While some congressional districts are stuck with candidates like William Jefferson, in August the Democratic voters of Colorado’s second congressional district are going to be able to choose among three excellent candidates, any one of whom would make a fine congressperson.
And those three candidates are going to spend a lot of money to convince the voters of that excellence. A lot of money. The race is already the most expensive Democratic primary in the country in this election cycle – the three have raised nearly $2 million with a year to go before the November election – and it has a chance to become the most expensive primary election ever.
Incumbent Democrat Rep. Mark Udall is abandoning his U.S. House seat in CD-2 – which includes Boulder, the mountains to the west of Boulder and a few fingers of Broomfield, Adams and Jefferson counties to the suburban east – to run for the U.S. Senate.
Udall won his first race for the House by 50 percent to 48 percent over his Republican challenger. Since then, he’s steadily increased his margin, getting 67 percent of the vote last time around. Udall’s coattails are long. The CD-2 seat, once sharply contested between the parties, is now considered a safe Democratic seat. So far, no Republican is even campaigning for that party’s nomination.
As I said, three strong candidates are trying to win the Democratic garlands (if garlands is the word I want). They are, in order of their apparent current renown:
• Joan Fitz-Gerald, former president of the Colorado State Senate, and long-time political activist. Though none of the candidates have released any polling data, by virtue of her name recognition and political experience, Fitz-Gerald is considered the front-runner.
• Jared Polis, entrepreneur and philanthropist. Polis, 32, is an internet millionaire and one of the wealthiest Americans under the age of 40. He’s been president of the state Board of Education, a seat for which he spent $1.2 million of his own money, and which he won by 92 votes out of 1.6 million cast. Polis played a leading role in the successful passage of Amendment C and Amendment 41 initiatives in 2005. Amendment C allows the state to collect more tax money; 41 limits gifts to public officials.
• Will Shafroth, environmentalist. Shafroth is long-time Colorado political family. He was the first director of Great Outdoors Colorado, which uses state lottery funds to protect open space throughout the state. When he left GOCO in 2000, he started the Colorado Conservation Trust, which raises money to protect landscapes.
All three of these candidates have shown prodigious ability to raise campaign funds. Most observers expected it of Polis and Fitz-Gerald, but were a little surprised when Shafroth was able go toe-to-toe with them. But he’s been raising money for environmental causes for years, so he certainly knows which rocks to look under.
This fundraising prowess kicks the level of interest up a notch in this campaign, potentially putting it on the national stage. In the third quarter fundraising cycle – from July 1 to Sept. 30, 2007, the three combined to raise $996,000. This was far more than was raised in any other congressional district by Democrats in that period – the next contender is Democratic Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand in New York’s 20th district, who raised $628,000. Three candidates in Illinois’ 10th congressional district raised a little more – just over a million – but that included two Democrats and a Republican.
None of the groups that track campaign spending differentiate between fundraising for primary and general elections. So they can’t say with certainty what the “most expensive primary ever” was. The Colorado CD-2 race may end up costing about $6 million. A 1998 New York state primary in New York had five candidates who spent about $10 million among them. But that record may also be within reach in Colorado, especially given the virtually unlimited resources available to Polis.
The three candidates now have about $1.5 million in the bank. What are they going to spend it on? All three have considerable strengths, along with a few weaknesses.
Fitz-Gerald’s greatest strength is her solid legislative record and political background. She has deep roots among the Democratic faithful. But her public record is also a big target, one that Polis has already begun to shoot at.
Polis, who made his money in internet ventures, appeals strongly to the netroots and young people. But while this has paid off in national fundraising, young people are notorious for their unwillingness to actually cast their votes.
Shafroth is a very appealing individual when you meet him. He actually listens to what you’re saying. But he’s virtually unknown among the voting populace. It’s an open question whether he can meet enough people face-to-face in the large congressional district to overcome his anonymity.
There’s a second backstory to this campaign, one that I find to be an interesting commentary on the evolution of the Rocky Mountain social sense. Polis is the first openly gay candidate in the U.S. who isn’t already an incumbent to run for Congress. This information has been greeted with a yawn across the district.
When I asked Polis about this a few months ago, he said that he thought there was still a considerable of progress to be made on tolerance, in Boulder and elsewhere. “It’s really come a long way on human rights for all Americans, but we also have a long way to go,” he said.
“And of course it was only last year that Colorado voters rejected full domestic partnership rights for domestic partners. Now in this congressional district, that passed. But the nation certainly has a long way to go reach full equality for all citizens.”
Still, not very long ago, a candidate who announced his gay credentials before a three-way race for Congress would have been a non-starter anywhere in America. Ask Larry Craig.