Friday, May 15, 2009

The Politics of Pinon Canyon, Part 2

There's no more waffling, straddling, hedging, obfuscating or equivocating on U.S. Rep. John Salazar's part. He's declared that the U.S. Army will never make a compelling-enough case for Fort Carson expansion to win his approval, according to today's Pueblo Chieftain. Pinon Canyon expansion isn't going to happen while he's in Congress, Salazar says he told the Army's chief of staff, who had asked the congressman to keep an open mind on the issue. Salazar's mind is officially closed, apparently. End of story. Take your soldiers elsewhere to train. Preserving cattle culture in Southeastern Colorado must take precedent over national security and military preparedness, in his view.

Salazar also said -- and this might be the real news in the story -- that he's certain Gov. Bill Ritter, also a Democrat, will sign HB1317, a bill passed by the Colorado statehouse that attempts to erect yet another obstruction to expansion by barring the state from selling or even leasing state lands for that purpose. "I spoke with Governor Ritter this week and he indicated he will sign the state lands bill," Salazar told the newspaper -- which is a pretty definitive statement on the subject.

I also believe Ritter will sign the bill, for reasons presented in an earlier post. But this situation does present Republicans with a potential wedge issue to use against Salazar and Ritter when reelection time comes around. Former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, a Republican who once represented Salazar's district and is planning a run at Ritter in 2010, recently laid down a marker on the issue, by publicly urging Ritter to veto HB1317, in the interest of preserving future options and not sending anti-military signals back to Washington. If he can paint Ritter as just another anti-military Democrat, who's indifferent to the fate of important military bases (and jobs generators) in the state, McInnis might get some traction out of the situation.

How the issue plays for -- or against -- Salazar is a little more fuzzy. Clearly, Salazar is counting on his anti-expansion stance winning him votes in rural Southeastern Colorado and in the Democrat stronghold of Pueblo, where the Chieftain's editorial page has egged-on the obstructionism. But not a huge number of votes come from Southeastern Colorado. Pueblo can't be completely indifferent to the long-term fate of Fort Carson, due to proximity, and since many Carson soldiers live and shop there. And whether Salazar's pandering to anti-Army sentiment plays well in other parts of his sprawling district, especially the more conservative Western Slope, is an open question.

Remember: That was, until relatively recently, a Republican-leaning district, represented by McInnis. And the former congressman's continued open mind on the issue, in contrast to Salazar's now-adamant opposition to expansion, which could strike many of his constituents as unpatriotic or anti-military, could leave Salazar vulnerable if Republicans can put up a good challenger and frame the issue correctly.

It seems to me, early though it may be, that Pinon Canyon might be shaping up as a pivotal issue in at least two key Colorado races in 2010, if somewhat demoralized, on-the-defensive Republicans can bring effective fire to bear on the Democrats who seem to care more about cows than about combat-readiness.

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