In November the Republican party in Colorado is aiming for control of the State Senate and one key race is in the 5th Senate District. It includes Pitkin and Eagle Counties. The seat is up for grabs because Senator Gail Schwartz of Snowmass Village is term-limited. Three candidates, each new to state politics, are urging voters to turn out to the polls and, so-called “dark money” is flowing into the race. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.
Kerry Donovan is knocking on doors in Willits today, near Highway 82. The democratic candidate leaves behind a signed flyer and heads to the next house. She says she’s out here trying to earn votes and preparing for the job she’d like to have.
"Before doing this, I can’t quite get my head around how you could do a good job representing a large area if you didn’t do door-to-door knocking."
And that’s no easy task. Senate District Five stretches across seven rural western slope counties. Donovan is a Vail native and former city council member whose billing herself as someone who “knows the value of hard work.”
"I was raised with a real family value of service, so being able to be a state senator will be a way I can continue that value of service. And also, it seemed like a unique opportunity to represent all of the seven counties, and I didn’t see another voice that was going to be able to do that," she says.
Her issues include boosting the economy by growing small business and tourism, keeping water on the Western Slope and improving education.
The word “democrat” is nowhere to be found on her campaign literature. Its by design.
"It was a decision to really make this race about the issues and about policy. In a state that’s so fiercely independent and unaffiliated, to present the policy issues and then let people decide is a more generalized approach that people seem to appreciate."
The majority of District Five voters are registered unaffiliated. Like Donovan, Republican candidate Don Suppes left the name of his party off his flyers, too.
"So many of the issues we face here are rural versus urban issues," he says. "They’re not democrat versus republican issues. When it comes to protecting our water rights, when it comes to protecting our public land, these are issues that aren’t necessarily a democrat-republican issue."
Suppes’ mailers stress his family ties and show a man with deep roots in Colorado. He’s the mayor of Orchard City in Delta County. He owns a heating and cooling business. His main goal is to reduce government regulations. It's a frustration he feels personally.
"...not only from what I was seeing as far as regulations through the business, but as mayor, the unfunded mandates and burdensome regulations. It had reached a point where I thought somebody had to do something and if not me then who?"
Suppes made headlines in September after a tweet was posted on his twitter account about a neo-Confederate website. He told the Grand Junction Sentinel a volunteer staffer was to blame, who’s since been fired.
In the money race, Kerry Donovan leads Suppes. As of late-September, Donovan has more than $130,000 to Suppes’ $82,000.
That doesn’t tell the whole story though. Money is flowing in from groups like “Mainstream Colorado” and the “Conservation Colorado Expenditure Committee.”
"District five for both parties, it looks winnable," says CSU Political Science Professor John Straayer. "Depending how things fall in the other districts, this could be the pivotal district."
He says this dark money from so-called 527 groups is a clear sign of how pivotal District Five is. The winner here could tip the balance in the Senate. Its also hard to call. Over the years the seat has been held by both parties and this time neither candidate is incumbent. It’s an “open seat.”
"It’s easier to jump into an open seat than it is to take on an incumbent, so open seats are inviting to the party that did not hold that seat previously," says Straayer.
The race is tough to predict, in part, because of a wildcard third-party candidate. Libertarian Lee Mulcahy will be on the ballot. Straayer says typically a libertarian candidate draws votes away from the Republican.
"If it’s a real close race, it could make the difference in terms of who wins and who loses. Third party candidates don’t win in Colorado and with rare exception, anywhere in the country. But, they can impact the outcome of close contests."
Mulcahy has raised about $2700. He says he’s loyal to neither party.
"I believe that neither party represents the will of the majority of the people, instead (they) only serve the interests of their largest campaign contributors: the corporations and the billionaires," says Mulcahy.
His issues include preserving the Thompson Divide, nullifying "Obamacare," reducing the number of non-violent marijuana convictions and raising the minimum wage at large companies, like Wal-Mart.
"I believe that income inequality is the greatest issue facing America today. I was one of the co-architects of Occupy Aspen. Trickle down economics clearly works for the one percent. As a consequence, the once growing and thriving middle class in America is rapidly disappearing."
His unconventional meet-and-greets are cannabis tastings in towns throughout the District. Mulcahy’s name may be familiar. He’s been banned by several institutions in Aspen, including the Aspen Skiing company, for ruffling feathers. He says that won’t get in the way of running for one of the state’s most competitive senate seats. Ballots for the fall election are scheduled to go out in two weeks.