The Colorado Congressional Race You Should Watch

Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush could give Republican Scott Tipton a fight this fall.
Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush could give Republican Scott Tipton a fight this fall. Diane Mitsch Bush
Aside from the Mike Coffman-held 6th District, Colorado's congressional races are usually snoozefests, with three reliably Republican and three reliably Democratic seats typically offering the suspense value of late-night CSPAN. But if things go Democrats' way over the next months, there may be another Colorado congressional race worth watching this fall.

The massive 3rd Congressional District stretches from Steamboat Springs in the north to much of western Colorado, including Grand Junction, southwest through Durango, Telluride and Montrose, and dipping into the San Luis Valley and Pueblo. The district encompasses multimillion-dollar homes as well as some of the state's poorest areas.

Because of the economic, cultural and geographic diversity of this district, its politics can vary widely, as well. Since it was redrawn in 2012, the 3rd has been represented by Republican Scott Tipton, a Cortez native and a reliable GOP vote on Capitol Hill. But this is a district that was represented by Democrat John Salazar — though under slightly more favorable district lines for Democrats — during most of the 2000s. In the right environment and with the right candidate, it could flip Democratic, and there are growing indications that Diane Mitsch Bush, Tipton's challenger and recent winner of the 3rd District Democratic primary, may give the four-term congressman a fight this fall.

The non-partisan Cook Political Report recently adjusted its assessment of the CO-3 race from "Solidly" to "Likely" Republican, and a May poll showed Tipton's approval rating in the district at just 32 percent, largely because of disapproval with his vote to repeal Obamacare.

"But I think that the excitement and enthusiasm that progressives have all over the state is palpable, and it's something that's going to be borne out in the polls."

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That said, this district also favored President Donald Trump in the November 2016 election, in large part because of Pueblo County famously (albeit narrowly) supporting a Republican presidential nominee for the first time in over forty years.

Despite the shift toward Trump, Democrats believe they may have a chance in the district this fall, and it starts and ends with one key issue that affects many in this district: health care. Tipton voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, last year, which would have cut back on Medicaid spending and, by most estimates, would have dramatically increased the number of uninsured persons. According to data from the Colorado Health Institute, there are ten counties in the state where more than 40 percent of the population is on Medicaid, and seven of those counties are in the 3rd Congressional District. The highest levels of uninsured people in Colorado are also in the 3rd.

Mitsch Bush, a former state representative from Steamboat Springs, says it was Tipton's health-care-related vote that prompted her to jump into the race.

"The thing that tipped me over to actually think, 'Okay, that's it, I'm running' was — and I remember the date — May 4, 2017, [when] Representative Tipton voted for the president's health care bill," Mitsch Bush says. "His statement about that bill was that this bill will lower your premiums and lower your deductibles. I had read the bill ... I had also talked to health-policy analysts at the Statehouse on these issues. And in fact that bill would have increased people's premiums. It would have increased their deductibles. And, moreover, it would have taken away health insurance from at least 28 million, maybe 30 million, people.

"Tens of thousands of people in my district would have seen their premiums skyrocket," she adds. "He didn't know what was in the bill, and to vote on something that critical without knowing how it's going to affect your constituents is irresponsible, at best."

Even with health care weighing on the minds of many in the 3rd, winning the district is still a long shot for Democrats. Tipton won his race by over 14 percent of votes in 2016, and, supported by big money from the oil and gas industry, the Koch brothers and the National Rifle Association, among others, Tipton holds a nearly four-to-one cash advantage over Mitsch Bush. That means he'll be able to dictate the key issues in the election, which will help in this conservative-leaning district, where registered Republicans outweigh Democrats by about 5 percent.

"This is a pie-in-the-sky goal for Democrats, and as Mike Coffman’s campaign manager, I fully endorse Democratic donors, particularly the D.C. super PACs, foolishly wasting their money trying to take out Scott Tipton," Coffman campaign manager and GOP operative Tyler Sandberg wrote in an email to Westword. "They’ve nominated a far-left candidate from a liberal ski town (Steamboat Springs), which just doesn’t jibe with the rest of the district, which is far more working class and fiscally conservative than Diane Mitsch Bush. Tipton fits the district well, and Mitsch Bush doesn’t. I encourage Democratic donors to spend as much as they can to find that out."

click to enlarge Scott Tipton - UNITED STATES CONGRESS
Scott Tipton
United States Congress
But during last month's primaries, more votes were cast for Democrats (a combined 69,900), than for Tipton (66,698 total votes). There's no doubt that a competitive primary between Mitsch Bush and attorney Karl Hanlon played a role in Democrats' higher collective vote margin (Tipton ran unopposed), but, and most notably, the district's unaffiliated voters chose to vote in the Democratic primaries by a 53-47 percent margin.

This may offer a clue that unaffiliated voters, who make up a plurality of the district's voters, may potentially be leaning Democratic — something that could spell at least some trouble for Tipton.

"It's definitely a red-tilting district," ProgressNow executive director Ian Silverii says. "But I think that the excitement and enthusiasm that progressives have all over the state is palpable, and it's something that's going to be borne out in the polls. I think the fact that Diane had a huge turnout for her and an overwhelming victory in the primary and a lot of unaffilateds voting the Dem ballot helps, too.

"She's been making her argument for much longer than Tipton has because of the primary she had to win," Silverii continues. "Tipton hasn't even had to show up or do anything for years, and now all of a sudden the [political] environment is collapsing around him."
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Chris Bianchi is a Westword contributor interested in politics.
Contact: Chris Bianchi