CongressElection 2018News

Democrat Diana DeGette faces primary challenge from Saira Rao

Author: Ernest Luning - April 14, 2018 - Updated: April 26, 2018

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, center, addresses delegates to the Democrats’ 1st Congressonal District assembly on Friday, April 13, 2018, at South High School in Denver. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat serving her 11th term, will share the June primary ballot with challenger Saira Rao but on Friday easily won top line at the 1st Congressional District assembly.

DeGette received 270 votes, or 62.6 percent, to Rao’s 161 votes, or 37.4 percent at the meeting. Because Rao had already qualified for the ballot by petition, she only needed the support of 10 percent of the delegates. DeGette, who was only going through the assembly for ballot access, needed 30 percent.

“I think you saw tonight, my game’s already pretty high,” a smiling DeGette told reporters after the results were announced.

“I think that so long as they’re issue-based, primaries can be good and helpful for the party,” she added. “I think that primaries really help sharpen the issues and have a robust debate. It gives me an opportunity to talk about the leadership roles that I’m going to be able to enhance when we take the majority. I think it’s good.”

DeGette, the House Democrats’ chief deputy whip, emphasized her lifelong connections with Denver — she graduated South High School, where the assembly was held — and pointed to her time in office and rank as a party leader.

“Here’s the difference in this election,” she told delegates and other Democrats packed into the school’s auditorium. “This is what I want to talk to you about. The issue is leadership. Guess what — we’re going to take the U.S. House of Representatives, and when we do, you’re going to have a congresswoman who will be there in the leadership to make these things happen.”

A co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, DeGette said a Democratic-controlled Congress won’t have to fight to fund Planned Parenthood but will instead increase funding for the organization. She also vowed to repeal the Hyde Amendment, a decades-old provision that forbids spending federal funds on abortions, except in rare circumstances.

Noting that she is in line to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, DeGette said, “I just have one thing to say: Imagine me with subpoena power.”

Then, after the cheering subsided, she added a reference to the embattled administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and got the crowd going again: “Imagine me subpoenaing Scott Pruitt.”

Rao said in her speech to delegates that she learned to embrace her own strength from her late mother, Sybil, who immigrated to the United States because she couldn’t find work in India because she was a woman. For years, Rao said, her mother — nicknamed Greenie by her family — wrapped herself every day in the traditional Indian sari even in the face of racist and sexist scorn.

“It was only recently that I realized what that sari was,” Rao said. “It was Greenie’s resistance. It was her unwillingness to let go of herself, of her core. And I stand here tonight before you because of my mother.”

Democratic congressional candidate Saira Rao, center, addresses delegates to the Democrats’ 1st Congressonal District assembly on Friday, April 13, 2018, at South High School in Denver. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

Rao, a first time candidate and co-founder of publishing company In This Together Media, which promotes diversity in children’s books, would be the first woman of color sent to Congress from Colorado and one of the few Asian-Americans ever to hold office in the state.

She pitched an aggressively leftist agenda at the assembly.

“We had a tough time in 2016 with listening, and it cost us dearly,” she said. “We lost voters of color, we lost young voters, we lost the Rust Belt. The Obama coalition fell apart. How do we bring those voters back in? How do we bring people back in? I believe it’s through a progressive agenda driven by people, not profits — a progressive agenda all about racial and social and economic justice!”

A lawmaker from such a safely Democratic seat —  “one of the bluest districts in America” — should be bold, she said.

“We need to start being for something,” Rao said. “Let’s start being for saving our planet, and putting our planet before guns, and putting people before profits. Let’s pass a clean DREAM Act, single-payer health care, find a way to have affordable prescription drugs.”

It’s the second primary challenge DeGette has drawn in as many elections.

Two years ago, Bernie Sanders supporter Charles Norris mounted an inexpensive, grassroots campaign and lost to the incumbent by more than 70 points.

This time, DeGette was out-raised by her challenger by about $10,000 for the three-month period just ended, Rao’s first in the race, although DeGette reported more money in the bank ahead of the primary.

According to a campaign finance report filed Friday, DeGette pulled in $240,000 for the first quarter of the year  and had about $213,000 on hand after spending close to $93,000. Rao raised just over $250,000 — none of it from corporate political action committees — and had about $170,000 left after spending about $80,000, her campaign said earlier this week.

Casper Stockham, the district’s Republican nominee for the second cycle in a row, wore a Rao campaign sticker and a grin as he watched the proceedings from a seat in the back row of the auditorium. He told Colorado Politics he’s hoping to debate both the incumbent and her primary challenger in the months ahead.

The primary is June 26. Mail ballots go out during the first week of June to 1st District Democrats and unaffiliated voters, who can vote for the first time this year in either the Democratic of Republican primary without having to affiliate.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.