DENVER -- Rick O'Donnell looks 25 but is 35 -- old enough to know better. Nevertheless, he is running for Congress as a Republican in a daunting year.
Think of this city as the hole of a doughnut. The doughnut's bottom half is the 6th Congressional District, represented by Tom Tancredo, the fire-breathing bantam rooster -- the image is ornithologically implausible, yet accurate -- who is the frequently contorted face of today's immigration debate. The doughnut's top half is the 7th District, whose incumbent congressman, Republican Bob Beauprez, is running for governor.
After the 2000 Census, when Colorado got a seventh congressional seat, the Legislature deadlocked over redistricting. So a judge created the 7th as one-third Democratic, one-third Republican, one-third independent. In 2002, Beauprez carried it by 121 votes out of 172,879 votes cast -- and that was with the help of an election-eve visit by President Bush. In 2004, when John Kerry carried the 7th with 51 percent, Beauprez won 55 percent.
But what a difference two years make. Two years and, O'Donnell says, three events that have made the Republican base cranky.
The first was the president's post-Katrina vow to pay unlimited sums to fix New Orleans. The second was Tom DeLay being quoted -- not accurately, but the truth never caught up -- to the effect that all the fat had been trimmed from the federal budget. "Spending more than anything,'' says O'Donnell, bothers the base right now. The third event was the weird nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.
And now there is immigration, which in Colorado has produced a strange alliance: Tancredoites have a kindred spirit, sort of, in Dick Lamm, a Democratic greenie and former three-term governor. He believes that population growth is bad for the environment.
O'Donnell is an archetypal product of the decision by national Republicans, three decades ago, to systematically grow activists. He was 10 when inspired by Ronald Reagan's anti-Washington victory in 1980. By his early 20s he was working in a Starbucks in Washington, looking to join the generation of future candidates and staffers nurtured in the capital by conservative think tanks. He was employed by one run by Haley Barbour when Barbour was chairman of the Republican National Committee, and another run by Newt Gingrich. Then O'Donnell came home to be policy director for Gov. Bill Owens, who made him state director of higher education at the tender age of 33 -- too young to get tenure on most faculties.