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PRIMARY PREVIEW: Congressional primaries pit establishment against upstarts

Author: Ernest Luning - June 8, 2018 - Updated: June 15, 2018

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette is running for a 12th term in the Denver-based 1st Congressional District against political newcomer Saira Rao. It’s only the third time the Democrat has faced a primary opponent since she won the seat in 1996. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Colorado voters have never before faced as many congressional primaries as they do this year.

There’s a primary in every congressional district but one — the 7th, where U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter will be facing Republican Mark Barrington in November in the Arvada Democrat’s bid for a seventh term.

Elsewhere, a combination of sky-high enthusiasm among Democrats angered by President Donald Trump and emboldened activist bases in both parties spells primary races, including some that could help determine which party holds the gavel in the U.S. House of Representatives next year.

The longest-serving Democrat and Republican in the state’s congressional delegation are each facing challengers from the left and right wings of their parties, respectively.

PRIMARY PREVIEW: Watch for more stories on the primary election in coming days at and in our June 8 print edition.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette is running for a 12th term in the the safely Democratic Denver-based 1st Congressional District against political newcomer Saira Rao, a former Wall Street attorney and founder of a company that packages children’s books that emphasize diverse points of view. It’s only DeGette’s third primary since she won the seat in 1996.

Rao shot to prominence late last year when she wrote an online article “breaking up” with the Democratic Party, which she maintained had grown complacent, neglecting women of color and others on the margins.

When she announced her bid, Rao charged DeGette has gotten comfortable and wasn’t the champion for progressive causes that the district’s voters were demanding.

DeGette, for her part, rejects Rao’s contention she hasn’t hewn sufficiently left and says her experience and seniority — she’s the House Democrats’ chief deputy whip — mean the district’s voters will have a powerful voice in Congress if Democrats win a majority in the House in November.

Meanwhile, Republican Casper Stockham is mounting his second bid for the Denver-based seat.

5th: Right and far right

Down the road, in the heavily Republican Colorado Springs-based 5th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn is attempting to win a seventh term against four primary challengers — El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, state Sen. Owen Hill, former Green Mountain Falls Mayor Tyler Stevens and former Texas judge Bill Rhea. Lamborn has only run for re-election once since winning the seat in 2006 without having to navigate a primary.

The Republicans gunning for Lamborn’s job populate the full range of the current GOP, with Glenn and Hill staking out the far right, Stevens touting his experience as a businessman and decades of community service and Rhea running against the direction the party has taken since Trump took it over.

Glenn — who was the GOP nominee for Colorado’s U.S. Senate seat two years ago — and Hill criticize the incumbent as ineffectual, but Lamborn points to his consistent top ranking on conservative scorecards and his success bringing a veterans cemetery to the region, as well as increased troop levels at the district’s military bases and long-sought funding for transportation needs. (A $65 million federal grant to help pay for widening Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock was announced June 5.)

Democrat Stephany Rose Spaulding is her party’s nominee for the 5th District seat.

A poll released before mail ballots went out June 4-8 found a large number of undecided voters but put Lamborn out in front of his challengers, 10 points ahead of Glenn, with the other candidates bringing up the rear.

6th: Brawl in the suburbs

The road to a Democratic majority in the House likely winds through the suburban 6th Congressional District, which includes Aurora and points north and south.

In the nearly evenly divided battleground district, the forces that defined the Democrats’ 2016 presidential election are pitted against each other as establishment-backed attorney and Army Ranger combat veteran Jason Crow faces against the more left-wing Levi Tillemann, a clean energy expert and author.

They’re vying for the chance to run against U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, the Aurora Republican and Army and Marine Corps veteran who has held the seat since 2008.

The district is one of two dozen nationwide represented by Republicans but won in the last election by Hillary Clinton, and for the third election in a row it’s landed in the top tier of Democratic targets as the party attempts to win the same number of seats in order to take control of the House.

Crow has the support of national Democrats, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, along with state party stalwarts, but Tillemann has been waging an aggressive — some say stunt-filled — campaign that accuses Crow of sidestepping progressive concerns while ducking debates challenges.

Tillemann won national attention earlier this year for secretly recording House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer urging him to step aside because party leaders and the state’s congressional delegation had decided Crow had the best chance to unseat Coffman.

2nd, 3rd and 4th

Three Democrats are vying for the chance to take on another Republican incumbent targeted by national Democrats, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, who represents the 3rd Congressional District, which covers much of the Western Slope and southern Colorado as well as Pueblo.

Former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, got in the race first but is facing a determined challenge for the nomination from Carbondale rancher and water attorney Karl Hanlon. Arn Menconi, a former Eagle County commissioner and the Green Party’s 2016 nominee for the U.S. Senate, is also on the ballot.

There has been little publicly released polling for Colorado congressional races this year, but two polls conducted by progressive groups have shown both Coffman and Tipton are vulnerable to Democratic challengers this year.

In the open Boulder and Larimer County-based 2nd Congressional District, former University of Colorado Regent Joe Neguse, an attorney and the Democrats’ nominee for secretary of state in 2014, is facing a primary from the party’s left flank mounted by Mark Williams, an Air Force fighter pilot veteran, entrepreneur and former chair of the Boulder County Democratic Party.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis announced last summer he was seeking the Democratic nomination for governor and wouldn’t seek a sixth term representing the heavily Democratic seat.

If he wins, Neguse, the son of Eritrean refugees, would be the first African-American elected to Congress from Colorado.

Peter Yu is the GOP nominee for the seat.

In the sprawling 4th Congressional District, which stretches from Greeley to Douglas County and covers the Eastern Plains, two Democrats who also happen to be veterinarians — Karen McCormick of Longmont and Chase Kohne of Castle Rock, both political newcomers — are squaring off for the chance to take on Republican U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, the former prosecutor serving his second term in Congress.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.