Snowmass’ Schwartz tops Rankin in tight state Senate race
State Sen. Gail Schwartz narrowly edged challenger Bob Rankin Tuesday in a race so close that both candidates woke up Wednesday uncertain if they had won or lost.
Schwartz, a Democrat from Snowmass Village, said she wasn’t certain she had won until she received a telephone call from the Chaffee County Clerk’s Office at 6:30 a.m. with results. She edged Rankin in Chaffee County to hold on to her slim lead.
The unofficial vote from the clerk’s offices in 11 counties that make up Senate District 5 showed Schwartz earning 25,172 votes to 24,337 for Rankin. That is a difference of 835 votes and a margin narrower than 51 to 49 percent.
Rankin, a Republican from Aspen, conceded the race to Schwartz later in the morning and made a congratulatory call to her. Nevertheless, the political newcomer was stunned by the outcome.
“I thought we had a chance to win back the [Colorado] Senate. We didn’t do that,” Rankin said.
The Senate District 5 seat held by Schwartz was one of four in the state targeted by Republicans to capture from Democrats. Schwartz narrowly won a first term in 2006 when she beat an incumbent Republican.
Rankin noted that his message was similar to Republican candidates who were swept into office across the country Tuesday.
“I’m a free market conservative,” he said. “I talked about jobs and the economy.”
Rankin said he was surprised that didn’t resonate more with voters in the sprawling state Senate district.
“For me, it’s hard to understand why people like big government and liberal politics,” he said. “I totally disagree with Gail on just about every policy.” He added that he does like and respect her.
Schwartz said she campaigned aggressively to make sure voters were aware of her accomplishments.
“Oh my gosh, we were everywhere,” Schwartz said, referring to herself, her family and friends who helped her campaign. “I haven’t been home for two weeks. We knocked on thousands of doors.”
Her efforts to help find funding for new schools, particularly in the San Luis Valley, helped her win re-election, Schwartz said. Ten schools have been built in the district during her four years. They have “changed communities forever,” she said.
Schwartz said she wasn’t able to ride John Hickenlooper’s coattails despite his easy victory as governor. Instead, her race was more closely tied to U.S. Rep. John Salazar’s race. The incumbent Democrat lost to Scott Tipton in the 3rd Congressional District, which is also comprised of counties in rural, western Colorado.
Several Democratic candidates for county commissioner also lost in the 11 counties in her district.
“This was just a really difficult election cycle,” Schwartz said.
The typically mild-mannered Schwartz couldn’t hide her disdain for the role played in the campaign by Western Traditions Partnership, a political action group known as a 527 that pumped money into the effort to unseat her. She was the victim of “deplorable lies” despite having a “moderate voting record,” she said.
The 527 groups work independently of candidates. Current state and federal campaign finance laws make it difficult to determine who is funding the groups.
Schwartz focused during her first term on alternative energy initiatives and efforts to make Colorado a leader in the “new energy economy.” As a result, she said, she was on the hit list of fossil fuel industries.
“The coal industry threw everything they had at me,” she said.
Schwartz said the focus of the 2011 legislative session will be on balancing the state budget in light of plummeting revenues and improving the economy rather than alternative energy. There were 57 bills connected to alternative energy approved over the last four years.
“We need some time to let it play out,” she said.
The price of coal is rising, so market forces will help equalize the playing field for alternative energy, she noted.
In a statement released Wednesday, Schwartz thanked her constituents for returning her to office for another four years.
“I will do everything in my power to continue to move our 11 counties and the state of Colorado forward,” Schwartz said. “I pledge to continue to make thoughtful decisions, to solve problems – not play politics – and to pursue a positive vision for the future of our remarkable state.”
Her home county played a big role in her victory. The tally in Pitkin County was 4,999 for Schwartz and 1,964 for Rankin.
Rankin, a successful small-business entrepreneur, said he is probably finished with politics. He said he told his wife and campaign manager, Joyce, Wednesday morning that it was her turn to pick their next adventure.
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