Off to the Races 

Dems eye new districts, dodge Owens juggernaut

How great are Gov. Bill Owens' odds of being elected to a second term? Great enough, some say, that Democrats may have a better shot at winning electoral contests in Colorado Springs this fall than unseating the Republican governor.

Among a flurry of candidacy announcements this past week was that of Owens, who stopped in the Springs Monday as part of an 18-city tour to launch his re-election bid. The same day, the last remaining Democratic heavyweight in the race, state Senate President Stan Matsunaka, announced he was dropping out to instead run for the 4th Congressional District seat in northern Colorado.

That left Rollie Heath, a retired Boulder businessman and political newcomer, as the sole Democratic contender. Observers say the dearth of high-profile challengers suggests the Democratic Party isn't considering the race a priority.

Heath's chances are "virtually nil," gloated state Sen. Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, who turned out to greet Owens Monday. "Nobody's ever heard of Rollie Heath."

John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University, said it's not surprising that Matsunaka would rather run for Congress.

"The odds so heavily favor [Owens] right now, it's no wonder," Straayer said. "It's just a matter of walking up to the craps table and deciding, where do I put my money?"

It's hard to beat an incumbent, especially one with positive approval ratings, Straayer pointed out. Registered Republican voters also outnumber registered Democratic voters statewide, and Owens has already raised more than $4 million for his campaign.

In another sign that Owens isn't worried, the governor has loaned out his spokesman, Dick Wadhams, who ran the governor's 1998 campaign as well as Wayne Allard's successful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1996 and is widely credited with putting both men in office. Wadhams is now heading up Allard's re-election campaign, suggesting that Republicans are more concerned about Allard's Democratic challenger, former U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland, than they are about any challenge to Owens.

Straayer predicted that with Democratic money flowing to the campaigns of Matsunaka, Strickland and former state Sen. Mike Feeley, who is running for Congress in the newly created 7th District, there may be less money left over for Heath.

"People do calculate the odds when they start writing checks," Straayer said.

In a crisis

Heath admits to being the underdog. However, "We're gonna turn this thing into a race," he promised Friday while campaigning in the Springs.

While he's a political newcomer, Heath's wife, Josie, is a former Boulder County Commissioner who ran for the U.S. Senate in 1990. Rollie Heath also served on a state economic advisory board under Gov. Roy Romer.

Although he's raised only $300,000, compared to Owens' millions, Heath says he's not worried about Owens' fund-raising edge. "We're going to raise enough money to be competitive," he said.

Heath says his main campaign themes will be the economy and jobs. He attributes the state's current budget shortfall to permanent tax cuts supported and signed into law by Owens. "He has taken what was a very strong financial state and, I think, through mismanagement has put us in the crisis that we're in today," Heath said.

Owens, meanwhile, downplayed his frontrunner status. "We've still got a long way to go between now and November," the governor said. He declined to discuss Heath in detail, saying, "I don't really know him that well."

However, Owens rejected Heath's contention that he was responsible for the budget crisis. "It's odd that anyone would think tax cuts would cause an economic crisis," Owens said. "But that's Rollie."

"They want this one"

While Owens can probably count on strong support in El Paso County, Republicans may not enjoy a totally free ride here come November. Heath has pledged to campaign heavily in the county, noting that it is home to 80,000 registered Democrats. And as a result of reapportionment, Democrats believe they can capture two new local legislative districts, House District 18 and Senate District 11.

Tony Marino, a Democrat who lost narrowly to Republican MaryAnne Tebedo in Senate District 12 six years ago, will likely run for the new Senate District 11. The new district includes Manitou Springs and stretches east to cover core areas of Colorado Springs, including downtown. The numbers of Republican and Democratic voters in the district are about even.

El Paso County Commissioner Ed Jones, who is seeking the Republican nomination in the race, said he expects the Democrats to campaign hard in the district as part of their efforts to hang on to their one-vote majority in the state Senate. "They want this one," Jones said.

Marino said the state Democratic Party has indicated it will throw support behind whoever runs on the party's ticket in the new district. The same should be the case in House District 18, according to two prospective Democratic candidates, Bruce Doyle and Mike Merrifield.

Similar to the new Senate district, House District 18 includes Manitou Springs and stretches west to include a smaller portion of Colorado Springs. It has only a slight Republican voter-registration edge.

Merrifield, a former Manitou city councilman, lost to Republican Dave Schultheis two years ago in House District 22. Doyle serves on the board of Colorado Springs School District 11. Dan Stuart, a state transportation commissioner and former Manitou mayor, announced Tuesday that he's seeking the GOP nomination.

Doyle said local Democrats are excited by the prospect of finally breaking the GOP's monopoly on elective politics in El Paso County. A Democrat has not held an elected partisan seat at the county or state levels since Daphne Greenwood served in the state Legislature in the mid-'90s.

"I think the Democrats will be energized," Doyle said.


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