Editor's note: This is part a series that looks into Colorado's biggest general election contests.
If Coloradans are up late on election night awaiting results in this year's midterms, there's a good chance the race that will have local and national political watchers on the edge of their seat will be the barnburner in the state's newly created congressional district north of the Denver metro area.
Not only does the contest in the battleground 8th Congressional District stand as the most competitive and expensive U.S. House race in the state this year — by a long shot — but the bout between state lawmakers Barb Kirkmeyer, the Republican, and Yadira Caraveo, the Democrat, could determine which party wields the gavel in the chamber next year.
Republicans are favored to win control of the U.S. House in November's election, though forecasters have lately been narrowing the GOP's projected margin as national polls suggest the electorate isn't behaving the way voters typically do in midterms, when they punish the party in power by throwing the bums out.
While Republicans held the lead for much of the last year in generic congressional ballot polling — attributed to a struggling economy as the country emerges from the wallop of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with widespread dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled Congress — this summer's Supreme Court decision overturning 1973's landmark Roe v. Wade decision, a string of legislative accomplishments and former President Donald Trump's insistence on remaining center-stage ahead of a likely 2024 presidential campaign appear to have upended the dynamic, giving Democrats the upper hand by a slim margin.
According to the election data crunchers at FiveThirtyEight.com, Democrats lead on the national generic ballot — asking voters which party they want to control Congress — 45.3% to 44.3% with less than five weeks left in the fall campaign. It's a reversal of the lead Republicans held on the question from February until early August, sometimes by as much as 3 percentage points, which is considered just shy of pointing to a wave election.
The generic numbers don't translate directly to individual House races, but they're a good indicator of the national mood and the momentum either party is enjoying, and the open seat in the evenly divided 8th CD could reflect that mood most clearly in Colorado this election.
The district covers suburbs, small towns and semi-rural precincts north of Denver along the Interstate 25 and U.S. 85 corridors, including Thornton, Northglenn, Commerce City, Brighton, Berthoud, Johnstown and Greeley. About 60% of its active, registered voters live in Adams County, with 35% in Weld County and 5% in the district's sliver of Larimer County. Democrats hold a slight edge over Republicans, at 27% to 24%, but a wide plurality, 46% of voters, is registered unaffiliated. (The remaining voters belong to Colorado's five recognized minor political parties.)
Kirkmeyer, 64, a dairy farmer and small business owner from Brighton, is in the middle of her first term in the state Senate and served nonconsecutive terms since the 1990s on the Weld County Commission, with stints in the state's last Republican governor's cabinet.
Caraveo, 41, a Thornton pediatrician, is completing her second term in the state House.
The fast-growing district has the largest percentage of Hispanic voters of any congressional seat in the state, with 38.5% of the district identifying as Hispanic, something Caraveo, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, emphasizes when she points out that she would be the first Latina sent to Congress from Colorado. She would also be the first physician and first pediatrician to represent Colorado in Washington — and, as far as her campaign can determine, only the second pediatrician to serve in Congress.
The Republican National Committee and state GOP opened the state's only Hispanic outreach office for the party in the middle of the district, and Kirkmeyer is using it as her headquarters.
The state's Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission, which drew districts last year after the state gained an additional U.S. House seat due to population growth, noted that Democrat Joe Biden carried the district’s electorate in 2020 and Republican Donald Trump won in its precincts in 2016.
The commission’s analysts concluded that Democrats hold a slight, 1.3-point advantage in the 8th CD across the eight benchmark statewide elections they reviewed, though its voters have also demonstrated a willingness to split their tickets.
The same year Trump won within its boundaries in 2016 by 1.7 points, Democrat Michael Bennet did the same by 2.6 points in his successful bid for a second term. In 2018, Democrat Gov. Jared Polis carried the district by 1.9 points, while Republican attorney general nominee George Brauchler, who lost the election statewide, had a 1.7-point edge.
This year's 8th CD race is only the fifth time a Colorado House district's constituents will be able to count on being represented by a woman in the next Congress before any votes are counted.
Whichever major party nominee wins, she'll join the rarified club of women who have served in the state's delegation — Pat Schroeder, the Democrat from Denver's 1st Congressional District, first elected in 1972; Diana DeGette, the Democrat who took over in the same district in 1997 after Schroeder retired; Republican Marilyn Musgrave, who represented the 4th Congressional District, which included Larimer and Weld counties and the Eastern Plains, in the 2000s; Democrat Betsy Markey, who served one term after unseating Musgrave in 2008; and, Republican Lauren Boebert, who won a term last cycle in the Western Slope-based 3rd Congressional District and is seeking reelection this year.
Neither major party's nominee enjoys the advantage of incumbency, though both have legislative records to run on and defend against criticism from the other side — and the mud has been thick with attacks.
Since just after Labor Day, the Democrats and Republicans' national campaign operations have been pouring it on in the district, blanketing the airwaves with ads attempting to define the opposition's candidate as the embodiment of voters' fears and disappointment, with upwards of $6 million spent to date and millions more on deck.
The issues at play in the race have so far shaped up to mirror the national debate. Kirkmeyer's foes have been hammering her unwavering opposition to abortion, except when the life of the mother is in "imminent danger," including support for a national ban on the procedure. Caraveo's opponents, likewise, have been attempting to saddle her with the high inflation rate and threats to the district's once-robust oil and gas operations, linking her to Biden and national Democrats.
On the ground, both sides are mounting massive voter-contact and mobilization efforts, with the conservative Americans for Prosperity Action taking the lead on canvassing and organizing to boost Kirkmeyer and national Democratic groups doing the same for Caraveo.
In an interview, Caraveo said she's found that voters in the southern parts of the district in Adams County and the northern parts in Weld County have similar concerns.
"They're worried about cost of living, which is one of the reasons that I ran, because I noticed what issues families were having compared to mine when I grew up," she said. "And when I was seeing them in clinic, they're worried about choice and what freedoms are going to be taken away from them, whether (overturning Roe v. Wade) is the first step and scales back a lot of the rights that we've taken for granted. And then they're worried about health care and all of the things that affect that, including climate change and other issues."
Caraveo said she's also encountering plenty of excitement when voters hear she could be the first Latina from Colorado to go to Congress.
"Little girls can be what they see," she said. "I didn't see anybody like me when I was growing up. It's been a circuitous route to get to this, but hopefully that won't be the case for the generation of kids that I have seen in clinic and that they'll grow up seeing somebody like them have different roles."
Kirkmeyer told Colorado Politics that her experience in local government — in many cases, dealing with federal requirements and trying to make federal programs work where they're implemented — along with her role as a grandmother has prepared her for Congress.
She said she's enthused about running on the "Commitment to Colorado" platform unveiled last summer by the state GOP, which bears a strong resemblance to a list of goals released by House Republicans.
"The four pillars that we talked about are very similar — about the cost of living, about the economy and affordability," she said. "And what do we do and how do we get back to energy independence. And the public safety side of it, looking at defending the police and protecting the police and how do we make sure that they have the tools and resources necessary to provide law enforcement, but then it's also about security in the border, which I think is extremely important, because we have to stop that flow of fentanyl across the border."
The third pillar is parental rights and education, Kirkmeyer noted, and the fourth is government accountability.
"I can't tell you or express to anyone how important I believe that is, because I think people have lost trust in government," she said. "I think it's because of some of the poor policies that have been passed — when we have a 40-year high inflation rate, and in Colorado, we're No 1 in the nation for inflation. That just hurts, doesn't it?"
Caraveo jumped in the race in August last year, soon after the state's independent redistricting committee finalized the new district's boundaries. She faced a primary challenge from Adams County Commissioner Charles "Chaz" Tedesco, a former union president, but managed to make her way onto the June primary ballot unopposed by keeping Tedesco just below the required threshold at the district's nominating assembly in April.
Kirkmeyer launched her campaign in November, joining an already crowded field that didn't yield a nominee until late June, when she prevailed by a wide margin with 39% of the vote in a four-way primary against Weld County Commissioner Lori Saine, Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann and veteran Tyler Allcorn, a political newcomer.
From the start, Caraveo has held the lead in fundraising — and avoided having to spend heavily to win the primary, leaving her with a massive advantage in campaign cash heading into the fall election.
According to campaign finance filings covering fundraising and spending through June 30, Caraveo raised $1.1 million and had more than $700,000 in the bank as the candidates pivoted to the general election, while Kirkmeyer brought in just under $400,000 and started the sprint to November with $64,000 on hand.
Earlier this week, Caraveo announced that she raised $1.5 million in the third quarter ending Sept. 30, bringing her total fundraising to $2.6 million, and had $550,000 left to spend. At press time, Kirkmeyer's campaign hadn't released its totals for the period, which are required to be reported to the Federal Election Commission by Oct. 15.
But the candidates' funds are only part of the story, with outside spending expected to swamp the sums the nominees raise and spend.
Through this week, the GOP's Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, had spent $2.3 million, mostly on TV ads attacking Caraveo, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's independent expenditure arm had poured more than $2.5 million into the race, mostly on TV ads attacking Kirkmeyer, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political fundraising and spending on its Open Secrets website.
Each committee reserved the same $4.4 million in fall ad time earlier this year — about half of the roughly $15 million booked by outside groups and the candidates — so expect the spending level to increase as ballots drop starting on Oct. 17 and as voters start returning them over the ensuing three weeks.
The Cook Political Report calls the district as a toss-up, and the CATargetBot Twitter account, which tracks FEC filings and spending in races nationally, determined this week that the race ranks seventh in outside spending among the most competitive House races, with no other Colorado House races appearing on its list of the 50 races drawing heavy investments from third-party groups.
The FiveThirtyEight.com website pegs the district as "lean Republican" and its modeling predicts that Kirkmeyer is "slightly" favored, with 68 of 100 simulated election outcomes ending with a Kirkmeyer win and 32 of the simulations handing the seat to Caraveo. According to the site's rough forecast for the district, Kirkmeyer could expect to receive 49.7% of the vote, with Caraveo getting 46.2%, though the projection is based on scant available public polling so the numbers could change if more voter surveys are released in coming weeks.
Kirkmeyer saw an early, solid lead narrow to within the margin of error in two polls conducted this summer by Global Strategy Group — one in June for the 314 Action PAC, which supports Democrats, and one in July and early August for Caraveo's campaign.
The first GSG poll of 500 likely voters from June 9-13, before the primary, showed Kirkmeyer ahead of Caraveo, 44% to 36%, but by the time the same firm polled likely voters a second time, from July 26 to Aug. 2, after the Supreme Court's Roe decision, Kirkmeyer led Caraveo by just 2 points, 44% to 42%.
As the race tightens and the candidates enter the final push, strategists from both sides predict it could be a game of inches.
“CD 8 was drawn to be competitive, and it is living up to expectations," Kirkmeyer campaign manger Alan Philp told Colorado Politics in an email.
"This race comes down to candidate quality — who best connects with the voters — and that’s why Barb will win," he said. "Voters are deeply concerned about the direction of the nation, and only Colorado-tough Barb Kirkmeyer is offering solutions to their concerns: fighting inflation, reducing spending, defending jobs, stopping the flow of fentanyl into Colorado, and keeping dangerous criminals off our streets. Voters trust Barb on those issues because she has a proven record.”
The DCCC's Madison Mundy agrees about the broad shape of the race, though the western regional press secretary predicts it will be decided on different grounds.
“Colorado’s 8th Congressional District is one of the most competitive races in the country and Coloradans have a true champion in Dr. Yadira Caraveo, who perfectly embodies Democrats’ commitment to stand up to Republican extremism," she said in an email.
"While career politician Barbara Kirkmeyer wants to rip away Coloradans’ access to abortion and opposes popular reforms to lower the costs of health care, qualified candidates like Dr. Caraveo — who spent her time in the legislature lowering health care costs and protecting reproductive rights — offer Democrats a clear path to retain the House this November.”
Her counterpart with the National Republican Congressional Committee predicted that the race will turn on issues the GOP has been highlighting.
“This district is a top pick-up opportunity for Republicans, and we are confident that voters will reject Democrats’ reckless spending and anti-energy agenda that is running Colorado into the ground," NRCC spokeswoman Courtney Parella said in an email.
Caraveo said the contours of the race are clear.
"I think that the biggest distinction between myself and my opponent is the real ability to fight for working families," she said. "It's very easy to have talking points about it. But when you don't believe in their ability to make medical decisions for themselves, when you side with oil and gas CEOs and (pharmaceutical) executives and take their money and then vote in a way that they want you to, that's not really working for working families. When you oppose so much legislation that would lower their costs — not just in their pockets, but in terms of tax rates, etc. — then you're not really working for working families. And so I come from that background. I've worked for working families, as a pediatrician and as a legislator, and that's something that I will continue to do as a congressperson."
Kirkmeyer sounded confident heading into the home stretch.
"This race needs to focus on the issues that are of utmost importance to the majority of the constituents that we serve, and that's going to be about cost of living," Kirkmeyer said in an interview. "It's going to be about public safety and securing our border and stopping the flow of fentanyl across the border. It's going to be about that commitment to America and putting a plan forward about how do we move forward, because as Republicans, when we're trying to regain the majority in Congress, it can't just be about winning. It's got to be about governing, and having a vision and a commitment to Americans on how we are going to govern and move forward to address those issues, to try and solve those problems, to cut taxes to get back to where folks aren't worried about – are they going to have a job in three months, are their businesses going to make it through this next year?"
Added Kirkmeyer: "We need to figure out how to cut the budget, how to at least rein in this debt. There's a lot of work that needs to be done, and, quite frankly, I think I'm up to the task. I know I'm up to the task. I know I have the experience to follow through and really, truly hit the ground running. Because I'm not going to Congress just to make a point. I want to go to Congress to make a difference — for my kids and grandchildren, for everyone else's kids or grandchildren. We need to make a difference. We need to get our country back on track."
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