The Republican wave that changed the balance of power in Washington in Tuesday’s midterm election swept two incumbent Western Slope Democrats out of office as voters chose Scott Tipton to replace John Salazar in Congress and Ellen Roberts to replace Bruce Whitehead in the Colorado State Senate.
Despite the strong surge nationally for Republicans in what has been widely interpreted to be a referendum on the first two years of the Obama Administration, the three counties of the Western San Juans were true to form: San Miguel voted heavily Democratic, Montrose was almost as strongly Republican, and Ouray, geographically located between the two, remained strikingly divided politically as well.
In Ouray County, Democratic incumbent County Commissioner Keith Meinert trailed, by a slim 21-vote margin, his Republican challenger Mike Fedel, while incumbent Republican Ouray County Sheriff Dominic “Junior” Mattivi held off a spirited challenge from unaffiliated candidate Steve Albritton by a comfortable 10 percentage point margin. The exceedingly close commissioner race appears to mirror the political divisions in Ouray County that have been apparent as the commissioners have worked to revise county zoning over the last several years, with each push toward more restrictive zoning matched by an equal push back in favor of less government regulation.
County Clerk Michelle Nauer estimated on Wednesday morning that “fewer than 50” provisional ballots have yet to be counted. If the final tally in the commissioner race is within one-half a percentage point, there will be an automatic recount. Holding out hope that those remaining uncounted ballots could move the race in his favor, Meinert told The Watch on Wednesday, “I don’t think it’s over.”
In San Miguel County, Democrats captured the two major offices up for election, as Kathleen Erie defeated Harley Brooke-Hitching for county clerk and longtime county coroner Bob Dempsey, a Libertarian, was defeated by Emile Sante. Both races pitted longtime local residents against each other for elected positions that are administrative rather than political.
Pleased with the election outcome, “I will do my best to live up to standards set by previous town clerks,” said Erie.
Despite her defeat, Brooke-Hitching maintained a positive tone.
“That’s what elections are for, people get to choose who they want and the people chose,” she said. “Power to the process.”
“It’s a happy household right now,” said Emil Sante, who was busy getting his kids off to school when reached Wednesday morning after an election night celebration. Sante, Chief Paramedic for the Telluride Fire Protection District and a wintertime ski patroller, pushed County Coroner Bob Dempsey, a Libertarian, from the position he has held for the past 29 years by taking in 1,669 votes to Dempsey’s 1,225.
“I want to thank everybody for their support,” said Sante. “It was a lot more work than I thought it was going to be, so thanks to everybody for helping us out.”
“I also want to say thanks to Bob for the last 29 years of doing the job,” he continued. “He really needs to be recognized for his role.”
Dempsey said he was disappointed by the loss, but was trying to look at the bright side.
“The positive thing is that I won’t have to be worried about being on call for 24/7, which is a relief,” he said.
In a little-publicized race for San Miguel County Surveyor, incumbent David Foley, who has been elected to that position since 1990, outpaced his challenger, Republican Dave Royer, by a three-to-one margin.
In Colorado State House District 58, which includes San Miguel, Montrose and Ouray counties, Don Coram of Montrose handily beat Wes Perrin of Telluride, keeping that seat in Republican hands, as it has been for over thirty years. In Montrose County, early returns showed that Coram received 8,384 votes, or 70.76 percent, of votes cast, to 3,878 votes, or 29.24 percent, for Democrat Perrin.
Republican Scott Tipton, who vacated his State House District 58 seat to enter the Third Congressional District race, beat incumbent Democrat John Salazar with 62.7 percent of the Montrose County vote while Salazar received 31.55 percent, according to the Montrose County Elections office.
Coram and Tipton toured several towns in western Colorado on election night, celebrating their respective wins. The Coram/Tipton Election Day tour stopped in Ouray and Ridgway before reaching the Holiday Inn Express in Montrose around 9 p.m. Tuesday night, celebrating with supporters at each stop. Coram said it had been a good campaign.
“I think we worked hard and we talked to a lot of people and took nothing for granted,” he said. “We did it the old-fashioned way. We worked for it.”
After meeting with supporters in Montrose, Coram headed to Grand Junction on Wednesday morning and then on to Denver for orientation Thursday morning. He and other members of the state legislature will take office on Jan. 12, he said, and he already knows what will head up his agenda.
“Topic number one is jobs,” he said.
Voter turnout in Montrose County was high, especially for mail-in ballots, which came in at 84 percent, said Montrose County Clerk Fran Tipton-Long.
“It was an incredible turnout,” she said.
The race between Coram and Perrin was the only contested race on the Montrose County ballot. Elected unopposed to another term in Montrose County were Coroner Thomas Canfield, District 2 County Commissioner Gary Ellis, Clerk and Recorder Fran Tipton-Long, Treasurer Rosemary Murphy, Assessor Brad Hughes, and Sheriff Rick Dunlap.
In San Miguel County, County Commissioner Joan May, County Treasurer Jan Stout, County Assessor Peggy Kanter and County Sheriff Bill Masters all ran unopposed. Ouray County officials who ran unopposed were County Clerk Michelle Nauer, County Treasurer Jeannine Casolari, County Assessor Susie Mayfield and County Surveyor Bob Larson.
Voters statewide handily defeated three ballot measures that would have slashed local government funding.
Statewide, resurgent Republicans captured control of the Colorado State House of Representatives, but fell short in their bid to capture the State Senate. Legislators will be working with a Democratic governor, as John Hickenlooper bucked the Republican tide to become the state’s next chief executive. Hickenlooper won comfortable majorities in both Ouray and San Miguel counties, but only narrowly edged out Tom Tancredo of the American Constitution Party in Montrose County.
In the other marquee statewide race, incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet won a razor-thin victory over Republican Ken Buck. Bennet’s 1,500-vote margin of victory in San Miguel and Ouray counties, two of the smallest counties in the state, represents a healthy ten percent share of his 15,000-vote margin statewide.
– Reporting by Seth Cagin, Karen James, Beverly Corbell and Peter Shelton