Thursday, Oct. 07, 2010

Colorado's 4th Congresional District: Betsy Markey vs. Cory Gardner

Correction Appended: Oct. 15, 2010

Freshman Democrat Betsy Markey has one of the toughest races in the country on her hands in the high dusty plains of Colorado's 4th District.

Markey beat three-term Republican incumbent Marilyn Musgrave in 2008 to become the first Democrat to hold that seat since 1973. But her victory was due more to Musgrave's weaknesses than her own strengths. Musgrave spent too much time talking about wedge social issues like same-sex marriage, abortion and religion in government. She turned off the district's suburban and younger voters around the fast-growing communities of Fort Collins and Greeley — where many of Silicon Valley's telecommunications start-up entrepreneurs have settled — and drew the fire of national progressive groups. In a district that John McCain captured with 50% of the vote at the top of the ticket, Markey won with an impressive 56% of the vote.

Still, Markey hasn't exactly played it safe. She's voted for or supports much of the Democratic agenda, including climate-change response, the stimulus bill and even the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act. She did, however, vote against the second half of the bank bailout, the 2010 Democratic budget and permission to transfer Guantánamo prisoners to the U.S.

In many respects, Markey, 54, is a symbol of the new Colorado, made up of transplants from the coasts. Her father was a staunchly pro-union construction worker in New Jersey, where Markey grew up the sixth of seven in a large Irish Catholic family. She worked at the State Department after going to graduate school for cybersecurity and then built on that experience in the private sector, launching along with her husband an information-technology business called Syscom. Beckoned by the tech industry's prairie corridor, the couple moved to Fort Collins, where Markey eventually founded the Northern Colorado Democratic Business Coalition and worked for former Democratic Senator (and now Interior Secretary) Ken Salazar.

The Republicans couldn't have asked for a better recruit in Colorado's 4th District this cycle: state representative Cory Gardner, 35, a polished candidate with a thin voting record. Gardner can trace his district roots back to 1886 and boasts of being a fifth-generation Coloradan. His father and grandfather work for the family business, a farm-implement dealership (think tractors and trailers). He was named "the GOP Idea Man" by the Denver Post in January 2009 and has spent much of his career focusing on a small-government, low-tax agenda. In 2007 he created the Colorado Clean Energy Authority, which helped attract millions of green development dollars to the state; clean, renewable technology is a centerpiece of his campaign.

The district is going through a period of change, as farmers discover that selling their water rights to the ever expanding metropolis of Denver is far more lucrative than what they could make farming. Much of the land is reverting to wide-open prairie, replete with increasing numbers of roaming buffalo, elk, deer and bighorn sheep. Markey's case comes down to the Democratic argument that the stimulus was necessary and worked — a tough pitch in a state where the President's approval ratings are among the lowest in the country. Gardner is betting the district will survive on a yet-to-be-seen green-jobs surge.

Gardner has proved more moderate in a cycle when his party is trending right. Though he once wondered why President Obama couldn't produce his birth certificate, he later clarified that he doesn't question Obama's citizenship. And in June he canceled a fundraiser with Iowa Republican Representative Steve King after King made controversial remarks on talk radio accusing Obama of favoring blacks.

Gardner easily won the GOP nomination over two Tea Party candidates, though he trails Markey in fundraising, $1.3 million to her $2.3 million. The Cook Political Report rates the race a tossup. A poll done by GOP firm AAF-Ayers found Gardner up by 11 points in August, but a September survey done by the Hill Newspapers–ANGA found Gardner's lead narrowing to just 3 points, within the margin of error.

The original version of this story misstated that Markey voted against health care reform. While Markey did vote against the House version, she eventually voted for final passage.