GRAND JUNCTION – The race for the 3rd Congressional District began in earnest on Saturday, as Republican Scott Tipton and Democrat Gail Schwartz debated for the first time.
“Nothing has performed less than the do-nothing Congress. We have seen years of nothing getting through and nothing getting done,” Schwartz said. “Rep. Tipton is part of that problem.”
But Tipton fought back during the fiery exchange, at times cornering Schwartz on policy she supported that he believes led to higher energy rates and problems for the coal industry.
Tipton underscored that he passed 11 bills through the House, all of which had bipartisan support.
“She said she got most of her bills through with bipartisan support. I got all of my bills through with bipartisan support,” Tipton said. “I think she’s running for the wrong office if she isn’t paying attention to what’s actually happening in Washington, D.C.”
What was expected to be a sleepy re-election bid for the third-term congressman has turned into a battle for the sprawling district, which includes most of the Western Slope and southern portions of the Eastern Plains.
Geographically, it is one of the largest districts in the nation.
National Democrats hope to flip the district, which was last won by Democrats in 2008, when then-incumbent John Salazar won re-election. Tipton, a former small business owner from Cortez, defeated Salazar in 2010, at a time when a tea party wave lifted Republicans.
The debate Saturday foreshadowed a competitive race.
Tipton hit Schwartz on coal, suggesting that she has contributed to the contraction of the industry in Colorado, especially in Delta County. He held a press call on Thursday to announce a new advertisement, which alleges that Schwartz killed the coal industry.
Tipton focused on measures Schwartz supported in the Legislature that mandated a renewable energy standard and required some Front Range coal-fired plants to burn natural gas. The Republican congressman believes both measures crushed coal mining in Delta County.
“Would you apologize to the laid off coal miners based on policies that you put in place when you were a state senator?” Tipton asked.
Schwartz pointed out that outside factors contributed, including growth of natural gas, something that a handful of Republicans – including then-Rep. Ellen Roberts of Durango – helped facilitate through the legislation requiring coal-fired plants to transition to gas.
“The war on coal is natural gas, and it’s the marketplace,” Schwartz told The Durango Herald before the debate.
Tipton has raised nearly $1.2 million, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings. But Schwartz has reported impressive fundraising, given her late entrance in April. She has filed $622,960 in contributions.
Both candidates have been lifted by big money injections from political action committees, with Schwartz receiving help from national unions and environmental groups, while Tipton has been backed by business interests, including oil and gas and banks.
Schwartz also highlighted issues around public lands, suggesting that Tipton wants to privatize those spaces. She accused Tipton of being in the pocket of the oil and gas industry, especially over the 220,000-acre Thompson Divide southwest of Carbondale.
Schwartz alleges that Tipton took the side of a Texas-based energy company over constituents by working with the company’s lobbyists on draft legislation that would allow companies to trade rights in the wilderness area for land to drill elsewhere in the state.
“Why would you stand in the face of those citizens and not protect their interests?” asked Schwartz.
Tipton quickly punched back, asking, “How did your fundraiser in California with (House Minority Leader Nancy) Pelosi go?”
Tipton and supporters of the Thompson Divide proposal say it is viewed as a compromise.
“If you want to be able to find a solution, you have to be able to put an idea on the table,” he said.