Colorado's 3rd Is Divided, Much Like The Nation

The issues and arguments dividing the nation are playing out in a vast Colorado Congressional district that's literally divided by the southern end of the Rocky Mountains.

It's Colorado's 3rd, where Democratic Rep. John Salazar is seeking a fourth term in office. He faces Republican Scott Tipton.

To find Tipton, it makes most sense to go to the Western — and politically more conservative — side of the mountains in the district.

Scott Tipton, GOP candidate for Congress in Colorado's 3rd district.

Republican Scott Tipton says his opponent, incumbent John Salazar, is too "bought in" to Washington, D.C. Jeff Brady/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady/NPR

A state representative and a business owner, Tipton co-owns a successful pottery shop near Mesa Verde National Park. At a lunch for the Montrose County Republicans, Tipton wore jeans and cowboy boots — typical gear for politicians in the Rocky Mountain West. He echoed his campaign's main message: that Salazar has abandoned his Southern Colorado roots.

"We have a congressman that is so bought in to Washington, D.C. — bigger government, higher taxes, more regulation, more invasion of our individual liberties," Tipton told the crowd, "that he's voted with [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and her agenda 97.2 percent of the time."

At one of the tables, Mary and Chuck Rehfeldt received the message loud and clear.

"I think the fact that Salazar has voted with Nancy Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid and gone along with the Washington establishment — we don't like it," said Mary Rehfeldt.

"We want Scotty to go there and raise hell," Chuck Rehfeldt added.

The local television air waves are peppered with advertisements — many paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee — reinforcing that message.

In front of the Montrose Post Office, Leigh Anne Calhoun said she's registered as a Republican. "There needs to be some kind of balance, because pretty soon Nancy Pelosi is going to have a crown on her head and we're going to be calling her Queen," she said.

Democratic Rep. John Salazar of Colorado

Democratic Rep. John Salazar is seeking a fourth term in office, representing Colorado's 3rd District. Jeff Brady/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady/NPR

But here's the rub for Tipton: Despite her tough talk, Calhoun said she's having difficulty making up her mind in the congressional race. To understand why a conservative Republican like her might still consider voting for Democrat John Salazar, you have to travel to the other side of the mountains.

On Thursday, Salazar was at the United Steelworkers of America union hall in Pueblo for a get-out-the-vote rally. He was wearing jeans and a cowboy hat and drove up in a silver Chevy pick-up with a National Rifle Association sticker on the back.

"I fit this district like a glove," said the congressman. "I'm a farmer. I'm a rancher. You know, the district is largely agricultural. I have centrist roots to conservative roots."

Even though Republicans have about 15,000 more registered voters than Democrats in this district, Salazar has won his last two races overwhelmingly. In 2006 Tipton challenged Salazar and lost by 25 percentage point. This time though, polls indicate the race is much closer.

Rating The Midterms

One of the main issues has been Salazar’s support for the huge economic stimulus bill passed in 2009. But Salazar told a crowd of union members that he's not backing away from the law.

"The stimulus package was a program that was designed to prevent a great depression and that is exactly what it's done," he said as the crowd erupted with applause.

Supporters such as former steelworker John Correo seem to appreciate that Salazar is sticking by his guns.

"All this money was being given away when Bush was here, too," he said, referring to efforts like the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. But Correo said voters don't seem to be getting that message this election year, so get-out-the-vote rallies will be very important for Democrats like Salazar.

"He's got a good chance of winning, but it's just going to be close — really close, I think," Correo said.

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