Far From the Party: A Republican Fights for Her Political Life

Published on: August 12th, 2008

Unseating a Republican in a decidedly Republican district would usually be an exercise in futility. But in Colorado’s 4th Congressional District, Betsy Markey is forcing incumbent Marilyn Musgrave to fight for her political life. Again.

With each election cycle, winning has become increasingly difficult for Musgrave when conventional wisdom indicates that it should be the other way around. When she first ran for the seat vacated by Bob Schaffer in 2002, Musgrave faced fellow state senator, Democrat Stan Matsunaka, and with campaign help from Vice President Dick Cheney, beat him handily. Two years later, Matsunaka tried again and despite being outspent 4 to 1, Musgrave won by only six points. Two years later, Musgrave was pushed to the brink by Democrat Angie Paccione—eeking out a five-point win.

This cycle, the numbers for Musgrave have been going from bad to worse.

The Republican Party has taken notice of her regression—and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

In a letter to supporters back in March, she said she expects “little or no help” from national Republican coffers this year. It appears the GOP is fed up with pumping so much money into what should be a slam-dunk win.

Conflicting polls suggest the race is a dead heat. The non-partisan Cook Political Report has changed the race’s status from “leans Republican” to “toss up.”

That’s not a good thing, since that status change means that Markey will likely get some much-needed cash and organizational support from the national Democratic Party. So instead of cruising to yet another victory in the heavily conservative district, Musgrave is faced with becoming political road kill under the wheels of the Colorado’s recent Democratic juggernaut. Musgrave has a comfortable lead in cash, having raised $1.6 million to Markey’s $984,000.

But it’s expected the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has $44 million to spend on races like this, smells blood and will help even that score.

“We know it’s going to be competitive,” says Julie Shutley, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Suffice to say, this leaves Musgrave in a tough fight for her job, possibly leading to the more centrist tone this year.

She touts her bipartisan legislative efforts with fellow Colorado Congressmen Mark Udall and John Salazar to keep taxes from being collected on traded water shares and promoting an agriculture and water project in the Arkansas River Valley, respectively. Missing is her usual talk of a federal ban on gay marriage and support of the Iraq war.

“Voters recognize that Musgrave is attempting an extreme makeover, saying one thing about the economy and gas prices in Colorado but voting another way,” says Yoni Cohen, western regional press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Such confident talk and flush finances—not to mention dramatic Democratic upsets in once-strong Republican districts during recent special congressional elections—have given liberal challengers such as Markey new hope.

But Musgrave has faced strong opposition before—and prevailed. “Congresswoman Musgrave has always worked for local issues of concern to both political stripes, from

Rocky Mountain National Park wilderness designation, to water issues, to funding for the food bank, to local infrastructure projects,” says Campaign Manager Jason Thielman. “People want an independent voice that is willing to stand up to out-of-control government spending…and uranium mining in Weld County.” And while the only poll that matters will be held in November, this race is truly a toss up for the first time in recent memory.

That’s certainly not something Republicans want to hear, but unless they throw more money Musgrave’s way, the mostly rural district could be in for big changes this year.

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