About 7 weeks ago I first laid the groundwork for the coming 2010 elections for the Colorado state house. Democrats hold a 37-27-1 edge (though essentially 38-27, since newly unaffiliated Rep. Kathleen Curry still sides more with the majority Democrats), which means Republicans need to switch six seats to capture control of the chamber. I have weighed each race according to the voter registration makeup, whether it’s an incumbent or open seat, reported fundraising and cash on hand as of the end of 2009, and other intangible candidate strengths.
Below I have ranked the races according to the likelihood that the seat will switch party control come November. With the caveat that a lot can change in the next few months based on new fundraising, caucus support and important announcements, here are what I currently see as the dozen most competitive 2010 Colorado state house races:
1. House District 47 (Pueblo, Fremont) – DEM Rep. Buffie McFadyen is term-limited after eight years of service. Her former Republican opponent, Pueblo construction company owner Keith Swerdfeger, is the only announced candidate in the field. Challenging incumbent McFadyen in 2004, Swerdfeger netted more than 48 percent of the vote — and the district voting demographics are essentially the same this year. Altogether, it adds up to a GOP takeover. Likely GOP pick-up
2. House District 27 (Jefferson) – DEM Rep. Sara Gagliardi, a fiscal liberal, narrowly has won twice in this mostly Arvada Republican-plurality district. She heads into some stiff political winds this year, as Republican Libby Szabo brings experience, name recognition and other key strengths into the challenge of ousting Gagliardi. Likely GOP pick-up
3. House District 33 (Broomfield, Boulder, Adams, Weld) – DEM Rep. Dianne Primavera, sponsor of the infamous “tax on a fee”, faces a tough challenge from Republican Don Beezley — who already is keeping pace on fundraising. Leans GOP pick-up
4. House District 17 (El Paso) – DEM One-term liberal Rep. Dennis Apuan may be the most invisible incumbent in the Colorado House. Of the two Republican challengers, 2008 nominee Catherine “Kit” Roupe has more cash on hand than former Colorado Springs police officer Mark Barker, though a lot clearer picture of this primary showdown should emerge as we head into the spring. Leans GOP pick-up
5. House District 61 (Garfield, Pitkin, Gunnison, Eagle, Hinsdale) – UNA Rep. Kathleen Curry’s recent announcement that she was leaving the Democratic Party and her Speaker Pro Tem position to serve as a non-partisan official throws this race into havoc. If the Democrats run someone against Curry, it could split the vote and give the Republicans the gift of a seat they haven’t held since 2003-2004. We’re left to wait and see which other candidates will step up and fill the void here in this volatile race. Toss-up: slight edge GOP pick-up
6. House District 38 (Arapahoe, Jefferson) – DEM This is the most heavily Republican Colorado district (40 percent of active voters) currently held by a Democrat: former Glendale mayor and Iraq War vet Rep. Joe Rice. However, Rice has a hefty war chest of nearly $25,000 and no announced opponent — though GOP Englewood Council Member and Air Force veteran Rick Gillit reportedly is giving the race consideration. Don Knox at State Bill Colorado has suggested “the strongest tack [for the GOP] may be trying to get Rice to switch affiliations.” Toss-up
7. House District 59 (La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta, San Juan) – REP Rep. Ellen Roberts is stepping down to make an important GOP pick-up in the state senate, leaving an open seat. It’s still demographically a district that leans Republican, but 2006 Democratic rival Joe Colgan earned almost 48 percent of the vote. Keeping this seat in play for 2010 are the substantial cash on hand ($42,000) collected and available to Democrat Brian O’Donnell and no official GOP challenger. Deemed “too conservative,” Republican Lew Webb dropped out of the race in November. Toss-up
8. House District 56 (Eagle, Summit, Lake) – DEM Unaffiliated voters outnumber either Republican or Democratic partisans in this mountain district, and likely will decide the outcome. Rep. Christine Scanlan faces a growing challenge from professional painter and local Republican leader Debra Irvine, who is virtually dead even with the incumbent in cash on hand. Toss-up: slight edge Dem hold
9. House District 18 (El Paso) – DEM Like HD 47, an open seat due to term limits, Democrat Pete Sandford hopes to fill Rep. Michael Merrifield’s shoes. Sandford is helped so far by a substantial fundraising advantage over small business owner and newcomer Republican candidate Karen Cullen. Toss-up: slight edge Dem hold
10. House District 29 (Jefferson) – DEM Rep. Debbie Benefield brings the advantages of incumbency and name recognition to the race. In the stronger Democratic year of 2006, first-time incumbent Benefield won just under 53 percent of the vote against Affie Ellis, though the district has gained in Democratic voter registration since then. Local businessman and Republican challenger Robert Ramirez has some fundraising ground to make up, but could gain from unaffiliated voters’ anger with the majority Democrats. Leans Dem hold
11. House District 23 (Jefferson) – DEM This district in Denver’s western suburbs has trended significantly in the Democratic direction in recent years. Rep. Max Tyler is filling out the term for the retiring Gwyn Green, so his first electoral test makes him a little less sure as a candidate, though. The recent emergence of Edgar Johansson as a challenger in this race gives Republicans in this once competitive district some new hope. Leans Dem hold
12. House District 1 (Denver, Arapahoe, Jefferson) – DEM If there is any Denver County seat Republicans have serious hopes of picking up, it’s the one that belongs to Rep. Jeanne Labuda. Republican challenger Danny Stroud has forged a head start on fundraising that raises the profile of a race that in recent election years would be seen as out of reach for the GOP. Leans Dem hold
Honorable mention districts: 52 (Larimer); 53 (Larimer); 50 (Weld); 11 (Boulder); 31 (Adams).
Overall prospects: Based on this analysis, my current projection is for the Republicans to gain 5 seats in the state legislature. That would leave the Democrats in the majority by the narrowest of margins, 33-32. Nevertheless, a lot can and will change. It will be very interesting to see which way the momentum swings, especially in candidate recruitment and fundraising, over the next several months.