Many Races Up for Grabs, GOP Control of Colorado House Within Reach

Yesterday it was the final update of the state senate rankings. Now on to the state house. First, the overview: The Colorado House of Representatives has 65 members eligible to serve a maximum of four two-year terms. Every seat is up for election. Currently, the Democrats have a 37-27 majority with former Democrat Kathleen Curry serving as an unaffiliated representative.

The GOP needs a net gain of six seats to claim the majority. Eight of the 37 Democrat seats are open, with 29 incumbents running for re-election. All but one Democratic incumbent has a formal challenger. Six of the 27 Republican seats are open, with 21 incumbents running for re-election. Democrats have offered no formal challenge to 10 of the GOP seats (seven held by incumbents, three open). Because of the timing of her party disaffiliation, Curry faces the challenge of running a write-in campaign to keep her seat in a three-way race.

Of the 54 challenged seats (36 Democrat, 17 Republican, 1 Unaffiliated), 19 seats are fundamentally non-competitive (6 Democrat, 13 Republican). Given the favorability of political winds and the composition of the legislature, these numbers present very good odds for the GOP. But just how likely are Colorado Republicans to take over the lower chamber of the state legislature? Using the same basic formula as for the state senate races, the following is my ranking of state house races based on the likelihood of switching party control:

1. House District 27 (Jefferson) – DEM Prev rank: 2 Two-term incumbent liberal Democrat, and union ally, Sara Gagliardi (left, from the Colorado Statesman, at a Denver rally for Barack Obama) is a poor fit for a suburban district with a 5-point Republican edge. Well-known and business-endorsed GOP challenger Libby Szabo had another very strong fundraising period over $20,000, arming her to capitalize on the district’s advantages. Likely GOP pick-up

2. House District 17 (El Paso) – DEM Prev rank: 5 In 2008, during the Obama wave, liberal Democrat Dennis Apuan narrowly won this district, in which Democrats have the registration edge but includes Fort Carson on the south side of Colorado Springs. Apuan now faces a strong challenge from Republican Mark Barker, whose campaign war chest puts him neck-and-neck with the current officeholder. Leans GOP pick-up

3. House District 47 (Pueblo, Fremont) – DEM Prev rank: 3 This open seat has the dedicated attention of both parties. Democrat Carole Partin and Republican Keith Swerdfeger have more than $100,000 combined cash on hand, which should make for a heated contest to the November 2 finish line. As in other races, unaffiliated voter dissatisfaction with Democratic governance likely will play a key factor. Leans GOP pick-up

4. House District 38 (Arapahoe, Jefferson) – DEM Prev rank: 1 Yes, no other Democratic-controlled district has a greater GOP voter registration advantage: 40-31. But incumbent Joe Rice has cultivated good name recognition, a moderate image and recently won the endorsement of key business groups that are backing Republican challengers in other races. The GOP’s Kathleen Conti lags in the money battle, but very well could ride this year’s Tea Party wave across the finish line. Toss-up: slight edge GOP

5. House District 33 (Broomfield, Boulder, Adams, Weld) – DEM Prev rank: 4 Democrats know they need to save Dianne “Tax on a Fee” Primavera’s seat to maintain their majority, so they have taken to trying to marginalize challenger Don Beezley, whose free market message resonates with suburban voters in 2010. And money is flocking to the incumbent, too. At the end of August, Primavera held a more than $26,000 cash on hand advantage. Tossup: slight edge GOP

6. House District 56 (Eagle, Summit, Lake) – DEM Prev rank: 7 Incumbent Democrat Christine Scanlan’s sponsorship of SB 191 (this year’s tenure and evaluation reform) has cost her teachers union backing, but she still holds $10,000 more than Republican challenger Debra Irvine. Scanlan is one of four incumbent House Democrats (including Joe Rice, HD 38) to win the backing of the business-friendly Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry (CACI). Four in ten active voters in HD 56 are unaffiliated; they will decide this race. Tossup

7. House District 64 (Otero, Las Animas, Prowers, Huerfano, Baca, Bent) – DEM Prev rank: 9 Maverick Democrat Rep. Wes McKinley has earned some unfavorable media with recent news that he will face a penalty for sexually harassing a female lobbyist at the State Capitol. Republican challenger Lisa Grace Kellogg maintains a two-to-one cash advantage that can help overcome her party’s six-point registration deficit in this rural district. Tossup

8. House District 29 (Jefferson) – DEM Prev rank: 8 Democrat officeholder Debbie Benefield owns a significant lead in campaign cash, but the determined grassroots campaign of business-backed Robert Ramirez in this evenly-divided (34 Unaffiliated / 33 Democrat / 33 Republican) suburban district very well could spell a time for change. Tossup

9. House District 18 (El Paso) – DEM Prev rank: 6 In this race for the open seat abandoned by term-limited Democrat Mike Merrifield, Pete Lee is winning the cash battle to keep the seat in his party’s hands. But Republican small business owner Karen Cullen is banking on her message resonating with the unaffiliated voters who make up exactly one-third of the district to put her over the top. Tossup

10. House District 23 (Jefferson) – DEM Prev rank: 10 Embattled Rep. Max Tyler is up for his first election after filling a vacancy in 2009. Republican challenger Edgar Johansson has a 5-point (but shrinking) voter registration disadvantage and an $18,000 campaign cash deficit to overcome. Tossup: slight edge Dem hold

11. House District 52 (Larimer) – DEM Prev rank: N/A Republican challenger Bob Morain got a very late start on this race, but the money has quickly followed into his campaign to begin closing the gap with CACI-endorsed, Democrat incumbent John Kefalas. As a result, this historic swing seat looks to be back in play. Tossup: slight edge Dem hold

12. House District 50 (Weld) – DEM Prev rank: 11 Incumbent Democrat Jim Riesberg has a cash-on-hand advantage of more than $40,000, but it also should be noted that voter registrations are shifting in a Republican direction, making the district virtually a tie. Even so, Republican Bob Boswell still needs “all the help he can get from prevailing political winds” to unseat Riesberg. Leans Dem hold

13. House District 61 (Garfield, Pitkin, Gunnison, Eagle, Hinsdale) – UNA Prev rank: 15 In this hard-to-categorize race, unaffiliated (but Democrat-leaning) Kathleen Curry faces the challenge of having to run a write-in campaign in a three-way race. Even so, she has nearly five times as much money as her partisan opponents (Democrat Roger Wilson and Republican Luke Korkowski) combined. Also, 39 percent of the mountain district’s active voters — like Curry — don’t affiliate with either party. Leans UNA hold (wildcard)

14. House District 3 (Denver, Arapahoe) – DEM Prev rank: N/A Just this past weekend, rising GOP candidate Christine Mastin found her candidacy drawing attention from Denver Post political reporter Lynn Bartels, and with good reason. Mastin has the right profile for a district demographically challenging to Republicans and a war chest more than twice as large as incumbent Rep. Daniel Kagan (D – United Kingdom**). Leans Dem hold

15. House District 59 (La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta, San Juan) – REP Prev rank: 13 In running for the state senate, the GOP’s Ellen Roberts left this seat open. A win by Republican J. Paul Brown would keep the seat in the party but mark a shift to the Right. Though the southwestern Colorado district has an 8-point Republican registration advantage, Democrat Brian O’Donnell has a 3-to-1 lead in campaign cash and some fresh ammunition handed him from this week’s Club 20 debate. Leans GOP hold

Honorable mention: HD 26 (Jefferson), HD 31 (Adams) and HD 53 (Larimer) are three districts with Democratic incumbents (Andy Kerr, Judy Solano and Randy Fischer, respectively) where registrations have trended noticeably Republican, indicating voter unrest. But the Republican challengers (Mark Barrington, Tom Janich and Dane Brandt, respectively) have failed to raise significant cash. They should be interesting bellwethers.

Conclusion: Colorado Republicans will gain at least three seats in the state house this fall. You can practically put it in the bank. Winning five seats also is a good probability. And with several races too close to call on paper — not to mention a survey generic ballot showing Republicans with a 50-32 lead over the Democrats in Colorado state legislative races — a GOP majority is very much within reach.

Just how big of a majority could the GOP attain? Well, here’s an important caveat, very similar to what I wrote in July: 2010 is the kind of year where the numbers just might not tell the whole story. In that spirit, there are a few wildcard races to keep your eye on. A victory for a Republican (or Democratic) challenger in one of these might be taking place under the radar. Some pundits might be shocked, but you, faithful reader, shouldn’t be (incumbent names in ALL CAPS):

  • House District 1 (Denver) – Republican Danny Stroud vs. Democrat REP. JEANNE LABUDA
  • House District 30 (Adams) – Republican KEVIN PRIOLA vs. Democrat Laura Huerta
  • House District 34 (Adams) – Republican Brian Vande Krol vs. Democrat REP. JOHN SOPER

(**Yes, that’s a joke.)

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