Republicans lick chops at prospect of state Senate control

With a one-seat Democratic majority in Colorado’s State Senate (18-17) and at least seven races in play, the calculus for dominance in the legislature’s upper chamber is complicated.

Republicans’ fondest dream for the General Assembly would be to couple a gubernatorial win for Bob Beauprez with a new majority in the Senate, giving them the upper hand at the Capitol for the first time since 2004.

To achieve this, Republicans targeted four Democratic incumbents in Jefferson County and one on the Western Slope. But the two southern Colorado Senate seats won by Republicans during the 2013 recall are also in play.

Both parties appear to have shifted their focus away from the House, where a 37-28 Democratic majority is harder for the R’s to overcome than the one-seat advantage for D’s in the Senate. One race, in House District 3, is notable because redistricting leaves a popular Democratic legislator vulnerable to a politically inexperienced Republican opponent.

Still, the Republican side of the House has chafed under its minority status the past two years. Any given cycle, any team can win, so we’ll be watching every race tonight. Here are some of the big ones.

Senate Races

SD-3 (Pueblo County)

Democrat: Leroy Garcia

Republican: George Rivera (incumbent)

This district flipped to the R column when Rivera defeated former Sen. Angie Giron in last year’s recall. The Pueblo Chieftain declined to endorse in this race, calling both candidates “effective, enthusiastic and energetic lawmakers,” Pueblo natives with the lunch-bucket bona fides required to succeed in southern Colorado politics.

Rivera, a retired Pueblo deputy police chief, hopes to win a full four-year term to continue his efforts to repeal background-check legislation for gun purchases and roll back renewable-energy measures.

In his first term as a legislator in HD-46, Garcia, a paramedic and Iraq war veteran, sponsored bills to cap college-tuition increases and repurpose Fort Lyons as a transitional program for homeless people. In this traditionally Democratic steel town, he has a solid shot at regaining the seat.

SD-5 (Delta, Pitkin, Eagle, Gunnison, Chaffee, Lake and Hinsdale counties)

Democrat: Kerry Donovan

Republican: Don Suppes

SD-5 is all over the map, literally (seven mountain counties, from Delta to Salida) and politically. It serves conservative farm-and-ranch, oil-and-coal Western Slope voters as well as upscale Aspen and Vail. Communities such as Salida and Paonia, where ranchers and prison guards coexist with artists and organic farmers, are also in the mix. The seat is held by term-limited Democrat Gail Schwartz of Snowmass Village.

Republican candidate Don Suppes is mayor of Orchard City, a suburb of Delta, and owns a heating and cooling business. Democrat Kerry Donovan runs her family ranch near Edwards and has held a seat on the Vail town council.

Suppes’ lack of experience on a bigger stage than Orchard City (pop. 3,061) has caused some embarrassing missteps. In late October, photos surfaced showing him and volunteers prepping literature for his Senate race at Orchard City’s town hall. Suppes insisted the political use doesn’t violate local policy, telling the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, “There’s no cost to the town for doing this.” Saying Suppes doesn’t get it, Donovan cites state law prohibiting electioneering with public resources.

SD-11 (Manitou Springs and environs)

Democrat: Michael Merrifield

Republican: Bernie Herpin (incumbent)

Herpin is running for his first full term; he won his seat last year in the election that recalled former Senate President John Morse. While his signature issue is the Second Amendment, the Colorado Springs Independent praises him as “principled, industrious (and) accessible” in his years on the Colorado Springs City Council.

Former state Rep. Michael Merrifield, an educator who represented the less-conservative west side of El Paso County, served in the legislature for eight years. Merrifield hopes that support from the broader general electorate (as opposed to recall voters) will win the seat back to the D column.

SD-16 (Foothills – Jefferson and Gilpin counties)

Democrat: Jeanne Nicholson (incumbent)

Republican: Tim Neville

At primary time, SD-16 was one of three Jeffco races in which candidates backed by the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners prevailed over more moderate Republicans. Former state Sen. Tim Neville once represented SD-22; his platform in SD-16 is full of conservative red meat, from support of gun rights and school voucher programs to opposition to taxes and abortion.

Neville opposes Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, who was a public-health nurse and Gilpin County commissioner before heading for the statehouse in 2011. Nicholson’s legislative record includes chairing the Local Government committee.

One interesting wrinkle: Neville’s sister-in-law Julie Williams is the Jeffco Board of Education member who proposed to “review” AP U.S. History for patriotism, support for free enterprise and respect for authority. If the growing backlash against the school board brings out left-leaning voters, we may see its effect here first.

SD-19 (North Jeffco)

Democrat: Rachel Zenzinger (incumbent)

Republican: Laura Woods

Zenzinger, an Arvada city councilwoman, was appointed to fill the seat vacated by former Sen. Evie Hudak, who was targeted for recall over her vote on gun control. To preserve the Democrats’ Senate majority, Hudak took the hit for the team and resigned. Zenzinger, who describes herself as a “fifth-generation teacher,” has made education, economic development and protection of the elderly priorities in her first year.

SD-19 is another race whose primary was targeted by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. Lang Sias, a moderate Republican who lost to Hudak in a squeaker in 2012, might well have made short work of Zenzinger. Instead, her opponent, Laura Woods, has stayed out of the public eye, campaigning by postcards and yard signs and rallying her base on a straightforward guns-and-God platform.

SD-20 (Central and South Jeffco)

Democrat: Cheri Jahn (incumbent)

Republican: Larry Queen

Cheri Jahn has been representing the Wheat Ridge/Lakewood area since 2001, first in the House, then the Senate. The Lakewood Sentinel likes her “well-reasoned independent perspectives on business” and ability to “balance business and social issues.” Her opponent, first-time politician Larry Queen, has been working hard to connect Jahn to a wide range of unpopular entities, including the business personal-property tax, Obamacare and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. While he faced no primary opposition, Queen’s stances mirror those of Woods, Neville and Sanchez, from support for school vouchers to a publicity photo at the shooting range. A strong Republican ground game in Jeffco could sweep Queen into office too.

SD-22 (South Jeffco)

Democrat: Andy Kerr (incumbent)

Republican: Tony Sanchez

Whip-smart and likable, Kerr has won fans on both sides of the aisle in his eight years at the statehouse, first in HD-26, then in the Senate. The Lakewood Sentinel cites Kerr’s “get-down-to-business and get-it-done style” in its endorsement, but Kerr has been in the GOP’s cross hairs for years because of his advocacy for education while working as a teacher in Jeffco.

His opponent, Tony Sanchez, knocked attorney Mario Nicolais out of the primary last spring. Like Woods, Sanchez benefited from RMGO mailers announcing their opponents’ refusal to support its positions on guns. And, like Woods and Neville, Sanchez was the beneficiary of mailers that used pictures of protesting Jeffco schoolkids to pin “schools in crisis” on their Democratic opponents’ ties to “corrupt union bosses.”

Bonus House Race

HD-3 (South Denver, Englewood, Cherry Hills Village)

Democrat: Daniel Kagan (incumbent)

Republican: Candice Benge

Kagan, a British-born businessman and attorney who heads the House Judiciary Committee and is known for his close attention to policy detail, was appointed to fill the HD-3 seat in 2009 and re-elected easily in 2010 and 2012. Once a safe Democratic seat, HD-3 was put into play after the 2010 Census, with neighborhoods in south Denver and old Englewood replaced by portions of Greenwood Village and other Arapahoe County suburbs.

The Republicans’ choice this time around is a 30-year-old political newcomer, Candice Benge, whose race has been light on policy statements and heavy on dark-money-funded postcards criticizing Kagan for not being female.