Colorado Democrats Have a Shot at Breaking GOP Lock

From a political standpoint, Colorado Springs and surrounding El Paso County are known around the country for one thing: conservative Republican politics.

Lincoln's Grand Old Party rules the roost in this county, which lies at the base of Pike's Peak and is home to the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The military influence is coupled with the presence of influential religious organizations Focus on the Family is headquartered in Colorado Springs setting up a political atmosphere where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-to-1. A Democrat hasn't won a General Assembly race in El Paso County since 1991.

This year, however, Democrats have their best shot in years at breaking the GOP-lock, thanks largely to a reapportionment committee that was stacked in their favor. House District 18 and Senate District 11 were carved out of El Paso County so that voters are evenly divided among Republican, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. Both seats were are wide open, vacated by incumbents.

In Senate District 11, Democrat Tony Marino, combat veteran and former narcotics detective, will face Republican Ed Jones, a member of the county commissioner. In House District 18, Democrat Michael Merrifield, a retired teacher, will run against Republican Dan Stuart, an attorney who sits on the state transportation board.

But there is more at stake than just breaking with local political tradition. Democrats won a majority in the state Senate in 2000 by a one-vote margin, seizing control of the chamber for the first time in 40 years. If they want to keep control, Senate District 11 is a must-win.

"Senate District 11 is enormous for us," said Tim Knaus, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party. "This will be the biggest effort we've made in El Paso County in, well, I don't know how long."

Also, Democrats only need to pick up six seats to take control of the House, something they haven't had for 25 years. Most experts consider it a long shot, but Merrifield would have to take House District 18 for it to happen.

"If there is some way to elect a Democrat from El Paso County, this has to be the year and it is going to be from one of those two districts," said Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. "If they win either race, it would be a giant coup and a giant embarrassment for Republicans in El Paso County."

A shift in the fortunes of Democrats in El Paso County could spell a turnaround for a state Democratic Party, which has been considered on the decline in Colorado for some time. In Colorado, Democratic registration has stayed flat at a time when Republican registration numbers have been growing, to the point that Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 160,000 voters.

Democrats hope to win upsets in El Paso County by running fiscally conservative candidates who will appeal to a voter base that tends to like the military and hate taxes. Marino's campaign literature depicts him in his days as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam, wearing fatigues and carrying a weapon. A key part of his campaign platform is to keep government spending in check.

But Republicans are responding with candidates that also don't fit the mold, at least by El Paso County standards. Jones is an African American who has voted against allowing concealed weapons in county parks.

Stuart is a mild-mannered candidate who says he doesn't think about partisan politics much. He is an environmentalist who plants trees each year in the foothills near Colorado Springs and helped start an arts center when he was mayor of nearby Manitou Springs.

While neither Stuart nor Jones appeal to the more conservative wing of the Republican Party that El Paso County is known for, key GOP strategists acknowledge that they have to try something new if they want to be competitive.

"Those are astute voters in District 11," said Sen. Mary Ellen Epps, R-Colorado Springs, who is vacating her seat in the district for health reasons after a 16-year career.

With both parties targeting the House 18 and Senate 11 races heavily, it will undoubtedly leave the door open to record spending both hard and soft money and the use of techniques that are usually reserved for Congressional and other statewide races, such as radio and televisions ads.

But all the money may not make a lot of difference. Loevy says that the outcome of national races could be the biggest determiner for the two competitive General Assembly races in El Paso County.