This fall, one in four Colorado voters will be faced with an opportunity that only comes around rarely.
Voters in two of the state's eight congressional districts will be asked to fill open House seats.
That's only happened seven times in the last 50 years in Colorado, across 25 General Elections and 155 separate contests for the U.S. House of Representatives.
More commonly — though still rare — a single congressional seat has come open, usually because the incumbent declines to seek re-election but also a few times when the state has gained a new congressional district and twice because an incumbent was denied the nomination in a primary defeat.
This year, the pair of openings will be in the state's two newest House districts, but the openings are arising for different reasons.
The 8th Congressional District, which is only theoretical at this point, springs into existence after the November election, when the newly created district elects its first representative.
The seat, expected to be the most competitive in the state this year, is situated north of the Denver metro area, encompassing suburbs in Adams County and farmland and exurbs into Weld County as far north as Greeley. Politically, it's almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. It's also considered a Hispanic-influence district.
It's the fourth time in 50 years that Colorado has added a congressional district and, with it, a brand-new, open seat. As the state's population has increased relative to the rest of the country, Colorado grew from four to five districts in 1972, then added a sixth district in 1982 and a seventh district in 2002.
The 8th CD has attracted crowded primary fields in both major parties, with four Democrats and six Republicans vying for the nominations.
Voters can thank U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter for the existence of the other open seat on this year's ballot.
The Arvada Democrat threw Colorado political circles for a loop on Jan. 10 when he announced his decision to retire after he finishes his current term, his eighth representing the suburban 7th CD, which covers parts of Jefferson and Adams counties.
Under maps adopted this fall by an independent redistricting commission, the district shifts to the south after next year's election, covering Broomfield, almost every precinct in Jefferson County and six mountainous counties stretching into central Colorado.
Perlmutter, 68, said it is time to "pass the torch to the next generation of leaders." He said he believes Democrats are blessed with a deep bench in the district and have a "strong group of leaders who are ready and able to take up that torch."
Republicans don't have as deep a bench in the newly configured 7th CD, following a string of losses that have left the party holding only one legislative seat and one county office in Jefferson County, which not so long ago was a GOP stronghold. Nonetheless, the party is equally confident its leaders are primed to win Perlmutter's torch.
Perlmutter, a Colorado native, added that he considers it "the honor of a lifetime" to have served his community as an elected official for 25 years, including two four-year terms representing a central Jefferson County district in the state Senate, when he was the first Democrat to hold the seat in three decades.
Elected to Congress in 2006 and re-elected seven times since, Perlmutter is tied with U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, the Colorado Springs Republican, for the second-longest tenure in Washington among the Colorado delegation. They trail U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, the Democrat first elected to represent the Denver-based 1st Congressional District in 1996, giving her a full five terms and 10 years' head start on the guys. (DeGette's staff will politely correct anyone who refers to her as the "dean of the delegation," noting that, technically, she's the delegation's doyen, citing the feminine term for the member with the most seniority.)
For years, as every election approaches, the buzz among political insiders has been thick with speculation that this was the year when DeGette, Lamborn or Perlmutter would decide to step aside, opening up a seat to a likely free-for-all among the ambitious politicians in their districts. In DeGette's 1st CD, the aspirants are Democrats, and in Lamborn's 5th CD, they're Republicans, since the seats are about as respectively blue and red as they come. Perlmutter's 7th CD is more evenly balanced, though it's grown increasingly Democratic in its current configuration and still leans Democratic under its new boundaries.
Many an aspiring honorable has grown old and gone gray waiting them to clear a path — though, ironically, DeGette, Lamborn and Perlmutter each won seats left open by their previous occupants when they first went to Congress, so they know a thing or two about pent-up ambition.
DeGette, a former state lawmaker, won her seat after the delegation's previous doyen, Denver Democrat Pat Schroeder, stepped down after representing the 1st CD for 12 terms. Lamborn ascended from the legislature to the U.S. House after Republican Joel Hefley gave up the 5th CD after 10 terms.
Perlmutter's predecessor, Republican Bob Beauprez, was only in office for two terms before deciding to jump to a run for governor — a move Perlmutter made and then reversed four years ago.
Unalloyed retirements from the House are rare in Colorado, only happening, on average, fewer than two times per decade over the last 50 years. Including Schroeder and Hefley but not counting Perlmutter, who still has a year remaining in office, there have been 10 retirements since 1972. The others are David Skaggs in the 2nd CD; Frank Evans, Ray Kogovsek and Scott McInnis in the 3rd CD; Jim Johnson and Bob Schaffer in the 4th CD; and, Dan Schaefer and Tom Tancredo in the 6th CD.
There have also been 10 House incumbents who have given up their seat to run for higher office — senator or governor— in the last 50 years, with eight winning the prize and two falling short. Among that cohort: Bill Armstrong, Tim Wirth, Hank Brown, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Wayne Allard, Mark Udall and Cory Gardner, who all ran for the Senate and won, and Ken Kramer, who lost his Senate bid to Wirth. Jared Polis gave up his seat for a successful gubernatorial run, while Beauprez ran for governor twice but lost both times. (Some of those who outright retired from Congress later attempted runs for higher office but, in the last 50 years at least, none won election.)
Prior to this year, the other times in the past five decades that two open seats have appeared in Colorado at the same time were 1972, when Johnson defeated long-serving U.S. Rep. Wayne Aspinall in the Republican primary and Armstrong won in the newly created 5th; in 1978, when Evans retired and Armstrong ran for the Senate seat he would hold for two terms; in 1986, when Wirth and Kramer both ran for the Senate; in 1996, when Schroeder retired and Allard ran for the Senate; in 1998, when Skaggs and Dan Shaefer retired; in 2002, when Bob Shaffer retired and the 7th CD debuted; and, in 2008, when Udall ran for the Senate and Tancredo retired.