On the radar: Two sleeper statehouse races to watch this year

UPDATE: On Oct. 24, two days after this story ran, Rep. Tim Leonard amended his campaign finance filing to correctly identify the consulting firm. It is Rearden Strategic, owned by attorney Barry Arrington.

Slim margins of party control over the Colorado House and Senate have left both chambers decidedly up for grabs this election. Democrats control the House by just three seats, while Republicans lead the Senate by only one.

So which races are most likely to tip the balance?

The hottest contests already well known. For Senate, there’s the battle between Republican incumbent Sen. Laura Woods and her Democratic challenger, former Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, in Arvada; the race between Republican Rep. Kevin Priola and Democratic former Rep. Jenise May in eastern Adams County; and the fight between Democratic Rep. Daniel Kagan and Republican Nancy Doty over the Arapahoe County seat. Republican Rep. J. Paul Brown is fighting off Democratic contender Barbara McLachlan to keep his House seat in Durango’s District 59.

These four races have also raised the most money. According to the latest campaign filings, both the Woods/Zenzinger and Doty/Kagan races have already passed the $400,000 mark. In 2014, only the Woods/Zenzinger contest raised that much, and that wasn’t until the last campaign finance filing of the season, in December. There are still two more campaign filing deadlines left this year.

But are those four the only races worth watching? No way. Every election has sleepers: lower dollar, under-the-radar contests that can yield surprising results. Woods shocked the state in 2014, a Republican landslide year, when she beat Zenzinger by 663 votes out of more than 62,000 total votes cast. This year will likely have surprises, too.

Possible surprises in 2016

So who are the sleeper candidates in 2016?

More than likely, they’re Democrats.

That’s because national and state polls show good odds for Democrats at the top of the ticket in Colorado, and there’s an expectation that this could carry down to the lesser-known races for state House and Senate.

The Dems also have more money. They’re outraising Republicans in some House and Senate districts where they haven’t been competitive for years — or, in some cases, ever. Here are the two most important sleepers to watch.

House District 25: Story v. Leonard

House District 25 is based in the foothills and the wide open spaces of western Jefferson County. No Democrat has even come close to winning the seat in at least 30 years.

Tammy Story of Evergreen could put that trend to rest.

Just like in the most contested districts, unaffiliated voters in House District 25 outnumber both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans do have an edge over Democrats in the district by some 5,000 voters.

Story’s fundraising stands out. She has a strong advantage in contributions over Republican incumbent Rep. Tim Leonard of Evergreen, who was appointed to the seat in January to finish the term of then-Rep. Jon Keyser of Morrison, who went on to run (and come in fourth in a five-way race) in the U.S. Senate primary.

Story, who like Leonard has lived in Colorado for more than 30 years, was active in the campaign last year to recall three conservative members of the Jefferson County Board of Education. For the past two decades, she has been a volunteer political activist and organizer.

Leonard, a realtor, has been running for office since 1998. He filed an affidavit to run for governor in 1998 as an unaffiliated candidate. In 2006, he ran as a member of the American Constitution Party for Senate District 16 (Jefferson County), finishing third behind Democratic incumbent and Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald of Genesee and Republican Marty Nielsen of Lyons. In 2010 Leonard ran as a Republican against Democrat Jeanne Nicholson for the same district, which Nicholson won.

How much have the candidates raised?

As of October 12, Story has raised $81,933 to Leonard’s $47,471.

Her biggest contributors are political action committees: the Colorado Democratic Party ($15,000), and teachers’ unions and affiliated groups ($16,350). Among her more than 400 individual donors are Democratic heavy-hitters in education in Jefferson County, including former Jeffco school board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman, former superintendent Cindy Stevenson, and former Jeffco school board president Charles Percy.

Political action committees are Leonard’s biggest donors as well. The list is topped by a realtor’s PAC ($3,000), the Jefferson County GOP and Rocky Mountain Gun Owners ($1,000 each) and several local Republican groups ($2,020). Leonard’s 200+ individual donors include beer magnate Pete Coors ($400) and himself ($1,070).

Noticeably missing from the list of Leonard’s contributors: the Colorado Republican Party.

How much have they spent, and where has the money gone?

Leonard has so far spent $19,752, with the largest payment of $9,764, for consulting services, to Reared Strategic, Inc.. The company isn’t listed in the Secretary of State’s business database. The Jefferson County Assessor’s office has no record of a building at the company’s address, which is reported in Leonard’s filing as 6372 West Coal Mine Road in Littleton. There is no 6300-block of Coal Mine Road in Littleton, based on both a Google Earth search and an in-person visit by The Independent. Leonard did not return a call and email to respond to questions about the company.

Story’s biggest expenses have been for mailers ($20,308) consultant services ($2,500) with MB Strategies of Lakewood.

Senate District 27: Sullivan v. Tate

Could a Democrat be the first to represent the Centennial-based Senate District 27 since the last century? The district has elected Republican stalwarts like former Senate President John Andrews and Sen. Nancy Spence.

Republicans, with 34,865 active voters, still hold a strong voter registration advantage in the district over Democrats, with 27,384, but unaffiliateds are right in the middle, with 31,537 voters.

The candidates are Democrat Tom Sullivan, best known as the father of Alex Sullivan, one of the victims in the Aurora Theater shooting in 2012. The murder put Sullivan on a new life course of advocating for victims’ rights.

He’s running against Republican and incumbent Sen. Jack Tate, a small business owner, who was elected to the House in 2014. Tate was named a “Champion for Democracy” by Colorado Common Cause and has built up a record of bipartisan legislation, with 30 bills signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

How much have the candidates raised?

Sullivan has built up an advantage on fundraising, bringing in $144,875, compared to Tate with $128,865. That latter figure includes more than $27,000 from Tate’s House campaign account.

The big money for Sullivan and Tate have both come from political action committees. Sullivan’s biggest donors have been the Colorado Democratic Party ($17,500), and a wide variety of unions, including firefighters, electrical workers, teachers and pipefitters ($38,000).

Tate’s big money has been from health insurance and healthcare-related political action committees ($10,500 in 2016), realtors ($4,850), the Apartment Association of Metro Denver ($4,500), and an architects’ PAC ($2,425).

How much have they spent, and where has the money gone?

Tate has so far spent $63,816, most of it on mailers. In the past month, Tate has paid Denver Direct Mail $10,602.90 for mailers; ACME Political Solutions, $23,555 for mailers; and Olson Strategies, at $7,125, also for mailers.

Sullivan has spent $133,076, with the largest checks going to Petel and Company of Aurora for mailers and printing ($78,176). He also paid $14,752 to Rocky Mountain Voter Outreach for canvassers.

County clerks mailed out ballots to voters in Colorado on Monday.

Photo: 401(k) 2012, Creative Commons, Flickr