By Jerry Kopel
The press has labeled the Bob Beauprez-Mike Feeley election in the 7th Congressional District as the closest congressional race ever held in Colorado, with a 122 vote margin difference (before the official recount) out of 162,938 votes cast for the Democrat and Republican candidates.
But it wasn't the closest race if you count primary elections. Back in 1970, Denver elected a Republican to Congress because of a much closer primary fight between Democrat Congressman Byron Rogers and challenger Craig Barnes.
Rogers had a long history in Colorado politics. He had served two terms in the Colorado House, elected in 1931 and 1933. He was elected House Speaker in 1933, but left the legislature in 1934 to serve in the federal government in Washington. Rogers came back to Colorado and was appointed interim attorney general in 1936, ran for the office and was elected in 1936 and again in 1938.
Rogers actually lost his first run for Congress in 1940 when he was defeated by J. Edgar Chenoweth in southern Colorado. But he stayed politically active and won his first term as a congressman from Denver in 1950. He kept winning every two years. A folksy kind of gent, his campaign usually consisted of standing on 16th or 17th street in downtown Denver, shaking hands with passersby. And if you and the spouse had a baby, Rogers always sent a baby book.
But 1970 was a time of domestic conflict over the war in Vietnam and Rogers supported the war. That was costing him Democratic support. The younger Democrats, beginning in 1969, saw 1970 as a time when Rogers could be defeated. Craig Barnes became their candidate. A tall, well-groomed, politically astute 42-year-old attorney, he stood in marked contrast to Rogers, who had just turned 70.
Barnes ran an aggressive campaign, lambasting Rogers for his stands on a number of issues including the war in Vietnam. His workers actively recruited new, young voters. At the Denver County Assembly, for the very first time, Byron Rogers was greeted upon his introduction with muted clapping. The bigger applause was saved for Barnes.
In the primary election of 1970, Barnes polled 27,218 votes to 27,188 votes for Rogers, a difference of 30 votes out of 54,406. Rogers claimed "foul" alleging that Barnes' workers had registered University of Denver students who were non-residents from other states.
If Barnes had won the general election, Rogers had planned to challenge his election in the House, which has the final say in seating a member. But that wasn't necessary. Many supporters of Rogers (especially in northwest Denver) voted for Republican James "Mike" McKevitt, who won in November 84,643 to 74,444 for Barnes.
McKevitt's 1970 victory set the stage for Democrat Pat Schroeder's 1972 election as Congresswoman from Denver, defeating McKevitt. She served 24 years compared to Rogers' 20 years.
Barnes maintained an active role in Colorado politics and as a member of Common Cause, a non-profit lobbying organization for government reform. He instigated the concept of "Sunset" which Common Cause promoted in 1975 as a way to reduce government occupational regulation and which measure I successfully carried in the 1976 legislature.
(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)
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