In his more than 20-year political career, Colorado 6th District Republican Congressman Mike Coffman has never lost an election. Before heading to Capitol Hill, he was a state representative and senator, then state treasurer and then briefly secretary of state. Among insiders, it has been accepted as a given that Coffman is planning to take a run in 2014 at Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Udall’s seat. Any future Coffman political plans, however, were complicated Thursday, when Denver District Judge Robert Hyatt put the 6th District GOP stronghold into play by paring off large swaths of mostly white suburbs south of Denver and including more urban, working-class and Latino regions to the north.
“The Democratic plan accepted by [Judge Hyatt] makes that a perfect tossup seat,” Colorado College Political Science Professor Bob Loevy told the Colorado Independent.
A Republican appointee to the state’s Reapportionment Committee, Loevy added that the many automatic advantages of incumbency Coffman would have enjoyed are now effectively gone.
“Is Coffman even really an incumbent in that district? He’s certainly not an incumbent in much of the district anymore.”
Tacking back to the middle
Loevy said Republicans didn’t appeal a similar redistricting ruling in 2000 and that there’s no compelling reason to believe an appeal would bring about any better results for Republicans this year. He thinks the new 6th District will stand and that Colorado politics watchers will soon see Coffman reverse the tack he took to the right this year.
“I will go ahead and confidently predict that Coffman’s politics will change,” he said, laughing. “That’s what politicians do. They’re very good at that. They change when their constituencies expand– when, for example, they move from a state office to a federal office. Well, in effect, that’s what has happened to Coffman. His constituency has vastly expanded.”
Loevy estimates that the number of voters who will now decide who represents the 6th District in Washington has jumped six fold.
“Instead of appealing to a small group of activist Republican primary voters, Coffman now has to appeal to a large number of more moderate Republican general election voters and to the large number of unaffiliated voters who now hold the balance of power in that district.”
The Tancredo factor
Coffman broke two days of silence on Hyatt’s ruling with a revved-up release Monday.
“Despite my differences with the decision, I’m excited about running in the new district and I’ve already started gearing up for a tough campaign.
“I love a tough race, and I’ve really missed not having had a challenge since the Republican congressional primary that I won in 2008. This will be a great opportunity to sharpen my skills.”
Coffman ran to represent CD6 in 2008 after conservative firebrand, anti-illegal immigration crusader and five-term Congressman Tom Tancredo announced he was retiring. The challenge for Coffman in holding Tancredo’s seat up until now has only been to stand up to primary challenges from the right. In 2010, the lopsided district pitted roughly 200,000 Republican voters against 100,000 Democrats and 130,000 independents. After sailing to victory over unknown Democratic challenger John Flerlage in the GOP Tea Party wave election last year, Coffman gave a short election night speech into which he packed a host of red-meat buzzwords from the heated campaign season.
“This election was a referendum on the failed policies of Barack Obama and his congressional allies,” he said. “This election today marks a serious defeat for socialism in America. This defeat is but one battle in a long war to take back our country.”
Coffman has not softened his rhetoric in the months since that speech, suggesting to many that he’s working to firm up his right-wing credentials in order to win the GOP nomination to go against Udall. There’s no arguing that the Tea Party has wrought havoc with mainstream Republican campaigns in Colorado and might do so for years to come, pushing out more moderate candidates in favor of hard right anti-government social conservatives.
A favorite topic for the Tea Party right in Colorado as elsewhere has been illegal immigration. Disgusted with Republican missteps in the governor’s race last year, Tancredo entered the race as the Constitutional Party candidate and whipped up supporters across the state with tough talk on immigration.
The lesson wasn’t lost on Coffman. In August, he announced plans to introduce a bill that would repeal a section of the 1973 Voting Rights Act, which requires jurisdictions with large populations of nonproficient English speakers to print ballots in more than one language. Coffman said printing ballots in Spanish, for example, to accommodate the rapidly evolving population of the state was just too expensive.
Immigrant and voting rights groups howled that Coffman was joining in Republican efforts launched across the nation to suppress the votes of traditionally Democratic constituencies.
“All voters in the state should be concerned about Coffman’s efforts to keep eligible U.S. citizens from participating in our elections by removing requirements for bilingual voting materials,” Elena Nunez from government watchdog group Common Cause told the Colorado Independent. She welcomed news that the new district would be more competitive.
“To the extent that a more competitive and more diverse district will create an opportunity for more dialogue about this issue, that’s good for Coloradans.”
A couple of weeks after Coffman announced his plan to oppose the voting rights act, he went on talk radio in Colorado and said President Obama was secretly working to grant citizenship to millions of undocumented residents as part of a plan to get the new citizens to the polls to vote for Democratic candidates in 2012. Coffman said he wanted the press to look into the story, which reporters did, only to find the allegation baseless and absurd.
Loevy said Coloradans won’t be hearing any more of that kind of thing from Coffman any time soon.
“Those more conservative stands, they made perfect sense when Coffman was seeking to win support from the white upperclass Republican Douglas County primary voters who have dominated the district. Now he’s going to have to change all of that.”
Aurora power center
The new 6th District will include Aurora, a service-economy suburb just east of Denver brimming with Democratic voters and immigrant populations.
“If you talk to Aurora residents, they’ll tell you they live in one of the most diverse cities in the state. They’re probably right. A Democratic candidate could very definitely win that district now,” Loevy said.
Coffman, however, is not ready to surrender one of the new power-centers in his district.
“I grew up in Aurora,” he said in the release. “I’ve spent most of my life here. Aurora Democrats mostly come from hard working class families and they are not at all like the Nancy Pelosi liberal Democrats of Denver and Boulder… Many [past Aurora leaders] are veterans, and my Army and Marine Corps background will be a big plus.”
Olivia Mendoza, executive director of the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization (CLLARO), told the Independent she is less concerned at this point with who represents the district than she is in realizing the power of the Latino community that now makes up 20 percent of its constituency.
“Our work is the same. We want our communities to vote. We want people to be empowered, to continue to mobilize to make certain their interests are represented.”
Mendoza grew up in Brighton, now also part of the 6th District, and she said that Brighton is like towns in much of the rest of the state, places where partly transient immigrant populations move from south to north and become long-term residents. She said her organization works with each community according to context, “whether they’re moving on or putting down roots, they have public interests and they have increasing power that comes with numbers,” she said.
The Democrats and the Tea Party
Denver Democratic state Rep. Joe Miklosi, who announced his candidacy for the 6th District months ago, has been pushing hard to raise funds in the wake of the news that Democratic chances for victory have just grown exponentially. For now, party players seem to be behind him. The Democratic state House caucus sent out a letter of support for him this week.
The opportunity presented by the new district boundaries, however, may yet draw a bigger name to the race. Either of the former Speakers of the House Andrew Romanoff or Terrance Carroll, for example, would bring “legions of fans, plenty of money and a note of serious intent to a Coffman challenge,” as the Colorado Statesman put it last month.
A tough general election race in the 6th would have the added benefit for Democrats of altering Coffman’s calculus for a 2014 U.S. Senate race.
“The problem for Republicans who want to run statewide is that they have to stay far enough to the right to get the nomination and then moderate for general election voters. In his old district, he would have to move right to win the primary. The problem is now reversed for Coffman,” Loevy said, referring in part to the intense Tea Party-fueled primary contests the state and nation have seen over the last two years on the right.
“Coffman has to move to the middle to win his own district. But then, can he win the Republican nomination [to run for the Senate in 2014]? That’s the question.”