Editor’s note: “Bringing It Home” runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
It’s a well-known fact that U.S. House incumbents are historically tough to beat. They have huge advantages in fundraising — interest groups tied to big business typically give generously to those already in power.
And with the federal dollars that pay for mail and other communications to their constituents, they don’t need to spend much time and money establishing, or re-establishing, name recognition.
In 2012, voters sent 90 percent of the 391 incumbents seeking re-election back to Washington. The average winner spent about $1.6 million on their re-election bid, while the average runner-up spent less than $500,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Abel Tapia, a Democrat from Pueblo, understands all of that — yet he’s still willing to take on U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, in the battle for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.
“Scott Tipton unseated an incumbent, John Salazar,” Tapia said during a visit to Aspen on Wednesday. “So it’s not unprecedented.”
Though the district as currently drawn is Republican-leaning, Tapia pointed out that its leadership has bounced between the two parties many times throughout its history. In 2010, Tipton defeated Salazar, a Democrat first elected to the seat in 2004, on the strength of the populist tea party movement that swept the country at the time.
“People wanted change, and John was the incumbent,” Tapia said. “I think the same situation exists today. With dissatisfaction over the gridlock in Washington, D.C., I don’t think incumbents have a slam dunk.
“I don’t put Tipton in that ‘He’s an incumbent, therefore he is going to prevail’ role. I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think we could win.”
Tapia noted that he is well-known in the Pueblo area, one of two major population centers within the sprawling district. He served on the Pueblo City School Board in the 1990s before getting elected to the state House and Senate. Term-limited in 2010, he was hired as director of the Colorado Lottery and worked there until four months ago.
Tapia acknowledged that his grassroots campaign will need to work hardest in the western and northern areas of the district, which are more rural and conservative. He plans to spend a lot of time in Grand Junction, the district’s other major population center and a GOP stronghold, as the campaign progresses.
“I’ve spoken to the Democratic Party in Mesa County,” he said. “They have a very active Democratic group there. They are very engaged. It’s going to take me going there and pushing things along. I think as dominant as Pueblo is for Democrats, Grand Junction is (dominant) for Republicans. I may not win Grand Junction, but I want to perform well.”
Voter turnout will be key, he said. Having two well-known Democrats on the statewide ballot — Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall are seeking re-election — should help his chances, Tapia said.
“I think we have a strong ticket, and one’s going to help the other,” he said.
The Cook Partisan Voting Index, a commonly used measure of how a congressional district leans, places Colorado’s 3rd District at “+5” for Republicans. In essence, that means that the district votes 5 percentage points more Republican than the country as a whole. In the past four presidential races, the district’s voting majority has sided with the Republican candidate: Bush, Bush, McCain, Romney.
State Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio said he disagrees with the notion that it’s difficult to beat an incumbent, “especially an incumbent like Scott Tipton.” As one might expect from an opposing party official, Palacio took aim at Tipton’s record, pointing out that Tipton joined tea party Republicans last fall in opposing passage of a federal budget.
That led to a partial shutdown of federal government operations. After 16 days of stalemate between the two parties, Tipton voted with 86 other House Republicans who joined 198 Democrats to raise the debt ceiling and put an end to the unpopular impasse.
“It does lean Republican, but it’s a competitive district, and it’s for the taking of anyone who can exhibit strong leadership skills and a great vision for what the people are looking for,” Palacio said.
When Salazar was in the seat, the district was even more Republican-leaning than it is today, the party chairman said. After redistricting in 2011, “it got slightly better for a Democrat,” he said.
Colorado, on the whole, is a swing state, Palacio noted, and so are its House districts.
“We can go one way or the other, depending on the mood of the electorate, and we have,” he said.
Political analysts use the colors red and blue to identify either a Republican or Democratic district or state, but Palacio said he would color the 3rd District, as well as the state, “purple.”
Palacio said Tapia must overcome a lack of name recognition in certain parts of the district but doesn’t see it as an overwhelming obstacle.
“More people know who Scott Tipton is, but they also understand that the elected official they got is not the same as what he ran on as a candidate,” Palacio said. “He talked about having business experience, yet he votes with extreme tea party Republicans in the House. He voted for the shutdown, and that really put a lurch in the forward movement of the economy, and it’s something that the common-sense Colorado voters really feel should not have been done.”
Tapia said during his Aspen visit — he met Democratic supporters Wednesday night at the home of Pitkin County party Chairwoman Blanca O’Leary — that he has proven ability to work “across the aisle.” He’s not a fan of the extreme gridlock that has marked relations between the GOP and Democrats inside the Beltway over the past several years.
With Tapia, Palacio said, the 3rd District gets someone who “fights for middle-class families in Colorado and is willing to get things done by working across party lines.”
Big-money conservative interests such as the Koch brothers and Grover Norquist are likely to get involved in the race, Palacio said, just as they did in 2012 when Democrat Sal Pace lost to Tipton following a barrage of television ads airing in Tipton’s favor.
“Sadly, I think that sets a bad example,” Palacio said. “They are attempting to buy elections.”
But, he added, Tapia can counter the campaign-finance disparity by hitting the road and talking with voters one-on-one, relying on a large network of family and friends to support his campaign, and building momentum from now to Nov. 4.
“The way that Abel wins this is truly grassroots: friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor, boots on the ground,” Palacio said.