WASHINGTON — Diana DeGette doesn’t want to discuss her 2020 primary.
Not yet, anyway.
“You know, I’m not talking about that right now,” the 12th-term Denver congresswoman told The Colorado Independent on Capitol Hill last week. “It’s like 15 months away, the primary.”
DeGette, 61, is facing what could be a tough battle against former Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran, 38, who was the first Latina speaker of the House and is seen as a rising star in state politics.
Duran is framing herself as a part of a “new generation of leadership” after a historic wave of young, liberal Democrats helped the party clinch the House majority last November.
She told Denver7, “The district has changed a lot since 1997 when Congresswoman DeGette was elected. And I applaud the work that she has done in the past on behalf of the district, but I also think that in this time where we have Donald Trump in the White House, we have seen the elevation of hate and fear, it is time for something new and different.”
Notably, Duran has also won the backing of two former cabinet secretaries and Denver political powerhouses: former Colorado Sen. and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Federico Peña, who was Denver’s mayor and led two federal agencies under President Clinton.
DeGette is paying attention. Her campaign fired off a fundraising pitch within hours of Duran’s announcement last month, Colorado Politics reported, saying, “My race to continue serving you starts today.”
Meanwhile, she said she’d remain “laser-focused” on her top priority: “using my leadership position to hold the Trump administration accountable and fighting for all of you.”
Indeed, that’s what DeGette preferred to talk about last week as she hurried from a vote on the U.S. House floor to a hearing in the Natural Resources Committee.
“I’m chairing this important subcommittee right now, the oversight subcommittee, and I’m really working on the hearings for that and my legislative agenda,” she said. “I think the politics are taking care of themselves.”
DeGette took over this year as chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, a powerful panel with broad authority to scrutinize federal policies and the behavior of the Trump administration.
Already this year, her subcommittee has held hearings on the administration’s family separation policy, the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement record, a growing measles outbreak and the rising costs of insulin.
DeGette also serves as co-chairwoman of the congressional Diabetes Caucus, Pro-Choice Caucus and Privacy Caucus.
She made a bid to be House Majority Whip last fall, which upset members of the Congressional Black Caucus who were backing South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn. DeGette dropped out, citing Democratic infighting, and said she looked forward to continuing her former role as chief deputy whip, an appointed position. After the spat, DeGette didn’t make the roster of chief deputy whips Clyburn announced in December.
DeGette largely has cruised to re-election since she first won her Denver-based 1st District seat in 1996. She faced one of her tougher primary challenges in 2018 from Saira Rao, an author and a political novice who represented anti-establishment angst within the Democratic Party. But DeGette easily fended off Rao and went on to trounce her GOP opponent in the general election, winning nearly 74 percent of the vote in a safely Democratic district.
In a meeting with The Colorado Independent shortly after November’s election, DeGette bristled when asked about Rao and Rao’s representations that DeGette is out of touch with constituents and has served too long with few results. “I didn’t come here to talk about that,” she said.
DeGette is now playing up her experience and her influence in the House “at a time when that matters less to primary voters — or just to voters,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the newsletter Inside Elections.
Longtime Democratic lawmakers were ousted in primaries in the 2018 cycle, including New York Rep. Joe Crowley, who was defeated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) was a 10-term incumbent when he lost his primary to Ayanna Pressley, who went on to win the seat in November.
“I think based on a couple of primaries last cycle, there is a desire among the Democratic base for fresher faces,” Gonzales said.
That’s part of why Peña is supporting Duran for the seat, he told the Independent.
“My own personal philosophy is that no one should serve for an elongated time period in any office, because I think there’s always room for new ideas and fresh faces,” he said.
Although DeGette and Duran may not be far apart on policy, he said, “I do think that Crisanta does bring a fresh perspective reflecting the new generation of voters and the changing demographics of our country — and in particular Denver.” He pointed to the growing populations of Hispanics and millennials in the region. “I think that’s what we need in Washington.”
It’s still unclear how much traction Duran will get by depicting herself as part of a “new generation” of Democrats.
Ian Silverii, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, expects the primary to turn into a race to the left, but he said there isn’t a clear answer as to which candidate is more progressive.
“I think that both of them have plenty of bona fides to talk about both bipartisanship and progressive leadership,” he said. “Could you call one of them a Bernie [Sanders] person or the next AOC? Probably not. I just don’t think that they’re aggressively left wing, either one of them.”
Duran’s move to challenge DeGette, rather than challenge Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020, shocked many Colorado political observers.
Time will tell, Silverii said, whether that was “totally foolish step in the wrong direction or a completely brilliant master stroke of strategy.”
Meanwhile, expect DeGette to continue to play up both her experience and her liberal credentials.
“I do consider myself a progressive,” DeGette told The Independent. And “furthermore, my voting record shows that.” She also stressed the importance of working across the aisle.
“I think bipartisanship is important. I don’t think you can ever give away your core values, but you also have to be able to work in a bipartisan way to forward the agenda,” she said.
Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton, the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a longtime colleague of DeGette, said the two have a “very good relationship.”
DeGette is “interested in governing and frankly, I think that’s where people want folks to be,” he said.
Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, another Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, cited his work with DeGette on a major overhaul of federal chemical laws as an example of her bipartisanship.
“Diana and I are pretty far apart,” Shimkus said. “I know where our differences are and we respect those differences, but when there’s a chance for us to work together, we do.”
Shimkus recalled a Republican primary he faced “from someone who said I wasn’t conservative enough and they’d be more vocal and they’d stand on the tables and scream and holler.”
He added, “I get that appeals to the base, but for really doing public policy, you’ve got to have people that are strong in their convictions that aren’t screaming in your face.”
Gonzales of Inside Elections said it’s too early to tell how much of a threat Duran poses to DeGette. “By all indications, she is going to be serious, we just don’t know how vulnerable the congresswoman really is.”