FORT COLLINS — Talk about a breakout year and a historic election in Colorado. Not only did Barack Obama become the first African-American to win the presidency, but Betsy Markey overran Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave to become the first Democrat elected to Colorado’s 4th Congressional District in 36 years.
Markey secured an overwhelming win in one of the most closely watched and politically important congressional races in the country Tuesday night, 57 percent to 43 percent.
For months, politicos and national media swapped rumors and delved into a never-ending barrage of political predictions — some favored Markey to best Musgrave while others thought the voters in the 4th, where Republicans hold a 13 percent registration advantage, were just not yet ready to elect a Democrat.
They were and they did.
“What can I say — I think voters were absolutely ready for change, and a lot of people came out, and it showed,” Markey said after her victory speech. “I was very surprised by the margin, very surprised. I thought it was going to be much closer.”
Despite a political climate that favored Democrats in 2008, Markey faced huge challenges coming into the campaign. Early internal polling showed the never-elected former Senate staffer had zero name recognition outside her northern Colorado hometown of Fort Collins and was unknown among most voters in the 4th, including Democrats in surrounding cities, including Greeley. Ramping up that recognition would be difficult, especially in a district as geographically large as the 4th which encompasses Colorado’s Eastern Plains and the north Front Range.
But the same polling also had a bright spot for Markey, a window where victory could be seen — intense voter dissatisfaction with Musgrave.
Reworking an image
After three terms in Congress, Musgrave had made a name for herself as a socially conservative politician who was best known for leading a very public fight to ban gay marriage. Voting with the Republican Party more than 93 percent of the time, Musgrave spoke out against abortion, trumpeted gun rights and decried taxes.
But times and politics can change, even in the traditionally Republican 4th CD, and Musgrave’s support for socially conservative wedge issues did not come without a price. After four years, many moderate voters viewed the Fort Morgan resident as radical and out of touch. Her re-election margin in 2006 was less than 3 percentage points.
So, in 2007, while Markey drove the length of the district hitting every county fair and backyard barbecue she could find, Musgrave set out on a mission to rewrite her political persona. She began walking Main Street in Fort Collins, Greeley, Loveland and Longmont — cities where her support had faded — portraying herself as a moderate Republican more concerned with the economy than gay marriage. She teamed with Democrats on legislation to protect Rocky Mountain National Park and to keep the military out of Pinon Canyon in Southwestern Colorado. She broke ranks with President Bush and voted against a number of his presidential vetoes, including the Farm Bill.
But her conservative reputation dating back to the early 1990s on the Fort Morgan School Board could not be undone in one election cycle, and indeed Musgrave struggled to shake her unfavorable rating among many voters. Despite efforts to change her persona, limited public polling throughout the race showed Musgrave trailing the unknown Markey for the length of the campaign.
When in doubt, go negative
Faced with flat polling and an inability to fundraise, Musgrave turned to negative campaigning against Markey — a strategy that was overwhelmingly effective in her first three congressional races.
In 2002, Musgrave successfully labeled her opponent, former Colorado Senate President Stan Matsunaka, “Taxanaka” and warned of increased taxation if he were to win. It worked. In 2006, Musgrave took advantage of a bankruptcy in Democrat Angie Paccione‘s past and ran a successful campaign convincing voters she could not be trusted with the nation’s finances. It worked.
But this year it was harder for Musgrave to sell her claims. Markey, a small-business owner and former field director to Sen. Ken Salazar, lacked a voting record and had a clean personal history. Not to be deterred, Musgrave’s campaign raised questions about government contracts Markey’s family business, Syscom Systems, received after Markey was employed by Salazar but failed to provide proof for the allegations saying it was Markey’s responsibility to prove her own innocence. After the allegations, Salazar called Musgrave “an agent of hate,” and reporting by The Fort Collins Coloradoan showed the Government Services Agency, led by Republican appointees made by President Bush, could not find a conflict of interest between Syscom’s contracts and Markey’s service under Salazar.
Taking the advice of frustrated Democrats in the 4th CD who felt Matsunaka and Paccione lost to Musgrave because they failed to publicly respond to her attacks, Markey wasted no time responding to each negative ad Musgrave threw out with one of her own. At every level of the campaign Markey jumped head first into the mud pit, slinging dirt at Musgrave as fast as it was thrown at her.
Markey called Musgrave out for sponsoring legislation to cut taxes on precious metals collections — an effort that if passed would directly benefit Musgrave’s husband — and worked to tie Musgrave to the unpopular Republican Party. During their final debate, neither Musgrave or Markey held back and the two spent most of the hour-long discussion pounding on the other.
Despite enjoying relative fundraising success, Markey was greatly helped by the nearly $3 million in outside spending by independent groups that relentlessly attacked Musgrave in television ads and through targeted mailers. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, seeing Musgrave’s weakness, entered the race spending more than $760,000 in the final weeks.
To counter the DCCC, the National Republican Campaign Committee threw more than $1 million into the race too, but amid tightening contests around the country and bad polling numbers for Musgrave, the NRCC pulled out of the 4th late last month. In the end, the barrage was too much for Musgrave.
As the newest Colorado Democrat elected from a traditionally conservative district, Markey will no doubt face Republican challengers in the future and do it with a voting record. But unseating congressional incumbents is hard, and defeating first-term incumbents is even harder.
Markey, rightly so, wasn’t thinking beyond Election Day on Tuesday night.
“I’m going to catch up on some sleep,” she said after he acceptance speech in front of about 500 people at the Hilton in Fort Collins. “It’s been a very long campaign. It has seemed like a lifetime.”