Colorado Republican AG Cynthia Coffman jumps in the governor’s race. Here’s what that means.
… for one it means a current gubernatorial rival might run to replace her instead
Attorney General Cynthia Coffman chose the morning after Election Day to leap into the crowded race for governor leaving Republicans scrambling to field candidates to run in her place for AG— including George Brauchler, a high-profile district attorney who was already running for governor.
Coffman became the first female candidate in a field of nine Republican contenders vying for the job of term-limited Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. Her decision left the attorney general’s race wide open, which caused some dominoes to fall across the Republican gameboard in Colorado. Brauchler, the Arapaho-area district attorney, decided to leave the governor’s race to run for AG instead.
Coffman, whose campaign coffers have swelled from oil and gas money, might also have to fight for that cash in a broader GOP field for governor that includes another statewide officeholder, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who is also tight with the industry. Extraction oil company, for instance, has already donated $5,000 to a Super PAC with ties to Stapleton.
In June, Coffman divorced her husband of 12 years, Republican Congressman Mike Coffman of Aurora, who is running for re-election.
Cynthia Coffman said the entrance into the governor’s race of Tom Tancredo, a Donald Trump-supporting immigration hawk, “played into her decision” to run, according to reporter Shaun Boyd of Denver’s CBS4. A year ago, on Election Night, Coffman took the stage at the Colorado Republican Party’s victory event, pumped her fist in the air, and shouted“Go Trump!” into the microphone. She might have dialed back her public support. When Trump came up in an interview with a TV reporter on the day she announced, Coffman said only that she likes having a Republican president.
Nearly three months later, when Tancredo dropped out of the governor’s race, Coffman issued a statement saying she was “grateful” to him “for highlighting issues that don’t always get the attention they deserve, particularly educating the public on the dangers of unchecked and unaccountable sanctuary cities.” She said Tancredo’s “unique voice has been crucial in the debate over issues important to many Coloradans” and that he “has a genuine concern for his state and is a steadfast champion of individual rights. I wish Tom all the best as he looks ahead to his next venture.”
The attorney general joins four others in the race beyond Stapleton. They include Denver investment banker Doug Robinson, entrepreneur and one-time lawmaker Victor Mitchell, Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter, Donald Trump’s Denver co-chair Steve Barlock, former Parker mayor Greg Lopez, and San Luis Valley resident Jim Rundberg.
What’s Coffman’s background?
The daughter of a small-town Missouri judge and lawyer, Coffman is an attorney and prosecutor who worked in the attorney general’s office in Georgia in the 1990s. In 1996 she was the lawyer for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta and worked with the families of victims of the bombing that year. She moved to Colorado shortly after.
She served as a lawyer for the legislature, worked in private practice and as an attorney for the state health department. She was the attorney for GOP Gov. Bill Owens before becoming deputy attorney general.
In 2014 she beat Democrat Don Quick to become attorney general.
What are some of her campaign themes?
Coffman spent the day of her announcement talking about process over policy— and by the holidays hadn’t yet gotten into the meaty issues.
“I would love to see a Republican governor again, and I think it would be great if it was a female,” Coffman told a TV station. (On the Democratic side, two women are running for governor.)
“I am motivated by what I have seen traveling the state as attorney general and what I think is a disparity in how different parts of Colorado have recovered from the recession and are dealing with the current economy and the infrastructure and growth,” Coffman said in a morning radio interview.
She said her top priority will be tackling how growth has outpaced the state’s infrastructure.
“We need to be more creative in the ways that we deliver healthcare in communities and mental health services and the way that we serve the disabled in Colorado,” she said but did not give details.
Answering one policy question, she did say she believed affordable housing is one of “the greatest priorities that we have to tackle,” and said she would work with local governments. “Honestly local communities know how to deal with so many issues, they don’t need the state to tell them how to do it. They need the state to give a helping hand so they can build those houses and apartments.” She said as attorney general she has found innovative ways of working with the federal government to find housing for domestic violence victims.
She said she understands Coloradans want to preserve the state’s beauty, but “oil and gas companies are also responsible citizens and they care about the environment, too— they are conservationists.”
Where does Coffman fit along the Republican Party spectrum in Colorado?
This is a tough one.
Coffman’s relationship with the Colorado Republican Party has at least once looked like the relationship between a traveling oil truck and a roadside bomb.
In 2015, after Steve House was elected chairman of the state GOP, with Coffman’s help, Coffman invited him for drinks at a hotel. There, according to a detailed story in The Washington Post, Coffman showed up with Tom Tancredo and ambushed House, insinuating he was having an affair, demanding he resign, and threatening to expose him.
From the July 2015 story: “If House — who swiftly denied the affair allegations — has been bruised, so too has Coffman. The wife of Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), she had been widely viewed as a likely contender for governor in 2018. Now commentators across Colorado are wondering aloud if the state attorney general committed blackmail.”
In a column in The Colorado Statesman, former Republican Party director Jack Stansbery asked about Coffman, “What kind of person would turn so quickly and callously on a supposed friend and ally?”
— Brandon Rittiman (@BrandonRittiman) June 23, 2015
Coffman tells media now that she and House have buried the hatchet. And for a brief time Coffman was running against Tancredo in a Republican primary. House confirms that he and Coffman have put the issue behind them. As for those two running against each other, he said, “I just think it makes for a tremendously interesting news cycle from now until June.” (Tancredo dropped out in February.)
In 2016, Coffman gave a speech about Republican Party unity at the state GOP assembly and talked about her role as a protector of state sovereignty. But as a Republican, she is no read-meat slinger on the front lines of the culture wars. “I think I may be the only Republican attorney general in the country who walks in a Pride parade,” she once said, and is known as a vocal supporter of LGBT rights. A TV report that she has pro-choice viewshas also rankled some conservatives.
In 2016 she gave a speech at the Republican National Convention in which she said, “As a Republican, I confess to you my deep disappointment in a party platform that looks backward rather than moving us to the future— or frankly even catching us up to the present.” She went on to say she sometimes finds herself at a loss to “explain why my political party does what it does.”
And in a Jan. 5, 2018 New York Times column about the governor’s race, she is quoted saying, “I think there’s still a great deal of disappointment that we didn’t elect a woman as president, and there are women voters in Colorado who would like the chance to have the first female governor in the state.”
Coffman says she believes a woman should “have a right to have an abortion.” In December, days after it was reported that she was one of only two Republican attorneys general who hadn’t signed a letter in support of an NRA-backed law to allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry hidden guns in any state, Coffman said she supports it. In 2010, she boasted of helping de-fund Planned Parenthood because, she said, “they were using public funds to subsidize abortion.” Progressive Denver writer Jason Salzman has delved into Coffman’s history of abortion politics for the nonprofit online publication Rewire.
Coffman’s decisions as attorney general might offer a mixed bag for conservatives.
For instance, she has won conservative cred as being a bulwark against policies pushed by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Democratic President Barack Obama. She sued the federal government over Obama’s Clean Power Plan and its pollution standards, and she took on Obama’s EPA after the agency caused a mine-water spill that turned the Animas River mustard yellow. On the state level, she appealed a controversial oil-and-gas ruling against Hickenlooper’s wishes. Coffman also beat Hickenlooper at the State Supreme Court over whether she could sue the feds without his blessing. But she also upset TABOR hardliners with a legal opinion saying she believed it is constitutional to turn a nearly $1 billion hospital program into something called an enterprise fund where the money it generates wouldn’t hit revenue caps under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. And she is currently defending Colorado’s anti-discrimination law in public accommodations as the U.S. Supreme Court hears a case by a Colorado baker who didn’t want to make a cake for a gay couple. That case might pit her against U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Coloradan Neil Gorsuch.
Another recent high-profile decision came when Coffman declined to prosecute Micheal Baca, a member of Colorado’s Electoral College who was stripped of his position when he cast a vote for Ohio Gov. John Kasich instead of Hillary Clinton during a chaotic day last December. Baca became the first national elector in Colorado history to go rogue. Coffman said she used her discretion not to prosecute him because she didn’t want him making any more headlines. Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams said he was “disappointed” with Coffman’s decision.
On the day she announced her candidacy for governor, Coffman said, “The leadership of this party is very well-intentioned but they’re dealing with a fractured electorate we need to unite the people behind the causes that are important and leave behind some of the petty fights.”
Colorado Democratic strategist Steve Welchert has said, “Frankly, from the Democratic perspective, she is the one candidate that would scare Democrats.”
She said she worked ‘on behalf’ of the oil-and-gas industry as attorney general
Speaking to a business roundtable breakfast in late February, Coffman told the crowd no one has “stepped up and done more on behalf of the oil and gas industry than I have as attorney general.”
With Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in office, Coffman said she has had to step into the breach when it comes to protecting oil and gas interests. For instance, when Hickenlooper balked at appealing a court ruling that would require the state’s oil and gas regulator to put public health, safety and welfare first when considering development rather than trying to strike a balance between that and drilling interests, Coffman pursued the appeal anyway.
“This can flip on its head the way that oil and gas has made decisions and whether now public health and environment and public safety has to come before any drilling can be done,” Coffman told the room of business leaders, calling the ruling a “treacherous standard” for Colorado’s future.
How did her entrance shakeup the attorney general’s race?
It created a big problem for Republicans who hoped they needed only to focus on one wide-open big-ticket statewide race.
With Coffman not running for re-election there was no power of incumbency and at the time no Republican had filed paperwork declaring they would run. On the Democratic side, there was already a robust primary for attorney general with some well-known candidates and hopefuls who have raised a lot of money.
George Brauchler, who won recent straw polls at tea party events and was running a gubernatorial campaign targeting the conservative base, had previously said he wanted to run for governor and brushed off questions about running for another office. But that was prior to Tancredo’s entrance into the governor’s race, and prior to Brauchler losing his campaign manager who left to pursue other business. Brauchler also did not post super-stellar fundraising numbers. Tancredo, who is more well known statewide than Brauchler, was likely to compete in the same pool for votes.
So a few days after Coffman announced, Brauchler left the governor’s race to run for AG.
Where is Coffman drawing support in the governor’s race?
With so many Republicans in the governor’s race, Coffman might try to position herself as a more moderate member of the bunch who can win a general election in a purple state.
“I have people who have been waiting to give and waiting to see that the Cynthia Coffman for governor account was open,” she said on KOAA radio the day she announced. “I think the money will come in. I also have very high name ID and have been around the state and talked to local newspapers and county commissioners, mayors, and I think that counts for a lot.”
As of March, about 20 percent of those giving money to her campaign live outside Colorado, according to state records.
As of late February, Coffman had has accepted about $47,000 from people associated with the oil and gas industry, with $21,000 of it flowing into her current campaign for governor, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Stronger Colorado Ahead, a Super PAC-style group supporting her candidacy, according to The Denver Post, has so far raised $157,000 from four people, three of whom work in the “mining/energy” industry, according to public disclosures.
How might the new primary system voters just passed affect a Coffman candidacy?
No one knows yet, but it could benefit a candidate who does not come from the far right wing of the party more than one who does. Coffman has said she sees one strength of her candidacy as being able to win unaffiliated votes.
Because voters approved ballot measure Prop 108 on Nov. 8, Colorado’s next governor’s race will be the first year unaffiliated voters will be allowed to have a say in whom the Republican Party nominates for governor. Republicans will still caucus for their candidates at precincts around the state — and unaffiliated voters cannot participate in those — but once candidates land on the primary ballot, either by coming out of caucuses or petitioning on, unaffiliated voters could be allowed to vote, unless a lawsuit derails the law. If the law stands, it would mean that in the 2018 governor’s race, mailed ballots will be sent to unaffiliated voters with the names of Democratic and Republican primary candidates.
Voters can choose one party or the other to participate in. One aim of Prop 108 was to water down the voting power of the activist base in each party by broadening the electorate. Proponents of the measure saw it as a way to reduce the chances of Colorado nominating extreme candidates on either side.
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