In Colorado, Once Safe Democratic Rep. May Find That All Politics Isn't Local

ABC News' Amy Walter reports:

GRAND JUNCTION, CO -- If you want to know why Democrats’ control of Congress is in jeopardy, just take a look at the political prospects for three-term Rep. John Salazar (D-CO).

Despite the GOP lean of his sprawling Western Slope district (McCain carried it with 50 percent) Salazar has easily won re-election twice with more than 60%. In 2006, he beat his current opponent, Republican Scott Tipton, with 62 percent. The brother of former Senator and current Interior Sec. Ken Salazar, John Salazar’s success is due in part to his well-respected family name, his emphasis on his ranching and farming background as well as his down-home, unflashy style.

This year, however, this all-politics-is-local strategy might not be enough.

Two recent Republican polls showed Salazar trailing Tipton. No Democratic polls have been released. And just over a week ago the Cook Political Report moved the race from "leaning" Democrat to a "Toss Up."

At a debate in Grand Junction this weekend, Tipton spent most of his time tying Salazar to Washington, while Salazar struggled to bring the debate back to local issues.

To be fair, the debate, sponsored by the Western Slope advocacy group Club20, was held in unfriendly territory for the 3-term Rep. In 2008, Salazar won the district with 62 percent but took just 47 percent in Mesa County. And, it’s always dangerous to read too much into one debate. That said, Salazar’s performance here was instructive to the kind of trouble Democrats who sit in red-tilting districts face in a year like this.

Tipton brought a raucous group of supporters to the convention hall and went on the offensive almost immediately. Salazar, who according to a number of Colorado political types has always been an uncomfortable debater, was on his heels the entire debate.

Even so, Salazar had few good answers when challenged on his record in Congress.

Salazar’s defense of his vote for health care reform as a vote for “deficit reduction” was met with peals of laughter. He boasted of his record not only of voting against cap and trade but went on to note that “I stood against my speaker” and “fought like crazy to kill” the legislation in the House.

Salazar attacked Tipton on numerous occasions for his call to cut federal spending by 50 percent. But, in a year where voters hold Washington in deep contempt, the idea that cutting spending, even for popular federal programs, may not hold as much sting as it did in year’s past.

A loss by Salazar, who was considered relatively safe not long ago, would be an ominous sign for Democrats nationally. If Democrats like Salazar lose, it’s hard to see how Democrats hold their House majority.

-Amy Walter

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