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New twist might change House District 17's voting behavior

Southeast seesaw



For close to a decade now, House District 17 has been predictably fickle, electing a Democrat in presidential election years and a Republican in off-year elections.

Located in southeast Colorado Springs, HD17 is diverse, has a high number of military members and has the fourth lowest number of registered voters of any House district. Of its 41,635 registered voters, 17,185 are unaffiliated, 13,429 are Democrats and 10,177 are Republicans. The seesaw is caused by far more voters taking part in presidential years.

Tony Exum faces Kit Roupe in the November election. - COURTESY TONY EXUM
  • Courtesy Tony Exum
  • Tony Exum faces Kit Roupe in the November election.

As Logan Davis, campaign manager for Democrat Tony Exum, puts it, "This is a Democratic district with a voting problem."

If the pattern continues, it will be a good year for Exum, 64, again running against Republican Kit Roupe, 60. Exum won the seat from incumbent Mark Barker in 2012, but lost to Roupe in 2014 by 289 votes. As of July 27, Roupe has raised $49,595 in monetary contributions to Exum's $67,282. History would predict an Exum win this year.

But is history any guide? With two unpopular presidential candidates, a campaign that's resembled a reality TV show and reports that many voters might sit out, it's questionable whether down-ballot races will go as expected.

"This year, people are realizing that it's difficult to predict," El Paso County Republican spokesperson Daniel Cole says.

Joshua Dunn, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, says this election does bring new twists — starting with Donald Trump seemingly sabotaging his own campaign.

"I think certainly Republicans are worried that it's going to have an effect on the down-ballot races," Dunn says. "But it's not like Democrats are substantially enthusiastic about their candidate either."

Dunn says it's far more likely Trump will self-destruct, thus favoring Democrats like Exum. But there are other considerations.

HD17 may have experienced an "Obama effect," attracting people who wouldn't normally vote. If they don't show up for Clinton, it would favor Republicans like Roupe. If Trump runs a great campaign, he could lure blue-collar workers, plenty of whom live in HD17.

"That's the one way you could imagine it breaking to the advantage of Republicans," Dunn says.

Cole has an uncertain view, saying, "I think one of two things will happen. It's possible that the presidential race will have a significant down-ballot effect — that people who are turned off either by Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will let that affect their decisions. But it's also possible the presidential race won't have a down-ballot effect at all."

Cole says voters seem more willing to not vote for a single party. Second, he says, there's a lot of "under-voting" on lower races; many might vote for president and the U.S. Senate race but skip lower offices.

County Democratic Chair Kathleen Ricker, however, says she doesn't see an upside for Republicans in HD17. Polls show most Bernie Sanders supporters are now supporting Clinton, she notes. And that bodes well for HD17.

"I still think it's a crazy year," she says, "and as chairwoman I'm not going to take anything for granted."

The two candidates hope to be seen as more than their party.

  • Courtesy Kit Roupe
  • Kit Roupe.

Roupe served in the Army, went on to work as a military contractor and now runs a pet-sitting business. Divorced, she raised her two kids as a single mom and now is a grandmother.

She says she's proud of bills she sponsored or supported aiming to bring jobs and training to lower-skilled or young workers; protect victims of domestic violence; prevent human trafficking and keep low-level offenders out of jail while they await trial.

"I am really, really proud of what I've done," Roupe says, noting she's voted against her party when she felt it was right for her district. For instance, she supported long-term contraception for young women, and voted to exclude the hospital provider fee from the state budget. But she's conservative on other issues, opposing a higher minimum wage, saying what's needed is better job opportunities. And she is voting for Trump.

"I think people really don't want the status quo and we've got to respect that," she says.

But she's been dismayed to find that some constituents won't support her because of her presidential preference — a stance that she feels is unfair.

That's not a surprise to Exum's campaign manager Davis, who says, "These are not people who would be welcome at Trump rallies generally."

Exum, a retired Colorado Springs Fire Department battalion chief, works at Hotel Eleganté and referees youth sports. He grew up in HD17 and says that connection sets him apart, as well as his values.

"You have to stand your ground on what you will do and what you won't do," he says.

In his previous term, Exum passed legislation to help firefighters, provide needy schoolkids free breakfast, help people with disabilities and create a child-care tax credit for low-income families. He says his long relationships with police, and his personal experience with prejudice, help him to see a fuller picture of racial tensions.

"We need to have conversations," he says, "and begin to value different cultures."

Exum says he's upbeat, but after losing in 2014 he's not taking chances. His campaign recently hired two organizers from Denver, and, like Roupe, he's been busily knocking on doors. Exum says his biggest challenge is getting people to vote.

Often, he says, he carries a 1964 Mississippi poll tax receipt — a gift from a constituent — in his pocket. He uses that to explain how blacks once had to pay that fee and take a test to vote in some states.

Then he tells potential voters: "You don't have to pay, you don't have to take a test. Take advantage of that."

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