More than eight months from Election Day, the eyes of political strategists and party leaders from Denver to Washington, D.C., are focused on Colorado's 3rd Congressional District. The race to replace incumbent Rep. Scott McInnis, a Republican from Grand Junction, is expected to be expensive and hotly contested.
The battle for the 3rd District seat, whose occupant represents Routt and more than two dozen other western and southern Colorado counties, is interesting for the first time in more than a decade because McInnis announced last year that he wouldn't seek a seventh term. The result of that announcement has been a rush of potential successors jumping into the fray for the coveted seat.
At least 12 candidates -- seven Republicans and five Democrats -- have thus far announced their candidacies. The diverse field includes three state representatives, a state senator, the former head of Colorado's Department of Natural Resources, the sales manager of an Aspen car dealership, a county sheriff, a lawyer, a real estate broker and a short-order cook.
"It's a very large field that matches the competitive nature of the race," said Democratic candidate Anthony Martinez, a San Luis Valley native. He's heard the field of candidates dubbed "the Dirty Dozen" and "The 12."
How that field narrows will largely hinge upon the money raised and time invested campaigning in one of the largest congressional districts in the country, Republican and Democratic party officials say.
"It's a huge, sprawling district, and each community has its own issues and wants to feel it's getting the attention it deserves," said Chris Gates, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party.
Unlike races in more urban areas, such as the 1st and 7th districts, candidates in the 3rd will need more than TV spots and radio ads to get their messages heard.
Ted Halaby, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, said campaigns must approach the challenges of canvassing the giant district as "a labor of love."
"It's going to test an organization and a candidate just because of the geography," he said.
The 3rd District stretches from Routt County west and south to Durango and east to Pueblo and beyond. Nearly 30 counties create a district that is larger than the state of Florida.
"It's an absolute monster," said John Marshall, campaign manager for Republican candidate Greg Walcher. "That means the district will always be a person-to-person district. There will be no substitute for driving the miles and talking to people."
Walcher, state Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa, and Grand Junction Mayor Jim Spehar already have made campaign stops in Steamboat Springs, and other candidates say Routt County visits will begin in March.
Piecing together when and where to make campaign stops throughout the vast district is proving to be a logistical puzzle candidates and their campaigns must solve to capture a party nomination and appear on November's ballot.
"It's a huge challenge," said Democratic candidate and Basalt resident Randy Fricke, who expected to begin traveling the district extensively this week. "You sit down with a map and try to figure out where to go first, second and third."
Traveling costs money, and candidates and party leaders on both sides say the winner of the race could spend more than $2 million by Election Day.
There's little doubt some of that money will come from the national campaign committees of both parties.
"They tell us that out of 435 (House of Representative) seats, there are exactly three open seats that are competitive," Marshall said of discussions he's had with Republican Party leaders. "You can believe they're going to be enormously focused on this race."
Democrats believe the number of competitive races for House of Representative seats across the nation will be slightly higher, but no one is underestimating the significance of this race.
"This is probably going to be one of the top 15 most-watched races in the country," Gates said. "You will see a significant focus of attention, energy and resources on this race."
Winning the seat is particularly important for the Democrats, who see in McInnis' decision not to seek re-election the opportunity to capture a Congressional spot in a district they haven't controlled since Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell was a member of their party.
"There's no question this is a very important district and represents a real opportunity to pick up a seat," said Greg Speed, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C. The DCCC, like its National Republican Congressional Committee counterpart, works to fund and assist in the election of its party's candidates to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Republicans are just as determined not to lose the seat as Democrats are to win it.
"It's been a Republican seat and, clearly, we want to keep it a Republican seat," Halaby said.
But shining a national spotlight on a district whose fabric many consider to be the small rural communities of the Western Slope and southern Colorado worries some candidates.
"I have a major concern that the values and concerns of our regular citizens aren't overshadowed by the notoriety of this election," Fricke said. "Regardless of what happens, I'm going to direct my campaign at the communities."
The national-level issues on the minds of many Routt County voters are health care, water issues, outsourcing jobs to foreign countries and veterans' benefits, said Routt County Republican Party chairman Buck Buckland.
Routt County Democratic chairman Ken Brenner said the economy also is a concern to area residents.
The hopes of many candidates in the large field will be dashed before out-of-state resources and energy are pumped full-throttle into the 3rd District. Party caucuses are at the beginning of April, and the primaries follow in August.
Speed said the Democratic Party won't endorse a candidate until after district party members have pushed the popular choice through the primary.
That "popular choice" will be the candidate voters think has made a connection with the diverse communities of the 3rd District, Martinez said.
"The winner of the seat has always been the candidate who can string the communities together the best," he said. "You have to know the communities. Our district is so dynamic."
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