Colorado’s Third Congressional District, which extends across the Western Slope and along the state’s southeastern region to Pueblo, is up for grabs this year. It’s resulted in one of the highest-dollar contests of the election season, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. A win by the Democrat could help Democrats mow down their deficit in Congress. A win by the Republican helps Republicans maintain control of the U.S. House.
If Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton of Cortez can hang onto his Western Slope seat against Democrat former state Sen. Gail Schwartz of Crested Butte, the seat could be safe for Tipton for years to come.
How we got here
Tipton, a former small business owner, first won his seat in 2010, defeating then-U.S. Rep. John Salazar of Manassa by more than 10,000 votes. That has so far been the closest any Democrat has come to defeating Tipton since he got to Congress.
Two years later, Tipton defeated former state Rep. Sal Pace of Pueblo in a landslide of more than 40,000 votes, and like this year, 2012 was a presidential election year. President Barack Obama won the state.
In 2014, Tipton won by an even bigger margin — 63,000 votes — over former state Sen. Abel Tapia, also of Pueblo.
This year, Tipton won a primary challenge over 28-year old political novice Alex Beinstein, a contest Tipton won handily.
Schwartz, who has spent most of her life in public service, faced several other contenders in the Democratic Congressional District 3 convention in April, but emerged the winner.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
Tipton’s primary focus is on the economy and jobs that are tied to the district’s energy industry. He also has sponsored legislation that some in the district believe would turn over Colorado’s federally-owned lands to the state for sale to the highest bidder, most likely oil and gas companies.
Schwartz’s focus is on employment, too, but it’s combined with an interest in protecting Colorado’s public lands and building up the outdoor recreation industry that she believes will help replace some of the jobs lost in mining.
In a West Slope debate, Tipton hammered Schwartz hard on the district’s energy industry and job woes, pointing to hundreds of high-paying jobs lost, particularly in the coal industry in the past several years. Tipton blames Schwartz for her support of increased renewable energy standards, which he said is responsible for some of those job losses.
Schwartz responds that Tipton has done nothing to help local residents transition to other jobs.
So who are the donors?
Fundraising has been a major part of the contest.
Tipton, who sits on a House committee on financial services, has gotten dozens of contributions from banks, financial services and insurance companies; they’re his largest contributors by a long shot, with more than $160,000 donated in this election cycle.
Until just two weeks ago, Schwartz had raised more money than Tipton, but the latest filing from the Federal Election Commission shows that Tipton just edged out Schwartz by about $125,000, with several $5,000 last-minute contributions from energy, agricultural and banking groups.
About 43 percent of Tipton’s contributions have come from political action committees (PACs). That includes a $5,000 donation from a PAC run by former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and another $5,000 from KochPAC, affiliated with the billionaire Koch brothers.
Just over 21 percent of Schwartz’s contributions have come from PACs, but she’s also won the backing of groups like Emily’s List and Red to Blue, a Democratic committee that backs candidates who they believe have the best chance of beating Republicans. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees donated $20,000 and Schwartz also has been the beneficiary of contributions from a number of unions, including teachers, firefighters, electrical workers, etc.
Schwartz’s biggest donations have come through Red to Blue: $470,000 from almost 800 contributions ranging from $10 to the federal limit of $5,400. That represents more than a quarter of her total fundraising.
Tipton has raised $1.627 million to Schwartz’s $1.502 million.
If Schwartz wins…
The cards are stacked for Schwartz this year. It’s a presidential year in which Democrats tend to turn out more than Republicans. And then there’s the Trump factor: the expected negative impact of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on down-ballot races, including the Tipton/Schwartz contest.
A month ago, Tipton told The Durango Herald that despite lewd comments by Trump in 2005 that had just been revealed in an Access Hollywood video, Tipton would still vote for him. Tipton called Trump flawed, but said “we cannot afford [Democratic presidential nominee] Hillary Clinton and a third Obama term.”
Schwartz has won endorsements from seven of the eight major newspapers in the district, including the two largest, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and The Durango Herald.
And she has a strong track record, from eight years of service in the Colorado Senate, including support for public lands, her number one issue in the district.
If Tipton wins….
He has voter registration, voter turnout, history, and most recently, money, on his side.
Republicans outnumber Democrats in voter registration by more than 20,000. And according to Magellan Strategies, as of Friday, Republican voters have returned ballots at greater numbers than Democrats.
The question is who unaffiliated voters will pick.
The district has more unaffiliated voters than Democrats, by about 10,000. While unaffiliated voters haven’t returned ballots at the same rates as Democrats and Republicans, they do make up about a quarter of the total ballots returned so far. And unaffiliated voters, at least in general, tend to vote for Democrats more than Republicans.
Is there a national significance to this race?
While most pundits believe it’s a long shot, Democrats are hoping to flip the U.S. House to Democratic control, a challenge they can’t win without Schwartz and state Sen. Morgan Carroll, who is vying to beat Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Aurora in Congressional District 6.
Democrats are expected to do well next week, winning back at least some of the 60 seats they would need to capture in order to retake the U.S. House.