DENVER - Republican heavyweights are backing Rep. Ellen Roberts to run for the state Senate seat from Southwest Colorado.
Cortez Republican Rep. Scott Tipton, who had considered entering the race, said Friday that he would not challenge Roberts, R-Durango, in a primary.
The news comes as area Democrats wait for word on whether the incumbent senator, Hesperus Democrat Jim Isgar, will be appointed to a top U.S. Department of Agriculture post in Colorado. Isgar is term-limited and cannot run for the seat in November 2010 even if he remains in the Senate next year.
Isgar's seat is the GOP's No. 1 target in 2010, said Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction. Penry endorsed Roberts on Friday.
For her part, Roberts was not ready to formally announce a Senate bid Friday.
"I haven't formally announced because I don't think it's appropriate before the session is over to move onto that thought process. But I certainly am considering it," Roberts said, adding that she was pleased by Penry's show of support.
Penry said he and Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams have spoken frequently about the seat and want to see Roberts run.
"The road back to the majority for Republicans begins in Southwest Colorado. We need to win that seat," Penry said. "We also don't want an ugly primary."
The legislative session ends no later than May 6.
Senior Republicans have talk-ed throughout the spring with both Tipton and Roberts, Tipton said.
Tipton has decided to focus on his own re-election.
"My view is, I've got a job to do here right now," he said.
Penry said Tipton would have been a good candidate and made a "gracious" move by deferring to Roberts.
La Plata Democrats have been talking about a successor to Isgar for about a month, when word leaked that Isgar might leave his seat early for the USDA post. If he does resign, Democratic party officers from all the counties in the Senate district would meet to pick his replacement.
Roberts' anointment as the GOP contender means any Democrat would face a tough race. She edged out former Durango Mayor Joe Colgan in the 2006 election, but by 2008, she was so popular that she didn't even draw a challenger.
Penry's endorsement of Rob-erts is an opening move in a chess match to control the Legislature in 2010. It's a crucial year because it means the party in charge will get to draw new district maps for the Legislature and Congress.
"It's part of the equation you can't ignore," Tipton said.
Every 10 years, the Legislature draws the districts for Colorado's seven congressional seats. The Legislature's own districts are drawn by an 11-member panel, with four members appointed by the Legislature, four by the chief justice of the Supreme Court and three by the governor.
Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey is a Democrat. So is Gov. Bill Ritter, who is up for re-election in 2010. Penry is considering running against Ritter in 2010. So is former Congressman Scott McInnis.
Isgar represents the most heavily Republican district of any Democratic senator. Voters in his Senate District 6, dominated by Durango and Montrose, are 38 percent Republican, 28 percent Democrat and 32 percent unaffiliated. Nevertheless, it's been held by a Democrat since 1999, when Jim Dyer entered the Senate.
Isgar said he has enjoyed working with Roberts, and he didn't rule out endorsing her if she runs for Senate.
"But because of the importance of trying to maintain control of the Senate, I would try to find a Democrat who would represent the district well," he said.
If Roberts decides to run for the Senate, her House seat would be open. That means Democratic hopefuls from Durango, Cortez and Pagosa Springs would have to choose between running for Roberts' House seat or the potentially more difficult Senate seat held by Isgar.
Registered Democrats hold a slight advantage - 31 percent to 29 percent - over Republicans in Roberts' House District 59. Unaffiliated voters are the plurality at 32 percent, according to an April 1 report by the Secretary of State's office.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 21-14 in the Senate and 38-27 in the House. That means Republicans must win four Senate seats to take back the majority in the upper chamber and at least have a say in the redistricting process.
In addition to Isgar's seat, the GOP is concentrating on Democrats Gail Schwartz in the San Luis Valley, Dan Gibbs in the central mountains and John Morse in Colorado Springs, Penry said.
"It's going to be tough sledding. The Republican Party in the last five years has dug itself into a pretty big hole. We've got to inch out of it one seat at a time.
"With Ellen Roberts in the race, this seat would be our number one priority," Penry said.