Salazar declares victory in 3rd District

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John Salazar declared victory Wednesday in the heated race for Colorado's 3rd Congressional District, marking the first time in 12 years that the Western Slope will be represented by a Democrat in Congress.

Salazar, a potato farmer and one-term state representative from the San Luis Valley, garnered 51 percent of the vote in a district closely divided among registered Republicans, Democrats and independents. Republican Greg Walcher, Salazar's primary opponent, collected 47 percent of the vote. Independent candidate Jim Krug picked up most of the remaining votes.

After monitoring the results from Pueblo's Union Depot on Tuesday, Salazar sensed victory was his at about 4 a.m. Wednesday. He spoke to Walcher several hours later, when the Palisade peach grower and former director of the state Department of Natural Resources accepted his defeat.

"We had a very good conversation," Salazar said. "He wished me well, and I wished him well, and we look forward to working together in the future."

The congenial conversation stood in contrast to the bitter campaign between the two men. Attack ads waged by both sides dominated much of the campaign, and money from outside groups helped fuel the negativity. More than $8 million was spent in the race to replace retiring GOP Rep. Scott McInnis.

For Salazar, who campaigned largely on his status as an Army veteran, farmer and protector of Western Slope water, capitalizing on Walcher's support of the failed Referendum A might have been the key to victory. Western Slope voters overwhelmingly rejected the 2003 initiative because many saw it as a potential water grab by the Front Range.

But on Wednesday, Salazar said his victory was fueled by district voters who want to be represented by a moderate politician capable of reaching across party lines.

"I believe this district has always been better represented by someone who is middle-of-the-road moderate," Salazar said. "I will continue to fight for affordable health care and try to make sure our water remains on our farms and in our rural communities."

That fight may be difficult for a freshman congressman in the halls of the Capitol.

"I'm sure it's going to be tough," Salazar said, before noting that he was able to cross party lines and enjoy a successful term as a freshman legislator in the statehouse.

Salazar's brother, Attorney General Ken Salazar, will join him in Washington after defeating beer baron Pete Coors in Colorado's lone Senate race.

"There's a lot of joy in the air," Salazar said. "All of the Salazar family has been talking back and forth. We're just very happy."

Walcher, who left his post at DNR in January to run for the seat, said he will support Western Colorado's new congressman.

"I accept the will of the voters and my responsibility to honor and help our new congressman," Walcher said in a prepared statement. "I'll do everything I can to help him represent this district as it deserves.

"This has been an extraordinary campaign, unlike any in our district's past. We've had other close elections, and we've had congressmen from both parties and from both sides of the Continental Divide. But always, we have come together and supported our representative because our region deserves nothing less."

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234 or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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