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Colorado: Denver Mayor More Electable than Blue Dogs?

Generally speaking, when determining the value of a legislator to his party, we’d want to consider two things: how much he advances his party’s agenda, and how likely he is to win election or re-election in his state or district. There is oftentimes tension between the two criteria. For example, the Democrats could almost certainly find someone more liberal than Jim Matheson, their Congressman in Utah’s second district, who only votes with his party about half the time. But any Democrat more than a pinch more liberal than Matheson would have a great deal of trouble getting elected in Utah, and would very probably lose his seat to a Republican (and a conservative one at that).

Sometimes, however, a legislator is superior along both dimensions: he’s both more electable and would make for a more reliable vote than his alternatives. Such a situation appears to be in place in Colorado, where Governor Bill Ritter is responsible for making an appointment to replace Ken Salazar.

Public Policy Polling surveyed prospective 2010 matchups for two Democrats — Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and Representative John Salazar — against two potential Republican opponents — former Governor Bill Owens and former Representative Tom Tancredo. Salazar, though a clear asset to the Democrats in his Republican-leaning district, is a Blue Dog Democrat and has been among the handful of most conservative Democratic Congressmen outside the South. Hickenlooper, though a bit harder to pin down, is somewhere on the spectrum between a moderate Democrat and a liberal/progressive one.

The Democrat was leading in all four permutations of the poll. But the leads were several points larger for Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper also outperformed the retiring Ken Salazar, whom Public Policy polling tested against the same opponents over the summer; John Salazar’s numbers were also superior to his brother’s.

Candidate      vs Owens     vs Tancredo
Hickenlooper 54-40 (+14) 54-37 (+17)
John Salazar 52-43 (+9) 54-40 (+14)
Ken Salazar* 44-41 (+3) 49-37 (+12)

* Polls conducted in July-August.

Now, I’ll be the first to concede that polling conducted 23 months out from an election doesn’t mean very much. But Ritter needs to make his decision now, and in the absence of perfect foresight, Hickenlooper would seem to be the way to go.

As for Tancredo, the Republicans need to hire him an illegal immigrant nanny or something, as he’ll do nothing but damage if he’s on their ticket.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.