Colorado State Senate Majority Looks to Hang on a Tight, Razor-Thin Margin

Nearing the middle of September, it’s about seven weeks until Election Day. And in many counties ballots will start going out weeks before November 2. One oft-overlooked piece of the electoral puzzle comes down to which party will have control of Colorado’s state legislature for the next two years — a critical piece of setting state policy and the next round of Congressional re-districting. Today is Mount Virtus’ final big picture look at the 2010 state senate races before Election Day.

First, a little overview. The Colorado State Senate has 35 seats, with senators serving up to two four-year terms. Democrats currently hold a 21-14 majority. Roughly half of the 35 districts are up for election in any given cycle. In 2010, Colorado voters in 19 districts will decide who represents them in the upper chamber of the state legislature.

Of the 19 seats up for grabs, 11 are held by Democrats and 8 by Republicans. Of the 8 Republican-held seats, 1 has no opponent and 6 more are non-competitive. Of the 11 Democrat-held seats, 1 has no opponent and 4 others are essentially non-competitive (with the caveat that in this wild election year, I would not be terribly surprised to see one of the “non-competitive” seats flip).

The formula I use for the rankings is based on a district’s latest reported active voter registration numbers, the most recent campaign finance reports (factoring both cash on hand and total contributions from the last reporting period that covers the month of August), incumbency status and intangible factors from media reports. Here then are the most competitive state senate races ranked in order they are likely to switch party control:

1. Senate District 6 (Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma, Montrose, Ouray, San Juan, San Miguel) – DEM Prev rank: 1 Having survived a primary challenge from the Right, State Representative Ellen Roberts has an excellent chance to “graduate” to the state senate. More than 41 percent of the district’s voters are registered GOP, and Roberts reported more than $60,000 cash on hand for the homestretch. Appointed incumbent Democrat Bruce Whitehead, a replacement for Obama appointee Jim Isgar, has a steep hill to climb. Likely GOP pick-up

2. Senate District 16 (Boulder, Clear Creek, Gilpin, Grand, Jefferson, Summit) – DEM Prev rank: 2 Republican Tim Leonard, continuing a solid fundraising pace, figures to benefit from this year’s fiscally conservative electoral wave. Jeanne Nicholson has been closing the gap in an effort to keep the open seat for her Democratic Party. But in a district almost exactly split between Democrats and the GOP, it’s the disgruntled unaffiliated voters who figure to provide the deciding factor. Leans GOP pick-up

3. Senate District 20 (Jefferson) – DEM Prev rank: 3 Democrats have friendlier demographics in this west suburban district, but their candidate Cheri Jahn’s war chest was depleted by a tightly contested primary from the Left. Fundraising has slowed down for Republican John Odom, but he maintained a substantial cash-on-hand advantage heading into September. While Jahn was not the general election opponent he was hoping for, Odom has been consistent on the campaign trail and has reason to hope his message is breaking through with unaffiliated voters. Toss-up: slight edge GOP pick-up

4. Senate District 5 (Alamosa, Chaffee, Conejos, Costilla, Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Mineral, Pitkin, Rio Grande, Saguache) – DEM Prev rank: 4 This geographically large mountain district has the largest combined campaign coffers to go with it this time around. No state legislative candidate has amassed such a fortune as Democratic incumbent state senator Gail Schwartz — at nearly $130,000. Given the political climate, she very well may need it all to hang on against Republican challenger Bob Rankin. Republicans have a 2 percentage point registration edge over Democrats, but this race should tell us a lot about how helpful — or unhelpful — it is to run as an incumbent in 2010. Toss-up

5. Senate District 11 (El Paso) – DEM Prev rank: 5 The little tempest in a teapot for Republican Owen Hill has blown over, but he still faces a stiff challenge in taking out the current Democratic majority leader John Morse. A Republican-commissioned summertime poll showed the challenger with a 42-35 lead, yet one can rest assured that Democrats will pull out the stops to save this seat. If Hill can overcome a 2-point Democratic registration edge as well as the incumbent’s $36,000 war chest advantage, he will have earned the title of rising GOP star. Toss-up: slight edge Dem hold

6. Senate District 2 (Baca, Bent, Crowley, Custer, Fremont, Huerfano, Las Animas, Otero, Pueblo) – REP Prev rank: 6 Now that he has secured the GOP nomination with a convincing primary victory, conservative Kevin Grantham just has to stay engaged and continue keeping pace in fundraising with his Democratic opponent Gloria Stultz in order to keep this seat in Republican hands. Regardless of the outcome, there will be a shift in the status quo for SD 2. A Stultz upset would move the seat to the Left, while a Grantham win would mark a Rightward shift from term-limited incumbent Ken Kester. Likely GOP hold

Other interesting races to watch:

There certainly are limits to the formula I use to generate the rankings and other observations. It’s hard to tell just how big the conservative wave will be this fall, though an August poll showed an incredible 50-32 generic ballot advantage for Colorado’s Republican state legislative candidates. Further, plenty of things happen under the radar that I can’t see (though I try to keep tabs on some).

But if I had to pull out the crystal ball right now, I would say with a considerable degree of confidence that the Colorado state senate looks to be comprised of an 18-17 partisan balance for 2011. The question mark is whether the Democrats or Republicans will have the 18 to claim the majority. I do hope I’m insufficiently optimistic, and would love to be pleasantly surprised by a bigger GOP sweep. But none of it will happen without the grassroots fiscal conservatives and pro-liberty groups staying active, engaged and focused on races that can be won.

Coming next are updated state house rankings come tomorrow.

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