Combustible issues drive narrative in the battle for Colorados 7th Congressional District

The battle for Colorado’s 7th Congressional District is being fought across familiar and combustible political fault lines — abortion, inflation, election integrity and crime — as voters centered in Denver’s western suburbs prepare to choose a new representative in Washington for the first time in 16 years.

The race for the open seat, several political watchers say, is Democratic State Sen. Brittany Pettersen’s to lose, with Democrats having nearly 13,000 more registered voters than Republicans in the district that stretches from Broomfield in the north to Custer County in the south.

Not only did President Biden handily win the district by a more than 10% margin over Donald Trump in 2020, but the momentum driving a potential Republican wave at the ballot box this fall has ebbed over the summer.

The 7th Congressional District, the lines of which were redrawn last year as part of the decennial redistricting process, is largely shaped by the sensibilities of suburban voters in Broomfield and Jefferson counties, which have turned decidedly blue in recent years. Layer on the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in June ending nationwide abortion rights, and Democrats feel the political winds are at their backs.

That’s not an auspicious trend for Erik Aadland, an Army vet and West Point graduate, who wants to become the first Republican to hold the seat since 2007.

“The way the lines have been drawn, I don’t think there are enough Republicans to flip that district,” said David Wasserman, U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report. “This district is a point bluer than the state as a whole.”

Cook ranks the race as “likely Democrat.” Pettersen has raised more than twice what her opponent  — $1.3 million versus $535,000 — as of the end of June.

The University of Virginia Center for Politics gives Aadland slightly better odds at “leans Democrat,” according to prognosticators at Sabato’s Crystal Ball. But managing editor Kyle Kondik said the Republican hopeful is still in a tough spot.

“Like many highly-educated, affluent suburban enclaves across the country, Jefferson County has moved left in recent years,” Kondik said. “Without making a dent in that trend, Republicans are going to have a hard time in this district. Aadland probably needs this to become more of a GOP wave year in order to win.”

But the district is still Colorado’s most competitive congressional race after the 8th Congressional District north of Denver. And Pettersen comes tied to a largely unpopular Democratic president, and at a time when violent crime is surging across the state and Colorado reigns as the leader in auto thefts nationally.

Floyd Ciruli, director of the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Denver, said Aadland will have to hit his opponent hard on the issue of rising crime.

“She has to deal with it — it will be one of the issues that every Democrat will have to deal with,” he said.

The other big opening for Aadland in the race, Ciruli said, is inflation. While prices at the pump have come down appreciably over the summer, another dollop of rotten news on the cost of living front dropped last week: an 8.3% rise in prices last month compared to August 2021, a rate that took economists by surprise and sent the stock market plunging.

The New York Times reported that prices at the grocery store, where consumers feel it most, have soared 13.5 percent in the last year — the sharpest spike since Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

“(Aadland) will need to go on the offense with his issues, especially inflation,” Ciruli said.

“Crime is out of control”

The 7th Congressional District formed just 20 years ago, with Republican Bob Beauprez occupying the post for the first four years of its existence. But since 2007, it’s been all Ed Perlmutter. The 69-year-old Democrat announced this year that he would retire in January, at the end of his eighth term.

While redistricting last year pulled the 7th into rural, and more conservative, areas it hadn’t encompassed before — like Custer, Chaffee, Teller, Lake, Park and Fremont counties — the district still has a distinctively blue tint. The Colorado Independent Redistricting Commission counted 148,000 registered Democrats versus fewer than 136,000 registered Republicans in the district.

That means victory for either candidate likely lies with the 233,000 voters who don’t officially affiliate with either party. That’s where Aadland, who did tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, hopes to find voters who may feel Democrats’ recent efforts to push criminal justice reform have gone too far — creating a perception that criminals get more consideration than victims of crime.

In 2020, Colorado’s homicide rate surged to a 25-year high after 293 people were killed, leaving more than five people dead every week, on average. Motor vehicle thefts and aggravated assaults, like shootings and stabbings, skyrocketed statewide as well, according to an analysis by The Denver Post.

Though the recent crime spike can be attributed to a number of factors, Don Ytterberg, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Perlmutter for the 7th Congressional District in 2014, said it’s an issue Aadland can win on.

“Crime is out of control… when voters find out (Pettersen) has advocated for policies like fentanyl decriminalization, and heroin injection sites, they are not supportive of her,” Ytterberg said. “Nobody can argue that Colorado has gotten safer or more affordable in the past 10 years or that Pettersen has been an effective elected official.”

Aadland, a father of three who has lived in Colorado for nearly a decade, said he will cite his opponent’s record in the state Senate — and her support for various criminal reform bills that could be seen as too soft on crime.

“She has a voting record that makes her very vulnerable that we can tie her to,” he said. “I would (also) tie her to Biden and (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi in terms of big government policies and increased government spending.”

Aadland also faults Pettersen for her support of Senate Bill 181, a major 2019 overhaul of the oil and gas industry in Colorado that some blame for ham-stringing extraction in the state in the midst of a global energy crisis. Aadland, 42, worked for Noble Energy after leaving the Army, and it was a job with the oil and gas company that brought him to Colorado in 2013.

“She championed SB 181, which has lost Colorado between $10 billion and $20 billion a year in the economy, given its impact on the oil and gas industry,” he said.

But Pettersen, who has served in the state Senate since 2019 in a district that overlays Lakewood and other parts of Jefferson County, said calling her soft on crime is a canard. The main reason there’s been an increase in crime in Colorado and nationally, she said, is “the economic fallout due to the pandemic.”

“I am pro-law enforcement and have helped to dedicate millions of dollars in additional support during the pandemic, as well as significant funding to go after the drug cartels who have exploited our communities,” she said.

And Pettersen, who served in the Colorado House for six years before moving to the Senate, counters claims that she has exacerbated the fentanyl crisis in Colorado — a record 912 people died of the drug last year — with her backing of a bill in 2019 that downgraded the charge against those caught with small amounts of fentanyl and other drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.

“I have been working and leading on this issue for the last seven years because of my experience fighting to save my mom’s life from an opioid addiction in a decimated system,” she said. “Colorado voters don’t want to criminalize people who are struggling with a substance use disorder. They want people to be able to get treatment, to recover, to rejoin society and be able to get a job and put a roof over their head.”

Pettersen calls Aadland “dangerously extreme” on abortion, an issue that Craig Hughes, a Democratic consultant with Hilltop Public Solutions, said could make the difference in the 7th.

“Colorado 7 is a heavily pro-choice district, and it’s going to be very, very difficult for Aadland to obscure his out-of-touch views here, and I do believe this could be the deciding factor in the race,” Hughes said. “Not just suburban women — suburban men are generally very pro-choice as well, and Aadland will struggle to explain why he thinks an abortion ban is a good idea to these voters.”

Pettersen, who is 40 and has a young son, will undoubtedly turn comments Aadland has made questioning the results of the 2020 election against him in the run-up to the Nov. 8 election.

“Donald Trump tried to steal an election he lost and install himself as a president, contrary to the will of the voters. When that didn’t work, he summoned a violent mob… to try and overturn the election,” she said. “Election deniers like my opponent are the greatest threat to our democracy and the rule of law.”

Abortion and the 2020 election

Aadland said his opponents’ attacks on his positions on abortion and the presidential election two years ago are predictable and desperate. Abortion, he said, is a “states’ rights issue” and that the U.S. Supreme Court, by giving that purview to the states, got it right with its June 24 Dobbs ruling.

Colorado lawmakers this past spring passed a bill safeguarding abortion for women in the state.

“I respect Colorado’s right to decide through the legislative process — and they’ve done so, with one of the most permissive bills in the country, if not the world,” Aadland said. “I think that polling indicates that most Coloradans don’t support late-term abortion or abortion up to the day of birth… That’s what she’s attacking me on on this issue even though I’ve said I’m not a threat to those so-called rights here in Colorado.”

Aadland said he opposes abortion except in the cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

On the charge of election denialism, Aadland said he accepts Biden as the winner of the 2020 election. While he regrets using the term “rigged” more than a year ago to describe the election, he said voters have the right to ask questions about the process “without being branded as extremists or wanting to overturn the election or being Trump fanatics.”

Democrats, in any case, are hardly pure when it comes to honoring election results, he said.

“We can go back to 2016 and the four years of President Trump’s presidency where Hillary Clinton was denying the election,” Aadland said. “Stacey Abrams said she was the rightful governor of Georgia. We have an unprecedented loss of trust in our election process.”

Clinton, in a 2019 television interview, called Trump an “illegitimate president” who used “voter suppression and voter purging” to gain the White House. Abrams, a Democrat, still won’t concede her 2018 gubernatorial loss to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia, according to an interview she gave to Yahoo News last month. She called the election system in her state “broken.”

Aadland said he wants to move past the issue of election integrity and appeal to the philosophical middle of the electorate, where he said “truth and the right answer” reside.

“Being on the extremes, right or left, is not healthy for the future of this country,” he said.

But last week, FiveThirtyEight reported that Aadland called federal government leadership “illegitimate” during a speech as recently as June — employing the exact same language Clinton used against Trump. The story also said the candidate told the audience that he was not inclined to talk about the issue publicly because it’s “not an issue that wins us this race.”

Kondik, of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said his final impression is that Aadland is too conservative for a moderate district like Colorado’s 7th. But the Democrats, he said, are facing a tough election year with a president whose approval ratings, while rising in recent weeks, have been less than stellar for most of his presidency.

“Of course, these kinds of candidates sometimes win on blue turf in a big wave year like 2010,” Kondik said. “But 2022 is looking less likely to be a year like that given recent trends.”

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