The CO-03 Diaries: Kerry Donovan In, Takes the Slope by Storm

Custer County rancher Gregg Smith and Durango crane operator Marina Zimmerman have a new contender flying down the slope: State Senator Kerry Donovan. She is far the largest name to enter the Democratic nomination, which means the race to defeat Lauren Boebert in Colorado’s 3rd congressional district just got bigger.

Donovan represents the 5th Senate District, a wide swath of seven counties in western Colorado. A native of Vail in Eagle County, she is a farmer and rancher with strong ties to the area.

Stomping the Landing

In ski lingo, “stomping the landing” is slang for landing a cool trick. Winning as a Democrat in CO-03 is a tall order, given its stubbornly conservative tilt. Can Kerry Donovan, the ski town state senator, stomp the landing?

As this map from elections analyst Drew Savicki indicates, her district is anchored by Eagle, Lake, and Pitkin counties, home to Vail, Leadville, and Aspen. Those three towns are the core of the Democratic base, along with blue areas in Gunnison and Chaffee counties. The Republican base area of the seat is in Delta County. Delta, like much of the border region, has strong conservative-libertarian leanings. Historically, the 5th Senate District’s margins of victory in statewide races are a statewide bellwether. All of the presidential results in the map are within one percent of the statewide margin.

Donovan has shown appeal to non-Democratic voter bases, as her 2018 state senate bid would indicate. Election analyst Ethan Chen’s map of the 5th Senate District in 2018 shows a substantial over performance of the top of the ticket. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis won the seat by almost 14 percentage points, while Donovan won by nearly 21 percentage points. Donovan outperformed Polis virtually everywhere but was especially able to run up the score in her home of Eagle County. Even in 2014, when Colorado Democratic turnout cratered and incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall barely won the district by under 800 votes, Donovan slightly outperformed him, winning her first election by 1,300 votes.

Donovan hopes to use this crossover appeal to flip the third. Her first ad highlights her ranching background and emphasizes “real toughness”, in an appeal to rugged Colorado individualism. Nevertheless, there are a few caveats to her candidacy, the first one being the elephant in the room: redistricting.

A Different Line Down the Mountain

Given that Colorado is likely to gain an 8th congressional district, this will likely force the redistricting commission to redraw the 3rd to prioritize two out of the three main areas in the seat. In a previous article for Elections Daily, Ryland Mahre defined them: the border, ski country, and the southern Hispano areas.

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A “least-change” redistricting map.

One hypothetical redistricting map for the state of Colorado is a potential “least-change” map, where every district looks as similar as possible to its predecessor. This third would have voted for Trump by 8 in 2016 and 2020. Were the commission to draw a district like this, it would preserve CO-03 as the home of the border region and of the southern Hispano areas, with ski country cut further between 3 and the blue Boulder-based 2nd.

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An alternative redistricting map.

On the other hand, the commission may draw a district such as this. The 8th may appear red here, but these colors are based on 2016 data. The blue shift of the Denver area in 2020 was so strong that Biden likely won the 8th. With trends in the area, it would be a promising seat for Democrats. This version of the third would be the best hope for Colorado Democrats.

Given recent trends with working-class Hispanic voters nationwide, trading the Pueblo area to the 4th would be a worthy trade. The Pueblo area does not vote Democratic by 20 points like it used to. This map would prioritize ski country and the border, and decouple the San Luis Valley from the Pueblo area. This 3rd voted for Trump by six in 2016 and according to Chen, Biden won it by less than a point. Polis would have won the seat by three percentage points in 2018. For a candidate based in ski country like Kerry Donovan, who has significant crossover appeal, this seat would be a dream to run in.

Avoiding a Wipeout

Donovan’s candidacy is so far the strongest in the race, but there may be some drawbacks. There is a growing rift between the ski-country liberals of the northern part of the district and the conservative other areas of the seat. The relatively non-controversial constituent service of former Rep. Scott Tipton and the rightward trends in the rural working-class areas in the south and west have accelerated this trend.

Once Tipton unseated Democratic Rep. John Salazar in 2010, he was re-elected easily without much incident. In 2016, former State Sen. Gail Schwartz of Pitkin County, who represented a similar 5th Senate District as Donovan, lost by double-digits statewide. In the process, she lost Pueblo County by nearly 12. Pueblo has a high population of Latinos and unionized workers, both key Democratic constituencies that have been historically neglected by the party.

In 2018, former State Representative Diane Mitsch Bush from Steamboat Springs ran against Scott Tipton and lost. In 2020, she ran again, except this time against the Boebert. Bush ran a solid campaign, but the red lean of the district, combined with attempts to caricature her as a liberal professor out of touch with the needs of the rural and agricultural-heavy district, ultimately sank her efforts to turn the Western Slope blue.

Donovan lives in Vail, which is not in the district currently. If Vail is not added, like in the first redistricting map, it could open her up to accusations of carpetbagging. Gregg Smith, who just moved to the 3rd quite recently, is already in this predicament. Furthermore, Donovan’s senate district doesn’t extend east where the Pueblo area and other ancestrally Democratic Hispanos are, making her appeal to those voters unquantifiable. Still, though, Donovan is a far better candidate on paper than Diane Mitsch Bush and has a much stronger electoral track record to bet on.

Conclusion

Colorado’s 3rd district remains an uphill climb for Democrats. Despite this, Kerry Donovan’s entry into the race signals that the party is not going to let Lauren Boebert coast to re-election. Boasting strong appeal among the Democratic ski-country base, she may have some work to do courting voters in more conservative areas of the district. Nevertheless, Donovan’s candidacy is a net benefit for Democrats.

It remains to be seen whether other prominent Democrats will jump into the race, notably from the Pueblo area, the other traditional Democratic bastion. No matter what, though, the race is on, and it’s shaping up to be gnarly.

Armin Thomas is a recent graduate of Yale University specializing in statistics. His interests include politics, elections, music, and the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. His Twitter is @thomas_armin and he can be reached at [email protected]

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