US Congress Green New Deal

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, waves after speaking at Women’s Unity Rally in Lower Manhattan in New York in January.

Crisanta Duran posed a trivia challenge to her Facebook and Twitter followers in late April.

What do Barack Obama, Beto O’Rourke and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have in common, she asked.

“A: They all challenged a Dem incumbent in a primary,” Duran wrote, and then added: “New energy in positions of power is healthy for our democracy. I'm running for Congress because I believe it is time for a change.”

All three of the Democratic luminaries she named — Obama, O’Rourke and Ocasio-Cortez — at one point tried to send members of Congress packing, and two of them succeeded.

The message was clear: There’s nothing unprecedented or outlandish about what Duran wants to do.

The Denver Democrat, who wielded the gavel as speaker in the Colorado House of Representatives before term limits forced her retirement in January, wants voters to keep in mind the three brash stars of the modern Democratic Party when they consider her bid to unseat 12-term U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette in Denver's 1st Congressional District.

After laying the groundwork for months to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Cory Gardner, Duran set political heads spinning when she announced in February she was instead mounting a primary challenge against DeGette, who has held the Denver-based seat since 1996.

Duran is hardly alone.

Since the turn of the century, members of Congress seeking re-election in Colorado have faced primary challengers 10 times. If Duran makes next June’s ballot, she’ll be the 11th.

It’s been nearly 50 years, however, since a primary challenger has toppled a congressional incumbent in Colorado. It happened twice in rapid succession — during a chaotic period of political upheaval and realignment that bears some resemblance to our era — though in neither case did the giant-slayer go on to Congress.

Times change — the recent flurry of primary challenges to Colorado congressional incumbents came after a decades-long stretch without any — and political lightning can strike.

But if history is any guide, Duran’s attempt to primary her way to a congressional seat isn’t just rare in Colorado. It hasn’t happened even once in living memory.

First, though, let’s take a look at the iconic challengers Duran invoked in her trivia question.

Obama failed spectacularly when he tried to unseat U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush on Chicago’s South Side in 2000, losing 2-to-1, but it turned out the young law professor had a future. Just four years later, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate and was elected to the first of his two terms as president four years after that.

O’Rourke had better luck, at least at first. Six years after turning out an eight-term incumbent in an El Paso, Texas-based congressional district, he came up short in last year’s bid to defeat Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, even while keeping it close and winning a reputation as an innovative and charismatic campaigner.

On the heels of that loss, after an introspective drive around the Southwest, O’Rourke joined the Democrats’ 2020 presidential primary and has been jumping up on countertops ever since.

Ocasio-Cortez — or AOC, as she’s nearly universally known — rocked the House last year when the bartender in her 20s upset 10-term U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, the House Democratic caucus chair, in a heavily Democratic district based in the Bronx.

In the few short months since she’s taken office, the social media-savvy AOC has captivated audiences left and right, from Democrats thrilled by her aggressive push on progressive issues like the Green New Deal to Republicans more than happy to make the self-described Democratic Socialist the face of the opposition.

That’s some heady company.

Duran is the fourth Democrat to take on DeGette, following last year’s challenger Saira Rao, Charles Norris in 2016 and Ramona Martinez in 2002.

DeGette, the senior member of the state’s delegation, isn’t the only congressional Coloradan who’s fended off primary challengers on the way to re-election in recent years.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Cortez Republican, has had to get past primary challengers twice since he won the Western Slope-based 3rd Congressional District in 2010. The incumbent prevailed by wide margins over tea party upstarts David Cox in 2014 and Alex Beinstein in 2016.

The reigning primary survivor in Colorado is U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, who represents the Colorado Springs-based 5th Congressional District.

Lamborn has only had a clear shot to the nomination once since winning the safely Republican seat after a bruising six-way primary in 2006. In his six bids for re-election since, Lamborn has faced primary opponents five times, including last year when four GOP challengers split 48% of the vote, leaving Lamborn with the nomination — and an easy path to a seventh term.

Other than DeGette, Lamborn and Tipton, though, only a handful of Colorado’s congressional incumbents have had to so much as break a sweat on their way to additional terms in Washington, D.C., in the modern political era.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, to be sure, won a Democratic primary against former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff in 2010, a year after Bennet was appointed to finish Ken Salazar’s term — earning an asterisk, because he was an incumbent but wasn’t running for re-election. Bennet has won two full terms since then, while Romanoff lost a congressional race in 2016 and this year joined the throng of Democrats vying for Gardner’s seat.

Before that, entire decades elapsed without a sitting member of Congress facing a primary in Colorado.

In 1970, two of the state’s longest-serving and most powerful Democratic congressmen found themselves with primary challengers.

Young anti-war attorney Craig Barnes denied 11-term U.S. Rep Byron Rogers’ re-election bid in Denver’s 1st Congressional District, squeaking out a primary win by just 30 votes out of 54,406 cast.

The primary laid bare vast rifts in the Democratic Party, paving the way for a win in the general election by Republican Mike McKevitt, who held the seat for a single term before losing it in 1972 to Democrat Pat Schroeder, DeGette’s immediate predecessor.

Political science professor Richard Perchlik, the young crusading mayor of Greeley, came at U.S. Rep. Wayne Aspinall from the left in 1970, trying to deny the venerable chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee a 12th term representing the 4th Congressional District.

Running in opposition to the Vietnam War and entrenched special interests, Perchlik lost by a wide margin but softened up the conservative Aspinall, who had gained a reputation for mocking the nascent ecology movement.

Two years later, Aspinall lost in a primary to environmentalist Alan Merson, but Merson lost the general election by liberal Republican Jim Johnson, who served four terms. (Johnson faced a primary challenge from the right in 1978 but easily prevailed over fellow Republican Dick Davis.)

Barnes and Merson might not have landed in Congress after unseating the decades-long incumbents, but both made their marks.

The same year he beat Rogers, Barnes founded Colorado Common Cause and was co-counsel on a landmark schools desegregation case that led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring busing to integrate Denver’s public schools. He’s also widely credited with introducing the “sunshine” and “sunset” concepts into Colorado law.

After retiring to New Mexico, Barnes was named a Santa Fe Living Treasure in 2014, the year before he died.

Merson was tapped as regional director of the new Environmental Protection Agency under President Jimmy Carter and later ran unsuccessfully on campaign finance reform platforms for Congress in New Mexico and for the Washington state supreme court.

He died in 2005 following a late-life career in Washington and British Columbia as a Unitarian minister and volunteer prison chaplain.

The next time Duran throws out a trivia question about new energy and the health of democracy, it might not have the same ring to it or pack the same punch — but Trail Mix readers will be ready.

What, she might ask, do Richard Perchlik, Craig Barnes and Alan Mercer have in common?

A: They all challenged a Dem incumbent in a primary, and two of them succeeded.

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