DENVER – The state House District 59 race between Democrat Barbara McLachlan and Republican J. Paul Brown could be the most contested and expensive legislative race in the state.
More than $161,000 has poured into the contest, with Brown, the incumbent, reporting $73,328 in contributions, and McLachlan filing $88,297 in donations.
The average contributions raised by Colorado House candidates in 2014 was $33,324, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. That year, the District 59 race drew $284,747 in contributions.
With three months left, the contest is on track to keep pace with fundraising in 2014, as a downpour of money often comes toward the end.
Republican and Democratic observers say the race is one of the most contested in the state, pointing to the swing nature of the district.
Two other races that are being watched are House District 30 in Commerce City, between Republican incumbent JoAnn Windholz and Democratic challenger Dafna Michaelson Jenet, and House District 17 in Colorado Springs, a rematch between incumbent Republican Kit Roupe and Democrat Tony Exum.
In all those races, Democrats hope to extend their slim House majority of 34-31, while Republicans say the seats are critical if they’re to have any chance at control.
Brown held the District 59 seat from 2010 to 2012, before losing it to Democrat Mike McLachlan, only to win it back from McLachlan in 2014.
Barbara McLachlan, a retired teacher, is the wife of Mike McLachlan.
Republicans have a slight advantage in the sprawling six-county district, with 34 percent of registered voters. Democrats make up 30 percent of the district. But unaffiliated voters – the wild card – represent 34 percent.
In 2014, Brown won by only 170 votes.
Complicating the race is national politics. Operatives from both sides interviewed by The Durango Herald said they’re unsure whether more Republicans or Democrats would be driven to the polls by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton this fall.
The District 59 race may focus on Durango, Gunnison, Ouray and surrounding rural counties, but much of the strategy and contributions is coming from consultants and interests in Denver.
Brown hired Denver-based D/CO Consulting, a prominent Republican consulting firm.
McLachlan has had less help in the consulting department, though she did hire a campaign manager, P.J. Higgins, who worked on her husband’s campaign.
McLachlan is benefiting from the usual Democratic allies, including Conservation Colorado, which represents the environmental world, and the Colorado Education Association, the state’s union of teachers.
Similarly, Brown is benefiting from interests that often lean right, including the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry and the Colorado Association of Realtors.
But for many interests, the decision to endorse was not a rubber stamp, given that Brown crossed political lines in the last legislative session. Most recently, he bucked his party to support a restructuring of a hospital provider fee to raise money for schools and roads, despite the toxic nature of the issue.
“I haven’t always been a Paul Brown fan ... but I’ve seen what he’s done over the last year, and I appreciate it,” said Greg Lawler, a field agent for the Colorado Education Association in Southwest Colorado. “Our interview team talked about how well he did. They debated for a long time. He was very thoughtful in his answers.”
Others, however, are less understanding of Brown. Conservation Colorado pointed out that Brown this year encouraged fellow lawmakers to see “Climate Hustle,” a “global warming comedy” that critics say foolishly emboldens climate change skeptics.
Brown, a rancher, says he is skeptical of human-made climate change.
“Barbara will be the better choice for the environment in the long term, and will be willing to take on those bigger issues and do what we need to do to protect Colorado’s environment,” said Becky Long, advocacy director for Conservation Colorado.
Some progressives who asked not to be identified have been independently working on opposition research against Brown, another sign of the divisive nature of the race.
One piece of information that progressives have come up with is a complaint against Brown filed with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The complaint alleges that Brown is operating an illegal landfill on his Ignacio property.
The complaint is relatively minor, according to health department officials, as it is fairly common for such landfills to exist on private rural property. Brown has until Aug. 15 to clean it up, which the lawmaker says he plans to do.
He does not currently face any fines or other penalties for the landfill, which includes wood, metal and tires. The materials could have been dumped by ranch hands over the years.
Just the fact that some are trying to use a seemingly minor infraction against Brown suggests that the race is a concern and a priority.
Meanwhile, the House Majority Project, the fundraising arm of House Democrats, is using a mailer sent by the Colorado Leadership Fund, the political arm of House Republicans, as ammunition against Brown.
In the mailer, Brown is portrayed as “Southwest Colorado Knows Best Starring: Representative J. Paul Brown.” The mailer is a throwback to the “Father Knows Best” 1950s sitcom, featuring old televisions that highlight Brown’s work on such issues as water, schools and utility rates.
“J. Paul Brown brings wisdom and sage advice to our Capitol,” states the mailer.
But Democrats claim Brown is “an extremist legislator who would fit in better in a ‘Mad Men’ world than in modern Colorado.”
“Can you help Barbara defeat someone who seems to prefer life under the Eisenhower administration to life in the 21st century ...” asks the House Majority Project. “We need your help to make sure we don’t re-elect Colorado’s version of Barney Fife. Don’t ‘Leave It to Beaver.’”
House Republican Leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland, speaking on behalf of the Colorado Leadership Fund, said Democrats must be nervous.
“They might not like the look of the mailer, but to say that’s the only negative they have, is the look of a mailer, that goes to show that they’re grasping at straws,” DelGrosso said.
There have been no reports of targeted attacks against McLachlan.
For his part, Brown understands what’s on the line, adding, “They tell me that it’s the most contested race in the state.
“There’s a lot of politics that goes into it. Sometimes it’s not who is best qualified, it’s who spent the most money. But I feel like I had a real good session, and I got some things done.”
McLachlan acknowledged that Brown hit a stride during the last legislative session, especially on education. But she said she can paint a stark contrast.
“He has a record, and I can talk about that and what he supports,” McLachlan said. “I don’t want to go back to the ’50s. ... I would like to be a candidate who is known for looking forward.”