Hot-button issues — including abortion and inflation — could tilt Colorado’s tight 8th District race

With just three months to go until the election, one of the most closely watched political contests in the nation — Colorado’s 8th Congressional District — is gearing up for its final and most tumultuous phase before the Nov. 8 showdown that determines who represents the state’s newest seat in Congress.

It’s a race that top politics watchers have been slowly nudging toward Republican Barb Kirkmeyer’s column — two prominent national election ranking firms recently updated their assessments of the race in Kirkmeyer’s favor — as paycheck-eating inflation and surging crime threaten Democrats’ prospects at the ballot box.

Kirkmeyer, a state senator from Weld County, is up against state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat and pediatrician, in a district that stretches from Denver’s northern suburbs to the oil and gas fields around Greeley.

The 8th District, created last year due to Colorado’s population growth, is easily the state’s most competitive congressional race this autumn.

“Given the national environment, I would rather be Barb Kirkmeyer than Rep. Caraveo,” said Republican consultant and political analyst Dick Wadhams. “President Biden is very unpopular, and Yadira is a Democrat and she will pay the price for that.”

But Craig Hughes, a Democratic consultant with Hilltop Public Solutions, said it’s not as simple as an unpopular president dragging down his party’s ticket.

“Without a doubt, cost of living issues are crucial right now, and this was looking like it had the potential to be a Republican wave election,” Hughes said.

But he noted that the political landscape is highly dynamic, with gas prices “down more than 60 cents in the last month” and the Biden administration “taking out” al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul last week.

“The January 6th committee continues to show the malfeasance and criminality of the last administration, and voters are realizing the incredible damage coming from the Dobbs abortion decision, so I think the national mood might be changing,” Hughes said. “And that makes this a super close race.”

The June 24 Dobbs decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade is widely viewed by political analysts as a bonus for Democrats, who hope the issue of abortion rights invigorates voters who might otherwise sit out the election.

Just last week, voters in neighboring Kansas, a firmly red state, rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed the Republican-controlled legislature to tighten abortion restrictions or ban the procedure outright.

“Kansas showed the power of the issue, the challenge now is to make it work in a partisan, candidate race,” Hughes said.

But Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said abortion will only be one consideration on voters’ minds.

“Democrats want to make this election less a referendum on Biden and more of a choice between themselves and a GOP they are trying to paint as extreme,” he said. “The Dobbs decision and its consequences will be part of that messaging, and guns may be as well.”

A landmark decision by the nation’s high court in late June expanding gun rights prompted a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order last month preventing the town of Superior from enforcing its recently enacted ordinance against certain types of assault weapons.

“The political environment has gotten a little better for Democrats since Dobbs, though I still think it’s a Republican-leaning environment overall,” Kondik said.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball re-ranked the 8th Congressional District in late July as “leans Republican” from “toss-up.” Political analysts at FiveThirtyEight have Kirkmeyer “slightly favored” to declare victory in November.

Kondik said the new ranking was given “primarily because this is a politically marginal open seat, which are the kinds of seats that often vote against the president’s party in a midterm, and because Republicans got the person who appeared to be the strongest candidate through the primary.”

Kirkmeyer, who has served two stints as a Weld County commissioner, won in a four-way primary for the Republican nomination on June 28.

Kirkmeyer is against abortion but makes an exception for the mother’s life. Caraveo’s campaign said the Democrat believes a woman should have the “freedom and the right to choose what to do with her own body in private with her doctor and family.”

“Our neighbors in a red state like Kansas have shown what Coloradans have demonstrated time and time again,” campaign spokeswoman Elana Schrager said. “We need to keep the government out of doctors’ offices and ensure women have the freedom to make a choice.”

Hughes, the Democratic consultant, said voters in Colorado have already voted down numerous attempts to restrict or do away with abortion.

“Remember, Colorado voters have repeatedly weighed in on abortion and have consistently sided with protecting a woman’s health care decisions,” he said. “Kirkmeyer is simply on the wrong side of where the voters are here, and that includes Hispanic voters.”

But, Wadhams said, Kirkmeyer “does not have a record of being an activist on abortion.”

“I know the Democrats think that’s going to be their silver bullet but I don’t know if it’s going to have that kind of impact in this race,” he said. “This is not a referendum on abortion.”

Instead, according to Kirkmeyer’s campaign, voters in the 8th District, which encompasses big chunks of Adams and Weld counties and a small sliver of Larimer County, have their minds on other issues besides abortion or gun control.

“Voters tell Barb they are looking for someone who will stop Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats’ agenda and who is focused on improving the cost of living, the economy, crime and lawlessness, and the Southern border,” campaign spokesperson Alan Philp said.

Though Caraveo would be Colorado’s first Latina in the U.S. House, Wadhams said she will have to explain her support for placing limits on the oil and gas sector, which industry backers say has helped slow production and cost jobs in recent years — including those held by Latinos.

“In this race in particular, that issue is going to affect Hispanic voters in Weld and Adams counties,” he said.

In the money game, Caraveo holds a distinct advantage, with $1.16 million collected so far to Kirkmeyer’s $398,000, according to Federal Election Commission data. Those figures are good through June 30. The next campaign finance filing isn’t due until Oct. 15.

“Dr. Caraveo’s remarkable amount of cash on hand — without taking a dime of corporate PAC money — serves to underscore the unstoppable momentum gathering behind the Caraveo Coalition,” Schrager stated in an email.

Kirkmeyer’s campaign said the Republican “can’t expect to match the far-left cash flowing into Yadira Caraveo’s campaign” but that the candidate “has had an excellent month of fundraising and is working hard to raise the resources needed to get her message out.”

“We’re running like we’re 3 points behind all the way until election day,” Philp said.

Both campaigns are getting attention from the national parties now, highlighted through their respective congressional campaign committees. Kondik said this serves as a “signal flare for donors” to start writing the checks.

The 8th Congressional District race, Wadhams said, could end up being one of the most expensive congressional races in state history. There will not only be the funds the candidates raise themselves but millions of dollars from independent expenditure committees and other outside sources.

“Both candidates are going to be very well-financed through the general election,” Wadhams said.

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