Palin casts spell over House races


By Chris Bragg

Just a couple of weeks ago, at a delegate breakfast at the Democratic National Convention, Colorado Democrats were openly predicting a pick-up of four — or more — seats in the Colorado House of Representatives this November.

The prediction might have been a tad optimistic even then, considering that Democrats already hold a 40- to 25-seat lead in a state where Republicans hold the advantage in voter registration.

Then came the selection of a certain moose-hunting governor of Alaska as John McCain’s Republican presidential running mate, and — at least according to the Colorado GOP — that possibility has become even more remote.

The national phenomenon surrounding Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has, of course, shaken up this year’s presidential race. But Colorado Republicans say the selection of the socially conservative Palin also has energized the local Republican base to the point that her impact will reach far down-ballot, extending into the Statehouse.

“You’re seeing a significant strengthening of the base these past two weeks,” said former Republican Colorado Gov. Bill Owens. “The Republicans have clearly come home. And that’s the key in many of these races.”

Until Palin’s selection, some Colorado Republicans weren’t so confident about their chances.

“Honestly, I believe that Sarah Palin has given the Republican ticket a bit of a lift,” said Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, who faces a tough challenge from former Littleton board of education member Diana Holland. Swalm narrowly won election in the heavily Republican House District 37 in 2006.

“I would say the Republican base is in a better mood than two years ago,” Swalm said.

Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood, is another incumbent whose House District 22 seat has been mentioned as a possible Democratic target. Summers also says Palin has fortified the position of local GOP candidates.

“I saw an immediate impact when I was going door to door during and after the Republican convention,” he said.

Despite the excitement created by Palin, Democrats say there’s still reason for optimism.

If votes for local races do “trickle down” the ballot from national races, then some national trends — like a tanking economy, an unpopular Republican president and the new voters attracted by presidential nominee Barack Obama — look positive for Democratic candidates.

Democrats are hoping for a replay of the 2006 elections, when they gained the governor’s office, three seats in the state House and two in the Senate. Those victories, during a period of disenchantment over the course of the Iraq War, out-of-control federal spending and a series of Republican scandals, have influenced Democratic strategy this year, according to Republican strategist Katy Atkinson. Atkinson said Democrats are now looking to pick up seats they might never before have considered competitive.

“I think in 2006, Republicans were punished for having an ‘R’ next to their names,” said Atkinson. “I think the Democrats thought they were going to ride a similar wave again because of anti-Republican sentiment. Time will tell just how strong that is in this year’s voters.”

In 2006, Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton, won election in House District 38 despite an 11 percent Republican advantage over Democrats in voter registration. That’s one of the reasons Democrats are now targeting the HD 37 race between Swalm and Holland, where — despite a 17.5 percent Republican advantage in voter registration numbers — the Democratic House Majority Project, which gives money to Democrats in competitive House races, recently put $10,000 into Holland’s race.

Republicans, however, say Palin’s presence on the GOP ticket will bring wayward Republican voters home.

Meanwhile, some Democrats argue that the top of the ticket won’t affect the outcome of this year’s legislative races.

“I don’t really think it necessarily will trickle down,” said Monica Piergrossi, director of Colorado’s Democratic House Majority Project. “Colorado is a ticket-splitting state. People vote for the candidate, not the party.”

Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, who is helping to head Democratic efforts, also isn’t too worried about the effect of national races on local races. He believes Democratic gains will depend less on excitement about national candidates and more on the quality of the local candidates.

Kerr said victories by moderate Democratic governors in Montana, Kansas and Colorado have changed the strategy for House Democrats, who now emphasize that it’s “more important to represent your district than your party.”

“We’ve had some very liberal Democrats that have wanted to run, but we’ve had to discourage them because they’re not good matches for their districts,” Kerr said. “Joe Rice and [Grand Junction Democratic Rep.] Bernie Buescher are examples of Democrats who represent their districts first … Our GOP colleagues are told to toe the party line, in a way we don’t do as Democrats.”

Democrats think they have an appropriately moderate candidate in Andrew Scripter, who’s running for an open seat in Jefferson County’s House District 25 being vacated by Republican Rob Witwer. That’s why — according to filings with the secretary of state’s office — Scripter recently received a $10,000 cash infusion from the Colorado Democratic Party.

Another Democratic challenger who has received party money is Mollie Cullom, who is taking on Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, in House District 39. Cullom has received $4,000 from the Dems. And Camille Ryckman, who faces Summers in HD 22, recently received more than $1,700 in in-kind contributions from the House Majority Project.

Democrats attribute their 2006 victories to the strength of their candidates. Republicans, however, credit the Democratic win to a rare national movement against one party, akin to the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.

Balmer, who is leading Republican efforts in the House, has organized a 527 group called the Colorado Leadership Fund that will run ads for its candidates. He believes the national mood is nothing like the anti-GOP fervor that swept away many Republicans in 2006.

“The Democrats think they’re going to start with the numbers that they had in 2006,” he said. “They’re not. This is a different election.”

Balmer’s optimism is bolstered by Palin, and Colorado Republicans now believe they can retake at least some of the legislative seats they lost in 2006.