Criminal complaints. Accusations of lying and public smears. Nasty TV and radio attack ads.
It’s election season in Colorado’s 4th Congressional District, and this year’s race — much like those of the past — has not proven healthy for the faint of heart. But this year’s race between three-term incumbent Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave and Democrat Betsy Markey has a new dimension: Despite voter registration numbers that favor Republicans by 13 percent, recent polls indicated Markey, a never-before-elected former Senate staffer, stands a clear chance of unseating Musgrave.
And at least one prominent Colorado political observer says that the cash-strapped national National Republican Campaign Committee may be willing to abandon the socially conservative Musgrave this year, with the idea of reclaiming it as a Republican seat in 2010.
Similar to Colorado in the presidential election, the possibility of the 4th, which encompasses the north Front Range and the eastern plains, flipping from Red to Blue has put the race on the national radar.
Officials with both the the National Republican Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee say they are watching the race closely; both parties have reserved significant airtime on TV and radio stations in the district. Outside expenditures from non-profit 501c(4)s and 527s against Musgrave have already topped $1 million through September. The Washington Post has labeled the race one of the top 10 closest in the nation and the Wall Street Journal recently had a reporter poking around Colorado’s eastern plains to profile the race.
Two years ago, Musgrave struggled in a three-way battle with Democrat Angie Paccione and Reform Party candidate Eric Eidsness. Eidsness, a former Republican, received more than 10 percent of the vote and Musgrave inched past Paccione by a slim 3 percent margin, one of the smallest of any Republican incumbent in the House and the closest of her career. Already a bad year for Republicans nationwide, Paccione looked strong against Musgrave in 2006 until she was slammed in the media and subsequently with negative advertising for a previous bankruptcy and for unpaid student loans. Paccione was never able to recover.
At the time, Musgrave was also helped by an October campaign rally and fundraising stop by President Bush in Greeley, a last-minute event that helped Musgrave in the polls and in the campaign’s pocketbook. After squeaking out a win in 2006, Musgrave — the sponsor of the unsuccessful Federal Marriage Amendment who has been cited as one of the most conservative members of Congress — almost immediately began a major overhaul of her image.
Criticized by some for being out of touch with voters, Musgrave has held many town hall meetings since 2006, has partnered with Colorado Democrats on legislation, and rarely speaks about socially conservative issues she supports, including gay marriage, gun rights and abortion anymore.
Although the real success of Musgrave’s effort to retool her image have yet to be seen, using fund-raising and early polling as an indicator, Musgrave could be in trouble.
Making cents of it all
Despite holding a major cash advantage, Musgrave failed to out-raise Markey during the second quarter of this year, reporting $1,155,899 cash on hand compared to Markey’s $575,835 bankroll. Although Republicans nationwide have struggled to keep up with their 2004 and 2006 fundraising prowess, Musgrave has fallen behind her fundraising levels in previous election cycles at rates greater than other incumbent House Republicans in close reelection bids, according to an August analysis by the Fort Collins Coloradoan.
Despite holding nearly a 2-1 cash advantage after the second quarter, Musgrave could be outspent this year. More than $1 million has already been used against Musgrave by three outside groups including the non-profit 501c(4) groups Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund and VoteVets.org as well as by the 527 group called Majority Action. All of the outside money used against Musgrave has come in the form of negative advertising and most experts agree more will be spent against Musgrave in coming weeks.
NRCC officials, already struggling this year with a 4-1 margin to keep up with DCCC fundraising, would not directly comment on whether they will follow through on the $1.2 million in airtime it reserved earlier this year. In August, the NRCC teamed with Musgrave’s campaign on a TV advertisement that detailed Musgrave’s upbringing with an alcoholic father. The NRCC shelled out the maximum $84,000 allowed under FEC guidelines for that ad and all indications are more is on the way.
“With Betsy Markey having liberal special interest groups doing her dirty work for her, it certainly provides an extra challenge for us,” said Brendan Buck, a NRCC spokesman. “Clearly these outside groups continue to pour extra money in because they recognize that voters are not falling for their misleading smears.”
Buck then fired a smear of his own at Markey, claiming that she is “flawed” and has “ethical baggage.”
“We will continue to highlight the differences between Marilyn Musgrave who voters know and can trust, and Betsy Markey who always puts her political career before the country. I am confident that this contrast will put us in a very good position on Election Day,” he said.
Although the DCCC has reserved $667,000 in airtime as well this year that presumably would be used to attack Musgrave, it’s unclear whether that money will ever find its way to Colorado. The DCCC has a history of reserving ad time early in the race to target Musgrave — and then not following through, as what happened with Paccione, who was also a part of the DCCC’s Red to Blue program in 2006.
When asked if the party is planning to support Markey this year in what could be another close bid against Musgrave, DCCC officials said they were unable to comment on future expenditures. But, they did express support for Markey and said they are classifying her race as “top-tiered” competition.
“Betsy Markey is on our Red to Blue program, which is our top-tiered program that provides communication, fundraising, research, and other support to her campaign for change and highlights the vital nature of the race,” said Yoni Cohen, a DCCC spokesman. “Betsy Markey’s campaign for change continues to generate tremendous excitement and momentum.”
Cohen had his own criticism of the Fort Morgan Republican. Musgrave, Cohen said, has supported legislation that gives tax breaks to her husband, who owns precious metals.
“[Musgrave] doesn’t understand the struggles Coloradans face in the current economy. She voted against a bonus for our troops and supports Social Security privatization and opposes allowing Medicare to negotiate for cheaper prescription drugs,” Cohen said.
Musgrave polling behind
Polling so far hasn’t been good for Musgrave this year. A Roll Call poll by SurveyUSA in August put Markey ahead by 7 percentage points and a more recent poll by EMILY’s List, a Markey supporter, put Markey up by 9 points. The EMILY’s List poll is somewhat skewed being it included a smaller percentage of registered Republicans than the 4th’s voter demographics. In addition, Markey’s campaign also released internal polling in June that showed her up over Musgrave by 4 percentage points.
Musgrave’s campaign has not released any polling in recent months and no outside groups gauging the race have shown Musgrave in the lead.
One Colorado political expert said polling could be the factor the national parties use when deciding if they will utilize the significant airtime reservations each has made in the 4th this year. With limited money and many races nationwide, the DCCC and the NRCC could be waiting a little longer to see just how the race shapes up, said Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer.
“I suspect decisions will rest on what they think they know based on polls,” Straayer said. “If the Republicans see a downside in the 4th, and are short on money, they may decide that they’ll let it go where it will go, put their sparse money elsewhere, and figure that given the numbers and history of the 4th, they have a good shot to get it back in 2010. By then the Democrats will have had to struggle with the mess which they will inherit, and Republicans may then assume the Democrats will be vulnerable in Congressional contests.
“That is not a bad calculus, except for the fact that incumbents are tough to unseat.”