When Colorado picked up a seventh seat in Congress after the 2000 Census, a judge designed the new district to be winnable by either party. Worked like a charm, too: in four contests, the Republicans and Democrats have won two times each.
The other thing you need to know about the design of Colorado's 7th District is that after the judge completed his work, astute observers looked at the map and thought, That's perfect for Democrat Ed Perlmutter.
And so it was. Perlmutter has won the seat twice, and he's looking to make it three in a row. Born and raised in the Denver suburbs, which dominate the district, Perlmutter, 57 an attorney whose family poured the concrete that built a significant part of the district has a deep feel for the low-key, pragmatic style of politics that tends to win there.
He'll need it to survive what has become a very serious challenge from Republican Ryan Frazier, a two-year city councilman from Aurora, which is the largest of the Denver burbs. Frazier sailed through the GOP primary last month. He went toe to toe with Perlmutter in second-quarter fundraising. He's young (33) and gives a great speech. And he's a Navy veteran in a place where lots of voters have military ties.
Add the anti-incumbent mood of the country, and Perlmutter's got his hands full. A recent poll by Magellan Strategies found the race essentially tied as the candidates prepared to start the television-air war. With 2 out of 3 voters saying the country is on the wrong track and 57% disapproving of President Obama's job performance, veteran political handicapper Charlie Cook downgraded Perlmutter from the ranks of "likely" winners.
Yet few people will be surprised if Perlmutter squeaks by, despite being a Democratic incumbent in a swing district. Frazier's strategy, so far, has been to tie the incumbent to his unpopular party leadership. The Republican rarely says "Perlmutter" without adding "Pelosi," and he hammers away at the fact that they vote together 98% of the time. That might work better if Perlmutter weren't the sort of guy who spends a lot of his weekends hanging out at grocery stores, shaking hands and asking people what's on their minds. "I've listened to my neighbors," is how he puts it.
One such outing gave Perlmutter grist for a good first TV ad. It showed him at a folding table, relaxed and accessible, while a voice-over told of how Perlmutter helped the owner of a barbecue restaurant get a bank loan so he could expand and hire more employees.
Frazier, meanwhile, opened with an ad introducing him to a district where he is still unknown to nearly half the voters. He touted his military experience he worked as an intelligence analyst for the National Security Administration his service on the city council and his role (with his wife) in founding the charter school that the three Frazier kids attend. Frazier is only the second African American nominated for federal office by a major party in Colorado; he has opted for the same blue-jeans-on-the-wide-prairie vibe that Colorado pols have been pouring into their TV spots since the days of Sergeant Bilko.
The race is likely to hinge on whether Frazier can scuff Perlmutter's image. That won't be easy, says liberal Denver talk-show host David Sirota, because unlike some swing-district Democrats around the country, Perlmutter can break occasionally with the left on issues such as support for the Boy Scouts and free trade without bad-mouthing his base. "He certainly has cast some conservative votes," says Sirota, "but he hasn't gone out and bragged about sticking his thumb in the eye of rank-and-file Democrats." In other words, his core supporters may be there when he needs them.
At the same time, Frazier's GOP is badly fractured in Colorado. Tea Party insurgencies knocked off the Republican favorites in both the Senate and gubernatorial primaries, leaving the party leadership demoralized. Even on his home turf, Frazier was unable to get his party fully behind him; former Aurora mayor and power broker Paul Tauer endorsed Frazier's primary opponent.
Mark down Colorado's 7th District, then, as a tsunami alert. The Republicans can have a very fruitful election without knocking off Ed Perlmutter. But if they manage to take this seat, you can bet that they will take back the entire House.