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November 28, 2013 12:07 PM UTC

Who Will Replace Hudak in State Senate?

  • by: Colorado Pols

FRIDAY UPDATE: Kurtis Lee of the Denver Post reports that Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp will not seek appointment to the SD-19 seat vacated by Sen. Evie Hudak. Rep. Kraft-Tharpe reportedly endorses former Rep. Sara Gagliardi.


Democrat Evie Hudak's resignation from the State Senate on Wednesday effectively ended the attempted recall in SD-19, but it still leaves Democrats with a significant election battle in 2014.

Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp
Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp

Hudak was re-elected to the State Senate in 2012 by a slim margin over Republican Lang Sias, which meant Democrats wouldn't need to think about the seat again until 2016. With Hudak's resignation on Wednesday, Democrats don't have to worry that a recall election might swing control of the Senate into Republican hands for the 2014 session, but they still have to think about maintaining a majority into 2015. Democrats will fill Hudak's seat through a vacancy committee, but whoever wins the appointment will have to run for a full term next year.

Democrats have represented SD-19 for the last decade, with Sue Windels serving two terms prior to Hudak's 2008 victory, but the district has not been an easy seat to hold. With the 2014 election right around the corner, Democrats have a critical decision to make when the vacancy committee convenes.

Sara Gagliardi
Former Rep. Sara Gagliardi

There is certainly time for other candidates to emerge, but as of now, it looks like a potential three-way race among Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, former Rep. Sara Gagliardi, and Arvada City Council member (and a former campaign manager for Hudak in 2012) Rachel Zenzinger.

All three candidates will have their share of supporters, all three have strong credentials, and all three can make a good case for why they should get the appointment. But from a purely strategic perspective — we're not going to get into any potential policy arguments here — one makes more sense than the other two. Here's why:

Rep. Kraft-Tharp could make the case that she is the logical heir to the SD-19 seat after her 2012 victory in HD-29, but she wouldn't likely have had a free run to the Democratic nomination in 2016 (Zenzinger was planning to run for SD-19 regardless of Kraft-Tharp's intentions). The strategic problem with nominating Kraft-Tharp to succeed Hudak is that it leaves two Democratic seats without an incumbent in 2014. While it's true that control of the Senate is going to be more difficult for Democrats to maintain than control of the State House, it would be tough for Democrats to give up Kraft-Tharp's incumbent advantage in HD-29. Kraft-Tharp has been a strong campaigner in HD-29, but she's not so well-known that she would have a significant edge over a Republican opponent in SD-19; it's a bigger advantage for Democrats if Kraft-Tharp runs for re-election in HD-29 instead.

Rachel Zenzinger
Rachel Zenzinger

Gagliardi is a popular Democrat who served two terms in HD-27 (which was redrawn in the last round of redistricting) before losing her re-election bid to Republican Libby Szabo in 2010. As a nurse with strong ties to organized labor (SEIU), Gagliardi will likely have support from key Democratic allies in a vacancy committee, and she certainly has the experience and credibility to make a good argument for the appointment. The problem with nominating Gagliardi isn't about her — it's about the narrative it feeds into. The 2014 election will be spun by Republicans as a validation of the recall process (fairly or not), and that narrative is strengthened if Democrats appoint someone who was recently defeated at the polls by another Republican; it makes it easier for the GOP to say that Democrats are only paying attention to Democratic voters. It may not be fair to Gagliardi, but Democrats need to consider the reality of the situation as they try to retain SD-19 next November.

Barring any unforseen circumstances, that leaves Zenzinger as the most logical choice from a purely strategic perspective. Zenzinger was just re-elected to her Arvada city council seat without opposition, and that non-partisan position gives her the best opportunity of the three candidates to create her own narrative in 2014. As a campaign manager for Hudak in 2012, Zenzinger is also plenty familiar with the politics at play in SD-19. Zenzinger's name ID won't be quite as strong as that of Kraft-Tharp or Gagliardi, but given the recent dynamics surrounding the recall, that might actually be an advantage. And while it's true that Republicans may try to use Zenzinger's ties to Hudak to say that she will be more of the same, it's important to remember that Hudak was not unpopular in her district — Hudak had served in elected office on the state school board for years prior to her Senate win in 2008, and she was demonized by a small, vocal minority (many of whom weren't even residents of SD-19).

Democrats are fortunate to have three strong candidates to replace Hudak through a vacancy committee, and all three would be well-prepared to defend the seat in 2014. But it is purely circumstance — and not criticism of Kraft-Tharp or Gagliardi — that makes Zenzinger the most logical option at this point.




18 thoughts on “Who Will Replace Hudak in State Senate?

  1. Correction:  Tracy Kraft-Tharp has not served two full terms.  She was first elected in 2012 when she defeated incumbent Republican Robert Ramirez in the general election. Instead, she has served 1/2 term.

  2. This analysis is logical. There are a couple of other combinations that might work here too (TKT gets SD-19, Zenzinger gets HD-29) but overall this seems about right. Personally I'd love to see Sara Gagliardi kick Libby Szabo's ass in 2014 too, then it's a hat trick.

  3. I understand and basically agree with the critiques of both Kraft-Tharp and Gagliardi being too highly associated with the Democrats to be considered locks in the '15 General. That said, I'm curious why you don't consider Zenzinger's association with Hudak (you know, the lady that looked like she was about to be recalled and then resigned) to be a liability? In my view, it will be just as easy to label her as just another D with the exact same politics. If I'm searching for an archetype I want someone with a stronger business or public health background who can deflect some of these social issues and capture more R's in '15. 

    1. As we mentioned, we don't think an association with Hudak is necessarily a negative. Yes, she was the target of a recall, but Hudak was also elected to public office several times without a loss. Most of the people who participated in the Hudak recall attempt are unlikely to support a Democrat anyway.

  4. Decent analysis, but not really complete (and, as pointed out, you're incorrect re: TKTH's length of service — she may just be so effective it feels like she's been around longer). 

    On TKTH, you neglected to note that Zenzinger is in HD29 and a perfectly cromulent choice for Kraft-Tharp's seat if Tracy gets the vacancy committee nod to move on up to Senate. 

    With Gagliardi, you didn't point out the easiest counter-argument to that narrative: Gagliardi was elected in a Republican-leaning district that very, very rarely elects Democrats, and was swept out in a Republican wave year that was more about Obama than about Gagliardi. Regrettably, her replacement is only really known for bull semen and nutty-sounding speeches at the RNC. Gagliardi is a hard-working campaigner who will knock doors until her feet fall off, and she plays well as a moderate. (That being said, heavy union support is a liability in TV/direct mail ads, for all the good it does in terms of fundraising.) Also, the possibility of a revenge run in HD27 is another option for her if she doesn't get this… I don't know if she's willing, or if she'd be likely to retry in a primary for the Senate seat in 2016, though. The biggest advantage with Gagliardi is that you get a very, very strong and effective Democrat back in office who isn't in any elected office currently. Only choice that adds a Democrat rather than subtracting one.

    Zenzinger wasn't actually Hudak's only campaign manager, but she certainly did enough to know the district and claim a big share of the credit for a difficult, narrow win. She does enjoy bipartisan support on the City Council, and one of Gagliardi's former Republican opponents endorsed her. She's served as Mayor Pro Tem, which is a handy boost from just a city council title, and she gained some kudos for voting against approving a Wal-Mart in Arvada Plaza (the only councilor to do so). However, Republican interests have recently caused some drama on the Lakewood City Council by uncovering possible evidence of secret meetings, destroyed documents, and other miscellaneous corruption, and Grassroots Radio (for all that I hate to suggest they have any influence, the recall types DEFINITELY listen to them) is calling for Arvada to be investigated next. I don't think voters really give a crap about city council issues enough for it to become a major issue, but it could rile up the same vocal minority that drove the recall campaign. I am 100% certain Zenzinger would not herself be found to be involved in any Arvada City Council corruption, but I would not be one bit surprised to find the Mayor caught holding secret meetings that excluded Zenziner, or something like that. (In fact, I've seen documents that catch the Mayor in some pretty damning lies about the Wal-Mart developer relationship already.) If the Arvada council overall gains a reputation for corruption, that could leak into any campaign by an Arvada councilor, even if she is (and she is!) the only member NOT involved in the rule-breaking. However, again, anything short of bodies in the basement will go unnoticed by the vast, vast majority of voters, so it's a minor wrinkle, not a liability.

    Another thing to consider: There's a decent element of the party that wants to see a woman take over whenever (God grant him long life and great health!) Perlmutter finally retires… any of these three, managed carefully, could have enough longevity in office to be there if Perlmutter retires after a few more terms. I personally want to see Perlmutter serve until he's 112 year old and whacking Republicans with his cane, and the very thought of him retiring makes me bite my nails furiously, but it's something we have to face as a possibility. Of the three, Kraft-Tharp is possibly the best bet if she stays put in the House, serves all her allotted terms there, and THEN moves up to Senate — especially if she gets a leadership position in the Senate and is, say, Assistant Majority Leader when Perlmutter retires, she'd be in a great position to jump in. We all know the male names bandied around as Perlmutter's eventual replacement, but I'm one of the not-insignificant number of CD7 voters who like the idea of Degette getting some female company in Colorado's delegation. 

    All things considered, there are a lot of pluses and a handful of minuses for all three, but quite frankly I think any of the trio can defend the seat next year. The Republican bench is in sorry shape, and there will probably be a primary with a pretty good chance of an RMGO-backed gun nut ideological purist right-winger outraising any reasonable Republican and winning the nomination. Dudley Brown is kind of like a vampire: Once you invite him in, you can't get rid of him, and SD19 has invited him in via the recall, for which RMGO is already openly taking credit.

    I know which way I'm leaning, but all three are personal friends and I ain't sayin' nothing against any one of them. I'll make a mark on my ballot when the time comes, and I will celebrate with whomever wins. We're in great shape regardless.

    (You also missed the rumor that two Westminster city council members are interested, but I don't think they'll get in, so it's probably not worth the digital "ink.")

    1. A lot can happen before the vacancy committee, and plenty of other people will probably express some level of interest. But barring something surprising, we'd guess the appointment will go to one of these three women.

      You make an interesting point about Perlmutter, although if that seat does open up anytime soon, there will be no shortage of interested and capable Democrats who will kick the tires (including several women). Nobody is going to be able to lay claim to that nomination.

  5. I would also like to add that Senator Hudak had extensive expertise in Education Policy and chaired the Senate Ed Committee. I believe Councilwoman Zenzinger is the only one qualified to fill that void as far as education policy is concerned. We have major decisions to make as far as the future of Colorado schools and we need a Senator who can make the tough calls.

  6. Just a notion … just to muse.

    Zenzinger just got reelected to the Arvada council … like not even 30 days ago.

    Now, we all understand that politics is about unfettered ambition and personal advancement, however, to abandon an office to which one was re-elected just a few days ago might seem overly 'eager' and aggrandizing for the average citizen.

    You can be sure that the Republicans would make that an issue in 2014, especially if the mood of the electorate is still cynical and skeptical towards politicians and government.

  7. The endorsement game will be interesting to watch. So far I've seen TKTH come out for Gagliardi and Sen. Hodge endorse Zenzinger.  Anyone seen any other notable endorsements?

  8. Rachel was RE-Elected with no opposition.  She has served Arvada very well the last 4 years.  She made no secret that she wanted to run for the Senate seat, she was just planning to wait till Evie finished her full term.  The only question that matters here is who will win the general.  Sara is a great person, but she was trounced four years ago, despite working her ass off.  We can't risk that again.  Rachel basically won this race a year ago as Evie's campaign manager, noone knows this fight better.  And as mentioned above, we need someone to carry on Evie's legacy. Rachel is a teacher who works in education policy.  She understands this complicated world.  We want a teacher to replace Evie.  Go Rachel.

  9. I almost hope the GOP retakes the legislature and governorship so they can undo the gun regulations, which will have zero effect on gun violence and won't prevent another Sandy Hook/Columbine/Aurora theater.  


    But only almost, because the GOP is nothing short of insane and completely untrustworthy when it comes to governing.  Sadly, the Democratic party is well on its way there as well.

    1. If you really think the regulations will have zero effect on crime, unless you think they'll do real and serious harm (hard to see that since they don't do a thing to take away anyone's right to self defense with guns) and you really think the GOP is insane, which would do real and serious harm to everything they touch, I'd recommend sticking with Dems. Just sayin'. 

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