DENVER – In the Republican-leaning 3rd Congressional District – where the number of Democrats voting early is trailing Republicans by less than previous years – incumbent Republican Scott Tipton and Democratic challenger Gail Schwartz are in a fight to the finish.
The district is performing better for Republicans than the snapshot of early voting statewide, where Republicans are trailing Democrats by four points.
It’s also performing better overall for Republicans than the tightly-contested House District 59 race between Republican incumbent J. Paul Brown and Democratic challenger Barbara McLachlan, where turnout for Democrats shows a slight advantage in early voting.
Through Thursday in HD 59, Democrats have turned in 6,107 ballots (39 percent); Republicans, 5,760 (37 percent); and unaffiliated voters, 3,615 (23 percent).
But it is the 3rd Congressional District race that has captured the most attention in Western Colorado, as large injections of cash fuel a battle in the final days.
Schwartz has been pressured to say whether she supports a universal health care state ballot question, something she has declined to weigh in on.
And news Friday that the FBI renewed its investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for classified emails while she was secretary of state will offer fodder to Republicans attacking Democrats in down-ticket races.
Republican advantage Through Thursday – when the latest numbers were available – Republicans in the 3rd Congressional District delivered 39,627 early ballots (40 percent); Democrats, 36,062 (36 percent); and unaffiliated voters, 24,240 (24 percent).
For a rural district where Republicans comprise 35 percent, Democrats 30 percent and unaffiliated voters 33 percent, the relatively close gap between Republicans and Democrats is a positive sign for Democrats and their allies.
“We’ve got a really good shot of taking Tipton out this year,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio. “It’s usually more flipped than it is right now.”
What’s difficult to predict is how the first year of all-mail voting will affect races.
Statewide, the overall ballots returned by party show Democrats contributing 39 percent, Republicans 35 percent and unaffiliated voters 25 percent.
At this time in 2012, Democrats contributed 36 percent of the vote, Republicans 39 percent and unaffiliated voters 24 percent, according to Colorado-based Magellan Strategies, which keeps a daily count of early returns.
But state GOP Chairman Steve House is not concerned.
“High-propensity Republicans, people who vote all the time, a lot of them haven’t voted yet,” House said. “They’re probably looking at ballot initiatives and figuring it out; we know they’re looking at the presidential race and figuring that out. We’re in good shape.”
Analysts say many Republicans are holding onto their ballots, unlike previous years, as they are unmotivated by either Trump or Clinton. The theory is that these voters will drop off their ballots in the final days, continuing the tradition of voting for Republicans in down-ticket contests.
Money, scrutiny Working off this premise, Democrats say a coordinated ground game is the key to success in CD 3, including knocking on doors to encourage people to vote. They argue that the district is a good indicator of how rural districts will vote nationwide.
The district has swung between the parties. Democrat John Salazar held the seat in 2010, before Tipton knocked him out.
Schwartz, a former state Senator from Crested Butte, was carefully recruited by Democrats to challenge Tipton.
“This race is going to be one of the closer congressional races we see in the country,” Palacio said. “It’s amazing, because not a lot of people are paying attention to it.”
But House said Schwartz faces trouble in the final days, especially with scrutiny back on Clinton’s emails. Schwartz is a Clinton supporter.
“With what happened today (Friday), the questions are going to start coming up again, do you support Hillary Clinton?” House said.
The two campaigns and outside interests have flooded airwaves with television and radio advertising.
The House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC, has contributed about $2.2 million to advertising in support of Schwartz, and the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental organization, has contributed about $127,000 to her advertising.
The onslaught of pro-Schwartz advertising recently spurred the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, to invest an additional $1.3 million to defend Tipton, bringing its total on advertising to around $1.6 million.
Tipton’s campaign has spent about $900,000 on advertising, and Schwartz’s campaign has spent about $600,000.
Fundraising has been its own story in the race, with Schwartz making impressive gains, catching up to Tipton, despite her late candidacy announcement in April.
Schwartz has taken in about $1.5 million through Oct. 19, with $319,119 coming from political action committees. Her campaign has blown through most of the money, with only $127,923 left in the bank as of Oct. 19.
Tipton – who has been fundraising since January 2015 – received about $1.6 million in contributions, with $715,405 coming from political action committees. He also spent most of his cash, left with $239,547 as of Oct. 19.
Health care, dysfunction Schwartz has traveled the sprawling district, most recently joining U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on a bus tour that included a stop in Durango.
“It’s hard work to gain the confidence of voters in our communities in western and southern Colorado – that’s what I have worked extremely hard on,” Schwartz said.
Her opponent’s campaign has recently attempted to draw contrasts, especially in terms of health care reform. It has focused on recent news that some insurance premiums are expected to jump by double digits next year.
“The latest news underscores why Schwartz’s contention that Obamacare is ‘working’ is completely asinine and proves yet again that she is completely out-of-touch with rural Coloradans,” said Tipton spokesman Michael Fortney.
The Tipton campaign also questioned why Schwartz has not taken a position on Amendment 69, a ballot question that would create universal health care in Colorado. Schwartz has declined to state her position. Her campaign said she is focused on federal health reform, not a Colorado-specific proposal.
Tipton’s camp also continues to push for details on what a public option would look like, something Schwartz supports.
Her campaign said, “One of her objectives in health care going forward is controlling costs, and she is interested in a public option as a possible way to provide consumers a choice in markets with little or no competition among providers.”
Schwartz defends the Affordable Care Act, suggesting that starting over is not a solution. She says Tipton’s only solution is to oppose Obamacare.
“Scott, your 64 votes against Obamacare, did that work?” Schwartz asked.
Schwartz also continues to hit Tipton on his role in a gridlocked Congress.
“I’m going to stand on my record, and Scott Tipton needs to stand on his,” Schwartz said. “When you have such minimal performance and success in six years, people are going to hold him accountable.”