Why Is this Woman Smiling?

She's been heckled, threatened, and placed on Sarah Palin's hit list. Yet Democratic Congresswoman Betsy Markey is raking in campaign money and still thinks she can hold the traditionally conservative 4th District come November.

May 2010

From the beginning of her tenure in the House last year, Betsy Markey has been walking what at times is an impossibly

fine line. A self-made millionaire Democrat in what traditionally has been among Colorado's most Republican districts, Markey has frequently elicited fury from both opponents and supporters during her time in office. On top of that, she is one of scores of House members in so-called swing districts. Depending on the day of the week, and who is actually saying the word, "swing" has come to mean fence-sitting, finger-in-the-wind calculating, or you're-out-of-a-job-this-fall.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Markey has been somewhat ideologically inscrutable since she took office. She cosponsored the Employee Free Choice Act—known by Republicans as "card-check"—which would, in part, make it easier for employees to form, join, or assist labor unions; later, she voted for the controversial cap-and-trade energy legislation. The votes certainly energized the growing base of progressives from the 4th District's urban centers—Fort Collins, Greeley, and Longmont—but likewise energized the Republican opposition, which at one time had at least three men who were itching to run against her this year.

In November, following a series of brutal town hall meetings (including a particularly intense one in Fort Morgan), Markey capped what was a subtle, but noticeable, move to the right by joining 39 other Democrats who voted against the House's health-care proposal; it didn't do enough to curb rising costs, she argued. Shortly after the vote, she became a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats, then followed that move with a vote against her party on a proposal to increase the public debt. The break baffled supporters. "Betsy's frustrated a lot of people," Pat Waak, the state's Democratic chairwoman, admitted this winter. "We get calls about her all the time. Some people feel really hurt."

Turn back the clock three years, however, and it's not difficult to see why Markey often finds herself in lose-lose scenarios with her constituents. It was in June 2007 that the transplanted Coloradan and former government employee/tech-company founder/coffee-and-ice-cream-shop-owner/Democratic-activist announced that she would take on three-term archconservative Marilyn Musgrave in an election that, at first, seemed unwinnable. "It was uphill most of the way," Markey recalls. "First, I had to convince my own party that I was viable."

There was good reason to question her—or any other Democrat, for that matter: The 4th District had sent only Republicans to the House since 1972. Musgrave happened to be one of Congress' most conservative members. Since she'd arrived in Washington in 2003, she'd sponsored myriad resolutions and Constitutional amendments, and made it her life's work to, as she said, "return to God and Biblical principles." Her legislative list was a social conservative's dream. First, she signed on as the main sponsor of a failed amendment that would have defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In 2006, she cosponsored a bill that attempted to prohibit online poker. A year later, she cosponsored a failed resolution to name 2007 the "National Year of the Bible." Though her popularity waned with each election (she won with only 46 percent of the vote when she faced a Democrat and a Reform Party candidate in 2006), the district appeared as if it would be in GOP hands for the long haul.

Markey was undeterred. While Musgrave fought her far-right war in Washington, Markey focused on everyday concerns at home. Jobs. The economy. How to pay the mortgage. By spring of 2008, Markey had raised close to $1 million. Her campaign team went from 75 volunteers to hundreds—folks who knocked on nearly every voter's door in 18 districts that stretched from the Wyoming border, east to Nebraska, south along the Kansas state line, all the way to Oklahoma. She said Musgrave was out of touch. Markey's message was underscored that summer when millionaire Colorado software mogul, philanthropist, and gay-rights activist Tim Gill funded advertisements that memorably portrayed Musgrave as aloof.

Then came the Democratic primary, a once-in-a-lifetime presidential candidate named Barack Obama, the Democratic National Convention in Denver, and, finally, Election Day. On that November evening, the Democrats notched win after win in the House and the Senate—stunners in North Carolina and Florida and Virginia.

Markey's victory, though, wasn't a traditional upset, even if she did oust an incumbent. No, this mother of three clobbered Musgrave by 12 percentage points. Hope and Change had torn their way through Colorado's plains like one of those trailer-park tornadoes. But amid the postelection joy, there was a caveat. Markey had swept to victory in the 4th, but Obama did not; John McCain carried the district by a slim margin. The district may have inched toward purple in November of '08, but its roots were still red.

Now, fast-forward to March of this year, when Markey became one of eight Democrats who, after voting against the House's original health-care proposal, voted in favor of the party's revamped $940 billion health-care plan. In voting yes, Markey cited the bill's projected long-term cost savings. If she had been a progressive pariah following her slew of conservative votes this past winter, Markey now found herself a darling of the left. The progressive political action committee Emily's List called Markey one of its "health-care heroes," and the word "brave" was tossed around—especially because the reform package passed by a mere seven votes. President Obama called Markey to thank her, then cited her for praise in a meeting of House Democrats, acknowledging she was "in a tough district."

There were plaudits, yes, but there were threats, too. A day before the vote, a man called Markey's office and told an assistant that "[you] better hope I don't run into you in a dark alley with a knife, a club, or a gun." In another threat, a caller said that Markey better be careful when she returns to Colorado from D.C. Markey's office reported the threats to the Capitol police, and one of Markey's aides called Fort Collins Police Services to ask for increased patrols around her house and office.

And so, where, exactly, does that leave Markey headed into the dog days of summer, into the big campaign push before this November's election? Her health-care vote will likely shore up progressive votes and motivate true-believer volunteers this fall, but it also puts her at odds with a big swath of her constituency who opposed what they see as a move toward a federal takeover of health care.

Republicans have already gone on the offensive. Days after the health-care bill's passage on March 21, former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin put Markey on a list of 20 swing-district Democrats who voted for the plan. "Come November, we're going to print pink slips for members of Congress as fast as they've been printing money," Palin wrote on her Facebook page. The National Republican Congressional Committee—which ran its first health care-themed advertisements against Markey less than a week after the vote—began referring to her as Betsy Markey-Mezvinsky, a reference to one-term Pennsylvania Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a Democrat who lost her seat after casting the deciding vote to support President Bill Clinton's first budget in 1993. And the Wall Street Journal called out Markey and two other Democrats, saying they "all are huddled at the end of the plank, staring at the fins."

Markey scoffs at the political trash talk. "The president called me before the vote, and he said, 'The public is going to be changing its mind on this.' And I said, 'I agree, Mr. President,' " she says. "I don't think health care will even be an election-year issue. It'll be jobs and the economy, and people are going to realize that this bill wasn't some kind of big-government takeover. There's mixed reaction right now, but people are going to be supportive when they understand what was in this bill."

Regardless, Markey's 12-percentage-point win over Musgrave is now a distant memory. By all accounts, her reelection will be difficult. The opposition is more sanguine: "She's done," says Colorado Republican chairman Dick Wadhams.