BOULDER, Colo. -- Democratic Congressman Jared Polis is fending off a challenge after redistricting moved his safe, liberal district into the long-shot pickup column for Republicans.
Polis, in his second term, is a flesh-and-blood reflection of his quirky home turf. This college town is known lovingly and disparagingly as “the People’s Republic of Boulder,” and the name fits.
But the 2nd Congressional District has expanded beyond the republic. After a bitter partisan fight swallowed the traditional mapmaking process, a Denver court adopted the Democrats’ map, adding the more conservative Larimer County and joining the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, at Ft. Collins to the north, into a shared district.
Polis has hard-left Boulder wrapped up. But the fast-growing northern and eastern parts of the redrawn district, including Larimer County -- represented by one of the candidates vying for the GOP nomination -- temper this dominance just so.
“In an average year, with average races, the Democrats are going to win the 2nd congressional district,” state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, says. “I don’t believe this is an average year.”
His mere presence in the race is testament to that -- the GOP has in recent years run candidates with little name recognition and even less political capital.
But the new map still gives Democrats a more than 4 percentage point registration advantage, with the highest number of unaffiliated voters - 37 percent - of any of the state’s seven districts. Not since 1975 has a Republican represented the 2nd District. The sprawling district takes in a national park, a former nuclear weapons depot and long spreads of farmland.
Lundberg faces Boulder business investor Eric Weissmann in the June GOP primary.
Lundberg, the social conservative conscience of the state senate, served for years as a trustee of Colorado Christian University, which promotes mission trips and espouses a “biblical view of human nature” on its website. He recently made headlines as the state senate’s most vocal opponent of proposed civil union legislation, which he argued equated to marriage in all but name.
Lundberg’s political experience in both chambers of the state legislature means he has his own political record -- one that is clearly at odds with Polis’ but also that of libertarian Republicans, including Weissmann.
Weissmann plays up his budgetary frugality, advocating reform of Medicaid and other entitlement programs, a streamlining of business regulations, and a more limited federal government role in education. Weissman says Lundberg’s focus on social issues turns off independent voters.
“Kevin Lundberg can’t win the general election. ... He’s a mismatch for this district,” Weissman said. “I believe that the federal government should have as small a role in the lives of Americans as possible, and that includes social determinations.”
Lundberg is a dean of the state legislature’s Republican Study Committee, a caucus of the House and Senate’s most conservative members. While the group’s “hearings” have focused on both fiscal and social issues, Lundberg’s involvement is indicative of his leadership role in his party’s farthest right element.
For his part, Lundberg downplays any divide on the social issues.
“I am clearly a conservative who stands for limited government,” Lundberg said. “I do also stand for the principles of life and of family … but if you look at my voting record and the bills I run, the social issues come up very few times.”
“Bottom line, people are going to vote their pocketbook.”
As for the candidates’ pocketbooks: Neither Republican has yet been required to file fundraising totals, and both are mum on interim numbers. Weissmann has enlisted veteran political consultant Alan Philp as campaign manager, and says he has two staffers on payroll.
Polis had $165,000 on hand at the end of December and had secured a third of his funds from self-financing. Part of the “Gang of Four” donors behind a liberal resurgence beginning in 2004 in Colorado, he has demonstrated his willingness to spend big to win: The Internet millionaire burned nearly $6 million of his own cash to fend off a Democratic challenger when first running for his seat in 2008. He largely self-funded a successful 2001 bid for the state board of education, a $1.2 million affair that shattered spending records in what’s typically a sleepy race.
While Weissmann and Lundberg are already mounting more serious campaigns than Republicans have mustered in recent years, neither is positioned to raise that kind of cash.
“I am not going to try to out-self-fund Jared Polis,” Weissmann said. “You don’t have to have more, but you do have to have enough that voters get an opportunity to hear your message.”
The GOP field does have one more thing going for them this cycle as opposed to years past: Colorado’s primary, historically one of the nation’s latest in August, has been moved up two months, offering the victor more time to court donors out from under the cloud of competition.
Brad Jones covers congressional campaigns for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.