Rep. John Salazar's defeat earlier this month sends a rancher and a farmer back to a rural Colorado district -- and calls into question the future of a once-popular political brand.
In a tidal wave year in which Democrats gave up at least 63 House seats, Salazar's loss in a conservative-leaning district is not especially surprising; although the congressman put up a fight, he received 46 percent of the vote while his Republican challenger, Scott Tipton, received 50 percent.
"The political climate out there is so toxic and people are just concerned," Salazar said last week while back in Washington, D.C., for the lame-duck congressional session.
Salazar's defeat caps a difficult year for the politically powerful family. His younger brother, Ken Salazar -- a former Colorado senator and state attorney general -- has been the target of harsh criticism from all corners for his handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as secretary of the Interior Department.
This election cycle, outside groups spent a few million dollars trying to defeat John Salazar, who had won his two previous re-election campaigns with relative ease. During the race Salazar said he felt like those groups were trying to send a message through him to Washington -- in part, perhaps, because of his brother's position in the Obama administration.
"Really, what we need to say is that we gave it the best we could, and you just can't win and beat all of this undisclosed money," he said.
Asked whether his defeat hurt his younger brother, the congressman replied, "My brother is a good secretary of the Interior."
When asked if he thought the election results sent a message to the Obama White House, Salazar was less emphatic.
"I have no idea whether they succeeded in that. I know I walked away with my head held high and with honor. I don't walk away in disgrace," he said. "I wouldn't change a single vote or a single moment."
But others have not been so uncertain when analyzing Salazar's loss.
Recapping Colorado's electoral outcomes, The Denver Post declared "the Salazar Brand" an election night loser. "With Ken Salazar gone from the U.S. Senate and John Salazar ousted from Congress, their political dynasty is diminishing," the paper wrote.
And while political watches on both sides of the aisle said that the Salazar brand has been diminished, they lay the blame less on the elder's loss than on the Interior secretary's absence from the state.
Ken Salazar, now 55, always seemed like a young man in a hurry. Coming from a family that had worked the land in Colorado's San Luis Valley for generations, he became a widely known water and land-use lawyer in the state. He started the family's political ascent in 1990, when he was appointed director of the Colorado Natural Resources Department by then-Gov. Roy Romer (D). Eight years later, he was elected state attorney general, and most Colorado political observers believed it was only a matter of time before he ran for governor.
But when Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), who had once been a mentor of Salazar's, announced late in the 2004 cycle that he would not seek re-election, Salazar jumped into the race to replace him. That same year, John Salazar, who had spent two years in the state Legislature, emerged as the Democratic front-runner for an open House seat.
The brothers built a political brand, capitalizing on the family's long tradition as ranchers and farmers. In addition to the family resemblance, they dress similarly, wearing bolo ties and 10-gallon hats.
When both Salazars won, it signaled the beginning of a Democratic surge in Colorado -- and both were hailed for their brand of political pragmatism that seemed well-suited to the state. They came to Washington together and lived as roommates in a Penn Quarter condominium.
And when Barack Obama, Ken Salazar's Senate classmate, was elected president two years ago, Salazar became the president-elect's top choice to head Interior, in part because of his centrist views on land-use issues and his ability to appeal to both industry and environmental groups. But increasingly, both sides have become critics of Salazar's tenure, in part because of the devastating BP PLC oil spill.
Floyd Ciruli, an independent Denver-based pollster, said Ken Salazar's absence from the state has diminished the Salazar family brand at home.
"There is no Salazar in power here. It is over," Ciruli said. "From my point of view, Ken was a player. He established a brand and swept his brother in with relatively no political experience and was essentially a farmer."
There is "no backlash or mark on Ken," Ciruli said, but Ken's bigger problem is he is no longer in the state and is now associated with an extremely controversial administration.
John Salazar emphatically denied that there has been any kind of damage to the Salazar brand.
"The only thing that it really does to the Salazar family is it continues to make us strong, that's all," he said.
And there are plenty of Colorodans who will rush to defend the Salazars.
Mike Stratton, a Colorado Democratic strategist and family friend, said, "It was a very difficult election. I think the Salazar brand starts out with a work ethic. I think without a doubt everybody knows that the congressman worked extraordinarily hard with his campaign and came closer than anybody of those targeted races in the country to hanging on."
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who spent time campaigning on behalf of John Salazar, said he was heartbroken by the election results.
"He's been a friend. He's been a very effective legislator," Udall said. "He's not somebody who is replaceable."
Udall called John Salazar "a class act."
"The way in which he acknowledged that the voters had spoken was appropriate and timely," he said. "Life sometimes throws you curve balls and sometimes you come up short."
The congressman was facing difficult odds, Stratton said.
"I think at the end of the day there was probably over $6 million spent against him, which is an overwhelming amount of money for a congressional district. Everybody knows, and Karl Rove himself advertised that he was trying to take John Salazar out."
Comings and goings
Ken Salazar stayed at arm's length for much of his brother's election but showed up in the final few days to stump across the sprawling 3rd District that takes in 29 counties and more than half of the state's landmass.
But it was in fact his own absence that caused the elder Salazar to lose, said Denver-based Republican strategist Sean Tonner.
"If there was a criticism that I heard out there fairly regularly, it was that John Salazar didn't campaign like Ken Salazar would have. And really didn't start campaigning aggressively until September," Tonner said.
When there was a Salazar in each chamber of Congress and the two brothers shared an apartment, it was easier to talk policy and strategize. But the two stopped living together when Ken Salazar became Interior secretary.
The younger Salazar was clearly the political force behind the two.
Ciruli said the secretary of the Interior was a "dominant figure in this state for a while," whereas the older Salazar was a pragmatic politician, who worked hard to balance the various viewpoints of his ideologically diverse district.
"My district, to be honest with you, is a difficult district to represent," Salazar told Greenwire just weeks before his defeat. "We have our pockets of liberals. We have our pockets of ultraconservatives. Then we have areas like Pueblo and the [San Luis] Valley that are pretty much centrist -- that is where I fit in."
But Salazar said last week that he does not feel like he would fit in the 112th Congress.
"Honest to God, I feel relieved. I feel like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders," he said. "It looks pretty bad to me. Everything that I've heard from both sides of the aisle, people aren't going to work together. When you hear almost every person on the other side of the aisle making everything a political issue, it's not about moving America forward, it is trying to make Barack a one-term president. That's not what America needs. America needs healing right now. America needs to work together to build this country back."
Still, Salazar said he is sad when he thinks about everything that he has left undone.
"That is what worries me the most. I don't hurt for myself. I hurt for the people around me. I hurt for the people who are depending on the things that we have done and the completion of those projects, and by the sounds of this next Congress it seems like it is over at least for now," he said.
Despite his defeat, Salazar has no regrets.
"You know what, I'm proud I got to be part of the 111th Congress, a historic Congress to pass health care reform. I will never back down from that vote because I know it is going to be good for the American people just like Social Security is, just like Medicare," Salazar said.
He leaves a younger brother behind in Washington with an unclear political future. There is talk in Colorado that the Interior secretary will eventually return to Colorado to run for governor, a position he passed over in favor of his successful run for the Senate. But with a new Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, about to take office, there may not be an opportunity for Ken Salazar to run any time soon.
And even though the two brothers are not living together in Washington any more, John Salazar is not selling his condo yet.
"Oh, I'm not closing the door on anyone on anything," he said. "I've had a lot of offers," listing posts that have been suggested these past few weeks, including the Colorado State Agriculture Commission and the presidency of Colorado State University, Pueblo.
And in Congress, his loss did not affect his reputation.
"I admire the Salazar tradition of public service," Udall said.
Already there is discussion about whether John Salazar will try to win his old seat back. After redistricting, it is possible the 3rd District will be more favorable to Democrats.
"I'll be surprised if I hear from John Salazar again," Ciruli said. "From my point of view, he was always much more comfortable with a pair of jeans on and driving a tractor. "
But even as Udall pledged to work with Tipton, he said Salazar is representative of the district.
"With all due respect to Scott Tipton, John Salazar is the 3rd Congressional District," Udall said.
While political observers discuss the Salazar political brand, for the time being John Salazar is working on building up a different brand.
Two weeks ago, he said, "I branded a couple hundred more cows that I had ordered about two months back because we are trying to expand our herd to a thousand head. That's what I've been looking forward to, expanding our herd and building our cattle operation as big as we built the farming operation."