Andrew Romanoff’s supporters gathered at Moe’s BBQ restaurant in Aurora to have some beer and ribs while watching the results come in Tuesday night. The campaign rented the whole place out, and it was pretty close to full. Some folks were chatty. Some were silently glued to the TV monitors displaying returns as they came in on 9News. Every time the screen flashed the latest vote count, some ouches and ugh’s emanated above the the clashing bowling balls and jazzy rock playing in the background.
When the polls closed at 7 p.m., Romanoff was absent from his own party. He was present, however, through a live video stream projected onto huge screens behind the restaurant’s small, old-school bowling lanes. Every time an image of the tireless candidate, sleeves rolled up talking on the phone at his campaign office came on screen, the buzz of the gathered supporters audibly crescendoed in excitement and admiration.
Meanwhile, Mike Coffman was at the Hyatt Regency Denver Tech Center among a vivacious crowd of supporters. His wife, Cynthia, too, was waiting on the results of her race for state attorney general.
As the night wore on, the inevitable outcome of the race was hard to ignore. The mood at Moe’s BBQ, though it was never peppy, increasingly dimmed every time the latest results flashed on screen. Coupled with the decisive loss in the U.S. Senate race and early signs that Bob Beauprez might’ve edged out John Hickenlooper in their razor-thin race, all the news coming in was bad news for Dems.
When Romanoff walked through the doors at Moe’s just before 8:30 p.m., his supporters welcomed him like the high school quarterback who left it all on the field but had just lost the big game. There was all the usual applause and cheering that morphed into chants of “Andrew! Andrew!” But a hush quickly fell over the room.
As Romanoff made his way through the crowd, he shook every extended hand with a stoic expression that betrayed a little disappointment. Some of his supporters were still waving “Romanoff for Congress” signs that had started to droop a bit.
At 9 p.m., the secretary of state’s website was reporting that Coffman had a 12-percentage-point lead. The game was over for the 48-year-old popular and ambitious politico who has now vied twice, and failed, to serve in D.C.
Romanoff took to the small stage. With watery eyes, he had to make just a slight gesture for the crowd to grow quiet. In his concession speech, he thanked his family and supporters and congratulated Coffman on his victory. “We love you, Andrew!” one loyalist yelled out.
“Oh, I love you too,” Romanoff replied, breaking into a wide and poignant smile.
At the end of his speech, Romanoff invited his volunteers to take the stage with him, and they came flocking from all corners of the room. The platform was nowhere near big enough to fit the whole army of volunteers, some of whom were crying over his defeat. After giving a wholehearted thank-you to his team, he called out two pairs of volunteers who formed budding romances during the campaign. The two young couples blushed hard. Romanoff also gave a special shout-out to one campaign volunteer who couldn’t be in attendance that night because she was donating a kidney.
As the horde of volunteers left the stage to some of the more robust applause of the evening, Romanoff hopped down to mill around the room.
The song that came on next?
Over at the Republican victory celebration at the Hyatt, Coffman delivered a robust victory speech.
“This has been a very tough race, and I am a better candidate for it,” he said, acknowledging this was his closest contest to date. During months on the stump, he showed off his bilingual stylings, explaining in English and his shaky Spanish why he busted his butt learning a new language in his 60s: “Because for me, it is very important to be able to share my vision to create more jobs and more opportunities for everyone in Colorado.”
Heading into election night, the race between Coffman and Romanoff appeared to be anyone’s for the taking (well, anyone except for Libertarian candidate Norm Olsen or Green partier Gary Swing).
Real Clear Politics dubbed it a toss-up, The Rothenberg Political Report classified it as a “tossup/tilt Republican” and Politico and University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said it “leaned Republican.” An internal poll leaked by the Romanoff campaign conducted by Keating Research showed a statistical tie between the candidates — with 44 percent of voters going for Coffman and 43 percent for Romanoff. Coffman’s campaign manager Tyler Sandberg told Fox 31’s Eli Stokols that the Keating poll was “garbage,” but they wouldn’t take “anything for granted.”
In a redrawn district now comprising demographics much more favorable for Democrats, Romanoff looked to be the Dems’ best chance at flipping the seat. He worked hard to tailor the progressive and often petulant message of his 2010 U.S. Senate primary bid against Michael Bennet into a more moderate, mature tone. But late in the game, national punditry started to speculate he was slipping after the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pulled more than $1 million intended for ad buys in the district. The throw-in-the-towel narrative, helpful though it was for the Coffman campaign, was hardly the be-all, end-all in this relentless race.
Early returns reported by the secretary of state’s office Tuesday morning showed an advantage for Republicans — to be expected in off-year midterm elections that tend to get higher turnout from older, white voters than their younger, working-class and minority counterparts.
To close that gap, the Romanoff campaign was banking hard on its ground game during the precious last few days.
Both campaigns mounted get-out-the-vote efforts of epic proportions. Romanoff’s team boasted an army of 1,000 volunteers who spent countless hours knocking on doors and calling voters. The DSCC, though it backed out of its high-dollar, last-minute TV ad buys, poured $60 million this cycle into the Bannock Street Project — the highly data-driven GOTV operation named after the street in Denver where Colorado’s junior Sen. Michael Bennet based his now-legendary field headquarters in 2010. With that money, Bannock Street hired 4,000 organizers nationwide who oversaw around 60,000 volunteers. That’s unheard of for a midterm election.
Not to be outdone, the Coffman campaign, built a formidable GOTV machine of its own. In addition to walking door-to-door all over the district, Coffman penned handwritten notes to every Republican who didn’t vote in the 2010 midterms but did in 2012. Leading up to Election Day, the campaign’s Aurora headquarters was bustling with volunteers.
The candidates’ efforts were industrious enough to earn them the designation of “hardest working House candidates in the country” by the National Journal.
Especially in light of all the national attention this race got, Coffman’s victory last night can be understood mainly as a reflection of the general political ennui. The Congress that Coffman belongs to is about as unpopular as a Congress ever has been, but members of Democratic Party aren’t exactly a desirable crowd to run with either.
Still, policy stances were heavily hashed out in the CD6 race. Immigration, campaign finance and women’s rights all got a lot of attention. And to some extent, the ongoing Coffman-Romanoff debate was more substantive than in other races (i.e., the comparatively vapid U.S. Senate race.)
On immigration, perhaps the biggest issue in the 6th Congressional District, both candidates backpedaled pretty hard.
When he was speaker of Colorado’s House, Romanoff helped to shepherd through a set of anti-immigration laws during a special session in 2006 called by then-Gov. Bill Owens that, to this day, rub many in the Latino community the wrong way. It was such a disappointment for the Democratic base that a fellow state legislator famously said Romanoff “threw the Latino community under the bus.” After the fact, Romanoff tried to stick up for himself, spinning what was really Owens’ victory as his own. Fast-forward eight years to this campaign season, Coffman brought up this prickly moment in Romanoff’s legislative career as often as he could. In defense, Romanoff explained that in that 2006 special session, he pushed for those laws only to avoid a set of even more draconian anti-immigration laws supported by then-State Treasurer Mike Coffman. Ultimately, though, Romanoff was forced into admitting that the 2006 laws he supported were a “mistake.” For the candidate who should’ve had the upper hand on Latino outreach in this race, this skeleton was too big to hide in his closet.
Coffman, too, didn’t look particularly good on immigration. Anti-immigrant fanatic Tom Tancredo used to be Coffman’s “hero,” and the DREAM Act was his “nightmare” back when the 6th CD was a conservative stronghold. As part of the Republican caucus in the House, Coffman voted to defund President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action program. He also voted against comprehensive immigration reform multiple times, which turns out to be an awkward record to have if you’re trying to convince masses of Latinos now drawn into the district that you support comprehensive immigration reform. Over the summer, Coffman co-sponsored and then ostentatiously touted the Enlist Act — bill to give Dreamers a pathway to citizenship by allowing them to enlist in the military. He also rethought his previous opposition to printing up bilingual ballots, trying to walk away from once having said that voters who can’t read ballots in English should “get a dictionary.” In the first-ever American political debate in Spanish, Coffman took pains to clarify that bilingual ballots should only be sent to those to need them as a way to save money. (See! It’s fiscal conservatism, not racism!)
Underlying the candidates’ treatment of even legitimate topics was a distinctly nihilistic message: My opponent is a politician, and politicians are gross.
The basic line of attack coming from the Coffman campaign was that Romanoff is a sleazy and pretentious opportunist.
An ad Romanoff ran in 2010 when he was locked in a divisive primary battle with junior Sen. Michael Bennet served as principal fodder for the sleazy part of narrative. The ad, which pretty blatantly mischaracterized Bennet’s involvement an innocuous financial deal, was panned in The Denver Post editorial section as “misleading,” “over-the-top” and “bellow-the-belt.” Coffman made a point of reminding voters about Romanoff’s bitter primary fight against Bennet, essentially calling Romanoff sleazy for having called Bennet sleazy in 2010.
Coffman delivered the “pretentious” punch in one of his favorite stump speech zingers, a version of which he zealously dished out at a rally in Douglas County last week: “I served in the Army and Marine Corps; Romanoff went to Harvard and Yale,” he said to guffaws from the crowd. “So who do you want to represent you?”
Finally, the Romanoff-as-opportunist pitch came in the form of constantly bringing up the fact that the longtime Denver Democrat had just moved to Aurora in 2013, presumably for the sole purpose of jockeying for this congressional seat.
Along similar lines, Coffman also slammed Romanoff for being a “career politician.” Romanoff began his career in politics as a policy adviser to Gov. Roy Romer in 1997, about a decade after Coffman was first sworn into the Colorado House of Representatives in 1989. If anyone in the race was a “career politician,” it’s Coffman, who hasn’t lost a single race since he started running in them 25 years ago.
Ultimately, this kind of character-bashing — which, at this point, we can only assume was effective, given Coffman’s handy win — is indicative of the pervasive cynicism in politics right now. Coffman is in with the obstruction-at-all-costs breed of House Republicans. For him to have successfully pegged Romanoff — a candidate who put his principled refusal of PAC money at the center of his campaign — as unprincipled says a lot. The basic idea that good government can do good things for people seemingly just can’t win, both in the 6th and in other parts of Colorado and the country.
Much like Obama’s first presidential bid drew heavily on buoying faith in the power of that elected office, Romanoff was a sort of last hope for Democrats in the 6th. If a candidate like him can’t win in this newly more diverse and working class district, the question is: who can?
“Well, we worked real hard, and we fell short,” Romanoff said as his election-night BBQ party quickly dispersed. “The important thing is there are a lot of people facing real struggles, who need a good education, who need a good job, who need health care they can afford. And that’s still going be true tomorrow,” he finished.
So what’s next for Andrew Romanoff?
“I’m probably going to get some sleep.”