ROCKY FORD, Colo. (AP) — A Democrat who's trying to unseat a Republican congressman in a newly drawn district knows the odds are against him.
He's spitting anyway.
Brandon Shaffer, state Senate president and an attorney from Longmont north of Denver, has little chance of winning a recent watermelon seed-spitting contest in the town known for its melons, Rocky Ford.
But Shaffer doesn't flinch, despite the impressive distance marked by the defending champ. Shaffer takes his own bite of melon and expertly shoots a seed more than 25 feet down a plastic tarp set up at the Arkansas Valley Fair.
It's not enough to win. But a state Republican official in the contest shakes his hand, and the small crowd applauds politely. Shaffer looks right at home.
The Democrat is spending a lot of time outside his comfort zone these days in a more serious contest. He's trying to oust Republican Rep. Cory Gardner in a sprawling eastern Colorado district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 15 percentage points.
The party margin in the new 4th Congressional District gives it the makings of a slam dunk for the GOP.
But Shaffer is focusing on a smaller number — the percentage of people who like what Congress is doing. Shaffer's campaign against Gardner, a freshman seeking his second term in Congress, hinges entirely on an anti-incumbent mood. Shaffer figures that if he can meet enough people and talk to them about Congress, they'll come around to voting for a Democratic challenger.
"People are very upset with what's going on in Washington, D.C.," Shaffer says before walking a parade in Rocky Ford. "We have an environment where the United States Congress has a 10 percent approval rating, and for a challenger, that's a good environment to run in."
The parade goes well, Shaffer getting a polite response with the help of candy for the kids along the short route. He tells people his name and that he's running for Congress. Shaffer doesn't mention his party. Instead, he's betting on personal appeal.
"I thrive on this environment," Shaffer says. "I love meeting people and making connections."
Connections are exactly what Shaffer needs if he hopes to oust Gardner, one of Colorado's most prolific fundraisers.
Gardner had more than $1 million on hand by the end of June, more than three times more than Shaffer, according to federal disclosures. And the redrawn 4th District no longer includes its most Democratic-leaning city, Fort Collins.
Gardner defeated Democratic Rep. Betsy Markey, who came from Fort Collins, by nearly 10 points in 2010. Two years before that, Markey became the first Democrat elected in three decades from the 4th District. But she lost after Gardner and the GOP successfully painted Markey as too cozy with President Barack Obama, an unpopular figure on the Eastern Plains.
The 2010 Gardner-Markey race was a battleground for partisans from around the country, with a flood of outside money spent on both sides. This year, that flood has slowed to a trickle, indicating the national parties don't consider Colorado's 4th District in play.
For example, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent just $2,177 supporting Shaffer in what's called "outside spending" because it's not given directly to the candidate, according to the campaign finance tracker OpenSecrets.org. By contrast, the left-leaning House Majority PAC has spent more than $30,000 in the neighboring 3rd District attacking Republican Rep. Scott Tipton, according to OpenSecrets.
Gardner certainly doesn't seem worried that his seat is in danger. Back at the Arkansas Valley Fair, Gardner arrived with a bag full of T-shirts that read "I (Heart) Rocky Ford Cantaloupe" and was relaxed and laughing as he greeted voters and local officials.
"This is a fantastic common-sense conservative district," Gardner said.
Gardner acknowledged the race is different now that he's the incumbent, but he disagreed that Shaffer's anti-Congress tactic will work.
"When I'm in the district you'll have people ... coming up and saying, 'Hey, thank you for what you're doing. Thanks for the efforts to cut spending and get government out of the way,'" Gardner said.
Like other Republicans in the House, Gardner may be the incumbent but talks like a challenger, aiming his fire at the Obama administration and the Democratic Senate.
"This district does not support the policies of the last four years," Gardner said.
Visitors to the fair and the parade showed both candidates reason for optimism.
On one hand, no one seemed to think highly of Congress, indicating Shaffer could make inroads even in a Republican district.
"They waste a lot of time on things that don't matter to people," said retired farmer Dan Aragon, of Rocky Ford, an independent voter who attended a cantaloupe-eating contest attended by both Shaffer and Gardner but didn't pay much attention to the candidates.
Nearby, retired miner Cecil Iron Wing, of Rocky Ford, had a similar take.
"Nothing's getting done. They take their vacations all the time and they don't do nothing," Iron Wing complained.
On the other hand, neither Aragon nor Iron Wing had heard of Shaffer. That's the dilemma facing Shaffer — how to capitalize on anti-incumbent sentiment with little money and a lot of turf to cover in the state's second-largest congressional district.
T.L. Henderson, of La Junta, summed up Shaffer's challenge. Asked about Congress, the Republican said, "We need a change, no doubt about it."
But when asked whether he'd cross party lines and support a Democratic challenger, Henderson chuckled and said, "at this point in time, no."
"It's going to be a hard race for (Shaffer) because Cory's well known around here and most rural people are a little conservative," Henderson concluded.
By Kristen Wyatt, AP Writer (© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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