The Denver Post has a story today about a new poll in the 5th congressional district (Colorado Springs) that is perhaps the single biggest surprise of the entire election season in Colorado. The story is based on a poll that shows Democrat Jay Fawcett and Republican Doug Lamborn are running neck-and-neck in the race for congress (the Post poll says they are both at 37 percent, with 26 percent undecided). The news is staggering, and here’s why:

No Democrat has ever won in CO-5, and no Democrat has really ever come close to winning. Republican Joel Hefley held this seat for 20 years before announcing his retirement in early 2006, and the seat was so safe for him that he rarely ever raised more than $100,000 a year (most candidates for congress must spend at least a million dollars, and usually two to three times that amount).

This seat has been considered untouchable for a Democrat because the voter registration numbers so overwhelmingly favor Republicans: As of September, there were 190,000 registered Republicans here, compared to just 89,000 registered Democrats. In other words, a Democrat could get every single Democratic vote in the district and still be clobbered by the Republican candidate.

So what happened? The best answer is what the Post quotes political science professor Bob Loevy as calling a “perfect storm.” Basically, everything that Fawcett needed to happen…happened:

1. A divisive, six-way Republican primary severely damaged Lamborn.
2. Lamborn was the only one of the six Republican candidates without a strong military background, which is a big negative in a district that includes the Air Force Academy and Fort Carson. Fawcett, by contrast, is retired from a long career in the Air Force.
3. Hefley publicly denounced Lamborn after the primary for his negative campaign tactics and refused to endorse him, as did most of the other five Republican candidates. This cast a huge cloud over Lamborn’s campaign.
4. Plummeting support for the Bush administration has led to distrust of Republican leadership in Washington in general.
5. A series of high-profile problems in Congress, culminating with Florida Rep. Mark Foley’s inappropriate e-mails to congressional pages, further alienated a public that already didn’t approve of the job congress was doing. Since Republicans control congress, the public is less inclined to favor new Republican candidates.
6. Lamborn’s own follies have made him look silly. In a debate last week, he pointed and yelled at a member of the audience, and the story was widely repeated.

The stars have aligned for Fawcett, and if he can beat Lamborn, it will go down as one of the single biggest upsets of the 2006 election – not only in Colorado, but in the entire country. I’m skeptical that it can happen only because the voter registration numbers are so tremendously difficult to overcome for a Democrat, but the very fact that this is now a horserace is a huge political story. If the political tides in this country are indeed turning, you need look no further than Colorado Springs for a perfect example of why.