HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. — It’s impossible that Republican Congressman Mike Coffman hadn’t prepared for the question. Everyone in the jam-packed low-slung hotel event room where today’s Congressional District Six debate was being held knew it was coming, and they oohed and aahed when it arrived in anticipation of the answers.
“Where do you stand on women’s rights and abortion?” asked moderator Aaron Harbor, a longtime state-politics media figure. The question followed an exchange on the Affordable Care Act.
“I’m pro-life,” said Coffman, starting out strong. But he paused and then said “I’m proud of that — ” and then came a string of half thoughts.
“I — But I don’t support personhood — I support women’s access — that Hobby Lobby decision — to … ” He finished with something that may have been “birth control,” but he was already shaking his head. Then he sighed theatrically and handed the microphone to the man sitting next to him, Andrew Romanoff, the former state speaker of the House who is running to unseat Coffman and represent the recently redrawn, no-longer deep red, highly competitive district.
It was the low point for Coffman, who generally came off in the debate as affable and knowledgeable, but also unsteady, some of his answer wandering and heavy with jargon. They made him sound like what he is, a member of Congress, which is probably not the impression he wanted to give.
He said he voted against the General Dynamics proposal to “develop the M1M1 tank into another variant.” In explaining his plan to reduce the deficit, he talked about “lower marginal rates” and “territorial tax structure.” The government in Afghanistan, he said, was a “vertically integrated criminal enterprise.”
The biggest applause line he received came when he attacked “Obamacare,” but that line also drew “boos” from half of the rough 400 people in the room, which may have signaled the problem for Coffman today.
The debate, like the race, is a battle for the middle. District Six, which stretches in an arc around eastern Denver, includes red and blue sections. Voter registration is now equally divided between Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.
But Coffman won the seat in 2008, when hard-right anti-illegal immigration warrior Rep. Tom Tancredo retired and when the district was still a deep-red stronghold — and Coffman clearly seems used to stumping in its conservative neighborhoods.
Coffman also clearly knows what he has to do to win reelection. A former Marine who focuses his work in Congress on military issues, he talked winningly for example about how he has broken Republican orthodoxy repeatedly in asking for greater efficiency in Defense spending. He said that it’s a mistake his colleagues make — one that mirrors the thinking of “liberals” — to focus on the amount of money we’re spending and not how we’re spending that money.
Romanoff, a dynamic state lawmaker who lost a primary bid for the U.S. Senate to Michael Bennet in 2010, was well prepared for the debate. He spoke off the cuff and smoothly, rattling off policy ideas at a fast clip and stressing the need to avoid the kind of partisan politics that have sent Congress into a spiral of historic gridlock.
“If you elect me, I cannot promise we’ll get everything I’ve listed here today accomplished. But I guarantee that, if we elect the same crowd that is there now, nothing will get done. That’s unacceptable to me as a Coloradan and as an American.”
In 2010, Coffman won reelection in the new district against Joe Miklosi, a low-key state lawmaker with less experience in government and on the stump than does Romanoff.
The debate today was sponsored by the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce and various local business groups. Highlands Ranch is a conservative suburb. The crowd standing outside the Hilton Garden Inn before the event began was lopsided with Coffman supporters.
This was Coffman’s debate to win.
The next debate is scheduled for Friday. It will be hosted by the Aurora Chamber of Commerce at the Denver Airport Marriott.