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National Democrats call Colorado Republican Scott Tipton’s seat a top pickup opportunity. But is it winnable?

Tipton has easily soared to reelection for three cycles in a row, despite high-dollar efforts to dislodge him from the 3rd Congressional District

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez. (Handout)
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National Democrats have vowed to try to dislodge U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District next year, calling his seat one of the party’s “top pickup opportunities.” 

But of the three candidates so far vying to replace the Cortez Republican — including one who announced his bid just earlier this month — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is currently backing none. The DCCC also did not recruit anyone in the trio to run.

Additionally, three well-known Colorado Democrats who were asked to consider or considered running have ruled out bids. 

That’s raising questions about how seriously the powerful, deep-pocketed organization is about the perennial battleground seat, which Tipton has easily won every two years since 2010 when he dislodged then-Democratic U.S. Rep. John Salazar. It’s also highlighting how difficult it will be for Democrats to win the position back. 

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“As the Democratic field continues to take shape, we are confident that a strong candidate will be well-positioned to take on Tipton and his record next year,” DCCC spokeswoman Brooke Goren said in a written statement.

It’s still early on and the DCCC has held off on endorsing any candidates so far this cycle, but the group has been known to recruit people to run in congressional contests. It’s also been a potent force when it gets involved, helping, for instance, get Aurora’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Jason Crow elected in 2018.

“This is one of those seats where you just can’t give it up,” said Jim Carpenter, a Democratic political consultant who has worked on several 3rd Congressional District races. “You have to try.”

Carpenter said he thinks the seat is still in play for Democrats and that the party has a better chance in 2020 than in recent years, with polls showing President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, as being unpopular GOP leaders on the ticket. That opens up the possibility for a Democrat to catch fire and overtake Tipton, Carpenter believes.

But he acknowledges the opening is slim. “Everything has to come together exactly right to really win the seat,” Carpenter said. “And that rarely happens in politics.”

A vista near Telluride. Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District is as geographically large as it is politically challenging, spanning the entire Western Slope into Pueblo. “Everything has to come together exactly right to really win the seat,” said Jim Carpenter, a Democratic campaign operative. “And that rarely happens in politics.” (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Tipton easily beat former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush in 2018 with 52% of the vote to her 44%. In 2016, he battled back former state Sen. Gail Schwartz, who was well funded, taking 55% of the vote to her 40%. And in 2014 Tipton beat former state Sen. Abel Tapia with 58% of the vote to his 36%.

Neither the Cook Political Report nor Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which track competitive House races, lists the seat as really being in play in 2020, despite the fact that voter registration numbers indicate it should be. As of Oct. 1, the district had 179,369 registered unaffiliated voters, 156,996 Republican voters and 130,581 Democratic voters.

But counties in Tipton’s district, which includes nearly all of the Western Slope and wraps around into Pueblo, overwhelmingly supported President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, allowing Tipton to bypass the Trump-fueled blowback that propelled Democrats in 2018

In 2018, all of Colorado’s seven congressional district lurched to the left. The 3rd Congressional District was no different, but U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton still beat Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush handily.

Mitsch Bush was the only Democrat on the statewide ballot in 2018 to lose in Pueblo County, part of the 3rd District, falling short of Tipton there by 2 percentage points. 

“You need a Democrat who can really run up the numbers in Pueblo, and that becomes harder to do as Pueblo votes less reliably Democratic than it used to,” said Sal Pace, a former state lawmaker and Pueblo County commissioner who came up short on his bid to unseat Tipton in 2012. “You really need a candidate to win the 3rd Congressional District who can understand everything from public lands to labor issues.” 

Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, state Sen. Kerry Donovan and state Rep. Dylan Roberts — three of the district’s biggest Democratic names — looked at running against Tipton in 2020 and have so far opted not to launch a bid. 

“I think it’s a winnable seat with the genuine backing of D.C. and progressive groups,” Donovan said. “To my knowledge there haven’t been any face-to-face meetings regarding this seat, which is also an indication of how national party leadership views the district.”

Colorado state Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, speaks on Feb. 1, 2019, at a town hall meeting in Frisco about the high cost of health care in Colorado’s mountain communities. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

Roberts said he had several conversations with the DCCC, which asked him to consider running. But he said that he’s “really happy where I am right now representing my communities in the statehouse.”

“I disagree with almost everything that Scott Tipton does and the positions he takes. I would like different representation in the district,” Roberts said. “But it’s a big task. I think both geographically and politically, it’s a really hard race to run.”

Garcia has not fully ruled out a bid, but told reporters last week that he is focused on his work in the Colorado legislature. He told The Colorado Sun in July that he had been having conversations about the seat, but declined to say with whom he’d been talking.

Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, speaks to reporters on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The three candidates already running are Mitsch Bush, state Rep. Donald Valdez and businessman James Iacino.

Valdez raised only about $25,000 in his first fundraising quarter through September. And while Mitsch Bush hauled in a sizable $156,000 to become the primary’s fundraising frontrunner, she has already lost one campaign to Tipton. 

Nevertheless, she says she’s ready to put the lessons she learned in 2018 to use and thinks she is well positioned to close the gap — noting that she’s come the closest of anyone to unseating Tipton since 2010. “I know so much more,” she said, speaking to The Sun last week from a DCCC conference in Washington, D.C.

One key change she plans to make this around: not spending so much money in the primary. Mitsch Bush said she spent too much in 2018 to beat her two Democratic rivals.

She also points out that Tipton lost his first bid for the 3rd Congressional District. He lost in 2006 to Salazar and then was elected to a two-year term in the statehouse in 2008 before successfully trying again to win the seat in 2010.

Democratic candidate for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District Diane Mitsch Bush speaks to supporters during a rally in Montrose on Saturday Oct. 27, 2018. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It’s a difficult district because it’s so big,” she said, acknowledging the barriers to unseating Tipton. “There’s nothing like retail politics, getting out and talking to people.” 

Mitsch Bush said she was not recruited to run by the DCCC.

Iacino, meanwhile, is making his first foray into politics. He only recently moved his family from Denver to Montrose, which is in the district, and stepped down as CEO of his family’s Seattle Fish Co. to launch his campaign.

“My family has been looking for years to move to the Western Slope,” he said last week. “This is an opportunity to do that. I love living in Montrose. It’s beautiful and it’s exciting because I think it’s going to allow me to connect to a number of voters throughout the district.”

Despite being a newcomer to the 3rd Congressional District, he’s critical of what he sees as Tipton’s lack of availability to constituents.

Democrat James Iacino in his video announcing his candidacy. (Screenshot)

“He’s largely been absent. He’s not around,” Iacino said. “He’s not available for the people of the district and they’re not standing up for their needs.” 

Iacino said he’s not worried about the DCCC’s potential role in the Democratic primary. The committee didn’t recruit him to run either, he said.

“It’s not something I’m particularly focused on,” he said. “I want to just work on connecting with as many people in the district as possible.”

Voters will decide in June who will face Tipton in November 2020.

A spokesman for Tipton’s reelection campaign did not respond to messages seeking comment. 

Updated on Nov. 1, 2019, at 3:45 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the amount raised by state Rep. Donald Valdez. He took in about $25,000 in his first fundraising quarter.


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