Residents of La Plata County know the men running for the 59th District seat in the Colorado House of Representatives personally. They see Republican incumbent J. Paul Brown perusing cereals at the grocery store, and Democratic challenger Mike McLachlan breakfasting at Carver Brewing Co. Yet their race is one of the most competitive in the state.
Redrawn last year in a bitter redistricting process that left the district more competitive for Democrats, the Colorado Democratic Party and the Colorado Republican Party are anticipating that whoever wins the 59th District will prove critical to determining which party holds the majority next term.
Right now, Republicans hold a one seat majority in the state house.
Brown, a rancher from Ignacio, has garnered endorsements from the Colorado Association of Realtors, the La Plata County Farm Bureau and anti-abortion groups, and he won the Colorado Civil Justice League’s 2011 award for “Common Sense in the Courtroom.”
His voting record has also earned the ire of many liberal groups. Fightback Colorado, a group that advocates for civil unions, announced it would target Brown. The national League of Conservation Voters, a powerful environmentalist lobby, also named Brown to its “Dirty Dozen” list, which designates twelve of the most anti-environment state-level candidates throughout the country.
McLachlan, a Durango-based lawyer, has been endorsed by many prominent education groups, including the Colorado Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and, in a particular coup his campaign likes to tout, the Colorado Association of School Executives
Women’s rights groups, including Planned Parenthood, have also thrown their support behind McLachlan.
Until recently, the tone of the race had been scrupulously professional, with both candidates refraining from personal attacks, instead making an effort to emphasize their clear political and ideological differences.
But as out-of-state money has poured into the district, both candidates acknowledge that the tone of their public dialogue has soured. Brown said he felt particularly betrayed by a mailer produced by McLachlan that characterizes Brown arranging a coyote-killing wildlife program that he and his father benefited from as ranchers setting up “a slush fund for himself and his family” while he served as La Plata County Commissioner.
“I don’t mind him bringing up a vote that I made that he doesn’t like, but I don’t like flat lies,” said Brown.
McLachlan’s campaign defended the mailer as accurate.
Money continues to be one of the most interesting aspects of the race.
While the official campaigns for Brown and McLachlan are more or less financially tied going into the final four weeks before the election, starting in mid-September, independent expenditure from super PACs and 527s has handily eclipsed the campaigns’ direct spending.
So far, it’s heavily tilted toward McLachlan.
Filings with the Colorado Secretary of State show a Democratic super PAC, the Colorado Accountable Government Alliance, spent more than $100,000 on cable advertising in September on McLachlan’s behalf. According to Rich Coolidge, the Colorado Secretary of State’s spokesman, another Democratic super PAC, the Community Information Project IE Committee, spent a further $14,914 on door-to-door canvassing to support McLachlan in mid-September, bringing the total amount of independent expenditure on McLachlan’s behalf to $117,574.
Republicans groups aren’t taking it. Coolidge said in September, the major Republican 527, The Colorado Leadership Fund LLC, retaliated by spending $20,359 on ads for J. Paul Brown, and Justin Miller, spokesman for the Colorado Republican Party, said more money was certain to follow.
“This could be the only thing standing in Democrats’ way, and the future of the country and the state is at stake. I fully expect Republicans to throw their entire efforts into holding that seat,” said Miller.
In 2010, GOP groups spent as much as $56,572 on Brown’s behalf – more than Brown spent himself – whereas no Democratic groups spent money on behalf of his opponent, Brian O’Donnell.