In Colorado, health-care debate reverberates in congressional race

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010; A01

FORT COLLINS, COLO. -- Rep. Betsy Markey, a first-term Democrat in a Republican district, was one of just eight House members who switched their votes from "no" to "yes" when President Obama's health-care bill finally passed Congress. Her vote left the endangered incumbent in an even more precarious position.

In the days since, Markey has been both praised and vilified. The National Republican Congressional Committee taunted her with an e-mail release proclaiming, "Bye Bye, Betsy." She made former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's list of targeted Democrats. But they were only ratifying the obvious. In November, the race in Colorado's 4th District will be crucial to Republican hopes to take over the House.

What is clear on the ground here is that passage of the health-care law has not stilled the debate. The district is as divided as ever, with Markey and her leading rival jockeying to shape perceptions of how the vote is playing with talk of money raised, e-mails received and activists engaged.

State Rep. Cory Gardner, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, said her vote, coming after her support of climate-change legislation and the economic stimulus, marked "the tipping point" that showed voters that "Congresswoman Markey is out of step."

After the health-care bill passed, a voter from outside the district sent the Republican's campaign a contribution with a note: "Please thank Betsy Markey for this check." When the Denver Post wrote about it, another voter sent a copy of the article along with a donation to Gardner's campaign with a note: "Again, you can thank Betsy Markey's health-care vote for this check."

But Markey, 53, said she does not think the vote puts her in any greater jeopardy and said the issue could fade by November. In the meantime, she said, calls and e-mails to her office have been encouraging. "It's actually been more positive than I expected," she said.

Her office shared more than two dozen of those e-mails as evidence.

"Voting yes as a first term representative from a predominantly Republican area was a gutsy, gutsy move," wrote Patty Mayer, a physician and political independent from Greeley. "I applaud your bravery and your courage in making the right choice."

Michelle Boyce, an active Democrat from Fort Collins, wrote: "I would like to thank you for changing your vote and supporting the health care bill. I know you are getting lots of criticism at the moment, but please stand your ground and continue to support this important legislation!"

Markey and the Republicans also are dueling over money as first-quarter fundraising reports come out, with Markey's campaign saying it is happy to make the money race a proxy for how health care is playing.

Markey raised $505,000 in the first quarter of the year, according to figures released by her staff Sunday. Of that, about $355,000 came into the campaign after Markey's March 17 announcement that she would vote for the health-care bill.

Gardner's advisers said they were not prepared to release their entire first-quarter numbers yet and predicted that the incumbent would raise more money in the quarter. Political insiders will be looking closely at the gap between the two.

As evidence that Markey's vote had energized opponents of health care, Gardner's advisers said that he raised $30,000 in online contributions in the days after Markey announced her decision to vote yes. That compares with $20,000 raised online from Jan. 1 until the day of her announcement.

The 4th Congressional District covers the High Plains of eastern Colorado, where the landscape is flat, arid and mostly brown. Most of the population lives in two cities, Fort Collins and Greeley, and the rest of the district is predominantly rural. It was drawn as a Republican district in the 1970s and has long been a GOP stronghold.

Markey broke the GOP's hold in 2008. The incumbent then was Marilyn Musgrave, whose strident opposition to gay rights and emphasis on abortion turned her into a polarizing figure. Democrats came close to defeating her in 2006. In 2008, Markey won with 56 percent of the vote.

But Markey was also swept along by a tide that for three elections in a row pushed Colorado closer to the Democrats. Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state since 1992 and almost carried Markey's district.

In the past year, that Democratic tide has begun to recede across Colorado, leaving Markey vulnerable. In August, her district was the scene of a raucous town hall meeting, which she did not attend. Since returning home after the vote on the health-care bill, she has kept a low profile, worried that emotions remain raw. On Thursday night, she conducted a town hall by telephone. Approximately 8,000 people dialed in to listen.

Even in the absence of the politicians, the divisions over health care are clear. Conversations with voters in Loveland, a town of 60,000 located 46 miles north of Denver, revealed anger, support and confusion about the new law.

Jesley Torres, 24, expressed outrage over the requirement that everyone must buy health insurance. "It's not up to the government to determine what we do and not do," she said. "We're turning into a communist country."

Samoa Brown, a stay-at-home mother, said she has big reservations. "Government's not good at dealing with that much," she said. She also wondered about the mandate to buy insurance. "Are we going to get fined and put in jail?" she asked.

But Carolyn Curtis, a preschool teacher, said she is "happy it got passed" and is pleased with the president.

Others agreed with Ethel Meininger, a retiree, who said: "We know nothing about it. I think it's too many things at one time."

When the House first voted on the health-care bill in November, Markey opposed the measure. Among other things, she did not think the cost-containment provisions were adequate and thought small businesses would be hurt.

Once the Senate approved a modified version and more changes were made under the reconciliation process, she began to change her mind. She liked the improvements for small business and how the changes would be paid for.

She especially liked the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of how much the bill would reduce the deficit. "The clincher was the CBO score," she said.

There is one clear positive from her vote switch: The Democratic base will be more energized -- no small factor for her reelection campaign.

"Your base are the people that walk the precinct with you, that make phone calls on your behalf; they get out and really work, and so regardless of party, the base is important," she said.

Gardner said he thinks Markey's vote was motivated principally by the need to firm up her base. "When gut check came, she looked back and said, 'Am I going to have people charging the hill with me or am I going to be alone?' and she voted yes," he said.

Markey said the key to November also lies with unaffiliated voters, who were instrumental in the Democrats' gains in the past several elections. Markey said independents have cooled to the new administration: "Independents wanted change, but maybe not this much this soon."

Two years ago, the breaks went in Markey's direction: It was a good time for Democrats and she faced an unpopular opponent. She and Obama even campaigned together before nearly 50,000 people at Colorado State University.

This year, Markey has the power of incumbency, but other factors work against her. She knows she will have to win reelection on her own. Would she like to have Obama back this fall?

"You know, if the president wanted to come, I would welcome him," she said. Then she added: "I have not invited him. For me, this is going to be about what I'm doing in Congress."

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