton and a meandering stretch of Arapahoe County including parts of Aurora, Foxfield and Centennial
Active Democrats: 27,593 (33.7%)
Active Republicans: 26,879 (32.8%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 26,341 (32.2%)
Total active voters: 81,827
(In February, Republicans had 36.7%, Democrats had 33.3% and unaffiliateds had 29.3% of active voters.)
Hispanic population: 14.88%

• Bennet won the current district with 50.45% to Buck’s 44.49%; Kennedy won with 51.21% to Stapleton’s 48.79%; Bosley won with 49.50% to Hart’s 45.33%
• Newell raised $202,477 and Kerber raised $134,171, including a $15,000 loan to himself and a nearly $20,000 non-monetary contribution of mailings by the state Republican Party, through the middle of October. On Oct. 15, Newell reported $53,066 cash on hand, and Kerber had $45,601. Total raised for this race through the middle of October: $313,019; total spent: $214,536.

8. House District 29

Incumbent Republican state Rep. Robert Ramirez vs. Democratic challenger Tracy Kraft-Tharp (up from No. 10 last month)

This is the northwest metro seat that handed the House to Republicans last time, and the fight over its voters is more spirited than it was when Ramirez upset an incumbent who appears to have sleep-walked through the crucial get-out-the-vote period. Neither side is taking a single vote for granted this time, but it’s a volatile district whose voters like to split tickets and surprise candidates.

Who won the month: Following the deadline to register voters, what had been the most evenly divided district in the state now tilts toward Democrats, giving Kraft-Tharp an edge if she can talk them into voting down the ticket.

HD 29 race profile:
Geography: Eastern neighborhoods of Westminster and Arvada
Active Democrats: 13,774 (33.4%)
Active Republicans: 12,375 (30.0%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 14,560 (35.3%)
Total active voters: 41,225
(In February, Republicans had 33.5%, Democrats had 33.4% and unaffiliateds had 32.3% of active voters.)
Hispanic population: 16.37%

• Bennet won the current district with 50.70% to Buck’s 42.37%; Kennedy won with 52.48% to Stapleton’s 47.52%; Bosley won with 47.38% to Hart’s 45.90%
• Ramirez raised $100,342 and Kraft-Tharp raised $130,046 through the middle of October. On Oct. 15, Ramirez reported $54,618 cash on hand, and Kraft-Tharp had $37,162. Total raised for this race through the middle of October: $208,382; total spent: $121,806.

9. House District 23

Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Max Tyler vs. Republican challenger Rick Enstrom (up from No. 11 last month)

What began the year as a close district now looks more like a comfortably Democratic-leaning one. Enstrom has run a solid campaign all year — and the equally determined Tyler has been subject to a barrage of attack ads for comparing schoolchildren to “maggots and worms” — but a relentless TV campaign against Enstrom has eroded the advantage he had as a mostly uncontroversial purveyor of a beloved toffee.

Who won the month: Attacks against Enstrom for a decades-old bust for selling drug paraphernalia could be a mixed bag for opponents but the Republican’s reaction to the ads kept the story current.

HD 23 race profile:
Geography: Central Lakewood
Active Democrats: 15,586 (34.8%)
Active Republicans: 13,287 (29.7%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 15,253 (34.1%)
Total active voters: 44,771
(In February, Republicans had 33.4%, Democrats had 34.9% and unaffiliateds had 30.9% of active voters.)
Hispanic population: 12.19%

• Bennet won with 52.53% to Buck’s 41.54%; Kennedy won with 53.64% to Stapleton’s 46.36%; Hart won with 47.44% to Bosley’s 46.81%
• Tyler raised $101,891, including a $2,120 loan to himself, and Enstrom raised $118,154, including a $5,504 loan to himself, through the middle of October. On Oct. 15, Tyler reported $27,867 cash on hand, and Enstrom had $71,598. (Tyler’s totals reflect a partial loan repayment.) Total raised for this race through the middle of October: $215,700; total spent: $117,556.

10. Senate District 35

Republican Larry Crowder vs. Democrat Crestina Martinez (down from No. 8 last month)

Voters in this sprawling southeastern district — it covers something like a quarter of the state — have a clear choice between Crowder and Martinez, who represent what might be termed the old district and the new district, a taciturn rancher and a gun-toting Latina. Voters here are likely to swing toward Romney, making it a tough climb for a Democrat, but the star-power exhibited by Martinez could be enough to win their attention.

Who won the month: Republicans didn’t consider this race competitive until late in the year and could have been caught by surprise by the sheer magnitude of spending by outside groups here.

SD 35 race profile:
Geography: South and southeastern Colorado covering 16 counties, with residents concentrated in Pueblo, Las Animas and Otero counties
Active Democrats: 26,774 (39.3%)
Active Republicans: 25,221 (37.0%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 15,532 (22.8%)
Total active voters: 68,144
(In February, Republicans had 38.5%, Democrats had 39.8% and unaffiliateds had 21.1% of active voters.)
Hispanic population: 36.24%

• Buck won the current district with 49.01% to Bennet’s 44.87%; Stapleton won with 51.91% to Kennedy’s 48.09%; Bosley won with 51.21% to Hart’s 43.88%
• Crowder raised $72,761 and Martinez raised $137.860 through the middle of October. On Oct. 15, Crowder reported $28,452 cash on hand, and Martinez had $58,335. Total raised for this race through the middle of October: $199,094; total spent: $113,595.

11. House District 17

Incumbent Republican state Rep. Mark Barker vs. Democratic challenger Tony Exum (down from No. 9 last month)

It’s not a bad year to be a firefighter in this El Paso County district, and retired firefighter Exum has played that advantage to the hilt. It’s the smallest district on the list in terms of voter registration — its transient population doesn’t tend to register as often as surrounding residents do — so the votes here are less expensive than ones in metro Denver, and both sides are playing heavily for a seat Republicans thought was safe until this summer.

Who won the month: Of all the competitive seats in the state, Republicans lost the most ground among active voters in this district on the south side of Colorado Springs as the electorate shifted from one slightly favoring the GOP over Democrats and unaffiliated voters to one where Democrats hold a wide margin.

HD 17 race profile:
Geography: South-central Colorado Springs
Active Democrats: 9,387 (35.1%)
Active Republicans: 7,325 (27.4%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 9,558 (35.7%)
Total active voters: 26,752
(In February, Republicans had 34.5%, Democrats had 32.0% and unaffiliateds had 32.6% of active voters.)
Hispanic population: 33.13%

• Buck won the current district with 45.77% to Bennet’s 45.64%; Stapleton won with 51.86% to Kennedy’s 48.14%; Bosley won with 49.11% to Hart’s 44.95%
• Barker raised $62,301 and Exum raised $83,875 through the middle of October. On Oct. 15, Barker reported $28,434 cash on hand, and Exum had $22,352. (Barker’s totals reflect paying off a prior election’s campaign debt and an old loan to himself.) Total raised for this race through the middle of October: $151,049; total spent: $92,424.

12. House District 33

Former Democratic state Rep. Dianne Primavera vs. Republican David Pigott (returning to the list after a long absence)

As a slew of outside groups have started to play heavily in this Broomfield-centered district, what has been a sleepy race all year jumps back on the list. Primavera lost her seat in 2010 by just over 300 votes to Republican challenger Don Beezley, who declined to seek a second term, and young lawyer Pigott — he’s also a veteran and philanthropist — has run a competent campaign to deny her a return to the Capitol. After reapportionment, it’s a more favorable district for Democrats, and an endorsement by Broomfield’s mayor has boosted Primavera’s chances, but Pigott is banking on strong coat tails from a powerful Romney campaign operation in the area.

Who won the month: Though subject to steady attack ads on cable, Primavera has out raised her opponent nearly two-to-one and stands to reap the benefits of closing the advantage Republicans had at the start of the year among active, registered voters.

HD 33 race profile:
Geography: Broomfield and parts of Boulder County including Superior and Erie
Active Democrats: 14,243 (31.1%)
Active Republicans: 14,564 (31.8%)
Active Unaffiliateds: 16,457 (36.0%)
Total active voters: 45,775
(In February, Republicans had 34.4%, Democrats had 31.1% and unaffiliateds had 33.8% of active voters.)
Hispanic population: 10.03%

• Bennet won with 50.98% to Buck’s 43.85%; Kennedy won with 52.25% to Stapleton’s 47.75%; Bosley won with 50.52% to Hart’s 44.57%
• Primavera raised $133,786 and Pigott raised $71,241, including a $1,000 loan to himself, through the middle of October. On Oct. 15, Primavera reported $25,092 cash on hand, and Pigott had $56,833. Total raised for this race through the middle of October: $196,612; total spent: $120,071.

Voter registration figures are current through Oct. 19, including all registrations logged before the deadline to register for the November election, and reflect active voters as reported by the Colorado Secretary of State. Percentages of the total might not equal 100 percent because of rounding and third-party registration. The share of Hispanic residents in each district is based on Census data and was reported by the Colorado Reapportionment Commission.

Fundraising totals cover contributions received through Oct. 10 and reported by Oct. 15, the most recent filing deadline, along with “major contributions” of $1,000 and over reported through Oct. 21. (Major contribution reports filed by candidates after the Oct. 15 filing deadline are reflected in their individual totals but not in the cash on hand or totals raised and spent for each race.) Candidates are required to update their reports on Oct. 29, covering the most recent two weeks of fundraising, and then won’t file again until Dec. 6. In order to best reflect total resources available to candidates, fundraising totals include transfers from other committees, loans and in-kind donations. Cash-on-hand totals don’t take in-kind contributions into account and, in some cases, reflect loan repayments. Total fundraising and spending for each race includes third-party candidates, primary challengers and candidates who dropped out after reapportionment or for other reasons.

Voting performance numbers list how U.S. Senate candidates Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Ken Buck did within each newly drawn legislative district’s lines in the 2010 election. Additionally, results are shown for two down-ballot races from the same election, considered good indicators of how unaffiliated voters in different districts might swing. Those races list returns for the state treasurer race between Democrat Cary Kennedy and Republican Walker Stapleton, as well as returns for at-large CU Regent candidates Republican Steve Bosley and Democrat Melissa Hart. (Bennet, Stapleton and Bosley won their races statewide.) The Colorado Reapportionment Commission reported this data.

Voter registration figures are more current than performance data from the 2010 election, but the voting pattern is useful to indicate how unaffiliated voters tend to swing.

—Ernest@coloradostatesman.com