This year’s race for control of Colorado’s favorite battleground congressional district is the most competitive yet. Here in the suburbs of Denver, four-term incumbent Republican Congressman Mike Coffman faces Democratic State Sen. Morgan Carroll.
If the race were one of those monster movies it would be like King Kong vs. Godzilla, Terminator vs. Predator. In other words, two powerful heavyweights slugging it out in an epic death match.
OK, the actual race is not that exciting. But a lot is at stake.
Is this a close race to watch on Election Day?
The race takes place in one of the few super-competitive congressional districts in the country. While Democrats don’t expect they’ll wrest power from the GOP-controlled U.S. House, this is a seat they think they can flip.
If Democrats do flip the seat it could signal a potential blue wave spreading across other congressional districts throughout the country. But if Coffman holds on in this race then there might not be such a wave.
A once solidly Republican district, the 6th has morphed into one more favorable to Democrats after the latest round of redistricting. The 2012 redrawing of district boundaries folded in sizable Latino and Ethiopian populations. Anchored by Aurora and encompassing the Denver suburbs south to Highlands Ranch and east a few miles beyond DIA, it is now a swing district in a swing state.
That it gives Democrats an opportunity to pick up a seat in the Republican-controlled House is enough to warrant its value to both parties.
But Coffman is a particularly skilled politician who has dispatched solid Democratic opposition in the past with ease. Carroll, a well-funded liberal lawmaker from the area, is hands-down his biggest challenge yet, especially in a presidential election year that has already turned out more Democratic voters statewide than in 2014. But a caveat here: Republicans have mailed in slightly more ballots in the 6th District than Democrats.
None other than Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle have cut ads for Carroll.
Meanwhile, this congressional race is the only one in the country in which Americans for Prosperity, the political group backed by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, is actively campaigning for the defeat of a candidate (Carroll) rather than focusing on voter education.
What to look out for Tuesday
In 2012, Obama beat that year’s Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by 5 percent in the newly redrawn 6th District. But Coffman out-performed Romney by a few points, showing he pulled crossover support from non-Republican voters.
So one thing to look for as Election Day approaches and on Nov. 8: How close or far apart the ballots are looking from early-voting Democrats and Republicans. Coffman already has shown he can draw crossover support. Can Carroll? And did Coffman put off too many Republican voters who support Trump in the district? What’s the spread between Coffman and Trump in the district?
How we got here
Coffman, 61, who is married to GOP Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, is a military guy who worked his way up the Colorado political ladder from state representative to state senator to state treasurer to secretary of state, and, eventually, to congressman.
He has remained a slippery target for the left. He has adapted to his changing district — and, perhaps, to the times. Once a politician who embraced folks such as the anti-immigrant former Congressman Tom Tancredo, Coffman re-branded as someone “not like other Republicans,” as one TV ad says. He even quietly signed on to the Voting Rights Amendment Act.
For this particular race, Coffman’s campaign says he is most proud of sponsoring bills that would permit the Veterans Administration to do mental health screening and counseling for vets with other-than-honorable discharges, allow first-time homeowners to withdraw $15,000 more from their IRAs for a down payment, and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit, among others. He was also the first GOP sponsor of The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would make employers accommodate pregnant workers rather than forcing them out of their jobs.
And to further moderate the man, his campaign points to work Coffman has done on LGBT issues such as supporting the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), which earned him kudos from groups like One Colorado. The campaign also points to how his support of the LGBT-inclusive Violence Against Women Act won him praise from Planned Parenthood. Two years later, Coffman voted on a budget bill that would defund the group because it provides abortions.
Coffman’s 180 in response to his district’s changing demographics has led University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket to ask if what the Congressman is doing is “shameless pandering” or “good representation.”
In 2014, Coffman faced former Democratic Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff in a race that at the time was framed as one of the few competitive U.S. House races in the country. Coffman beat the pants off Romanoff. In that off-year election, Democrats also didn’t turn out as much as Republicans.
This time he faces Carroll, 44, a lawyer and the former leader of the Colorado Senate when Democrats had control of that chamber in 2013. She doesn’t hesitate to use strong language to describe the opposition party. During a speech to caucus-goers outside Denver in March, she called Republicans running for the White House “nut jobs” and fascists.
Carroll is running on her record of passing progressive bipartisan legislation in a divided statehouse. She says when she was Senate president she made a point to meet every senator to see if there was legislation on which they could find common ground, something, she says, now absent in Congress. Her campaign slogan is “Let’s get real results.”
She frames the race around a vote for someone with a proven record of results versus a sitting member of a do-nothing Congress. “I have a record I’m proud of,” Carroll says about helping pass more than 100 state reforms. “Not little, fluffy stuff, not cosmetic stuff,” she adds, noting that she passed lobbying reform, campaign finance reform, helped double the state’s renewable energy standards, and quadruple rooftop solar. She says she helped bring three new companies to the state and brought in $60 million in cost savings with mental health treatment as part of criminal justice reform.
She scoffs at Coffman distancing himself from Trump and blames Coffman for the rise of Trump’s rhetoric.
“When Mike Coffman tells people to go get a dictionary when it comes to vote, or when he’s keynoting for an anti-Islamic hate group, that’s not Trump, that’s Mike Coffman,” she told The Colorado Independent earlier in the campaign. “And Mike Coffman was doing that before Donald Trump even had a twinkle in his eye about running for president.”
What are the policy issues in the race?
Some policy issues did break through. Immigration is a big one, and an issue on which the candidates differ widely based on their statements during this campaign.
Carroll says she wants Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform immediately that would include a pathway to citizenship for those who are in the country illegally while also addressing arbitrary wait periods.
Coffman says he would allow children of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship based on their work history, education and military service. But as for parents and adults, while he has said he would allow “legal status” for immigrants without criminal records to work in the country, he would be against a pathway to citizenship. He said at one point in the campaign that if you’re here illegally you’re going to be deported. Coffman says he wants immigrants in the country who are here illegally to “come out of the shadows.”
A big VA hospital in Aurora is over budget by a billion dollars and is under congressional review because of it. In one debate, Carroll asked Coffman if he takes any responsibility for that since it happened under his watch as a congressman. Coffman said he helped pass legislation — now law — to strip the VA of its authority to manage construction.
When it comes to healthcare, Coffman voted multiple times to repeal Obamacare. Carroll supports a public option for health insurance coverage and wants to empower Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate wholesale drug prices. Both are against the ColoradoCare universal healthcare ballot measure.
Carroll also talked plenty about higher education throughout the race, saying if elected she would work on a law that would lower interest rates on student loans and allow for refinancing under more favorable terms. She would also look at forgiving student loan debt altogether if a graduate goes to work in a certain job or area.
Pity the fact checkers
Reporters working for fact-checking organizations this election cycle had their work cut out for them in Colorado’s 6th District race. We’ve rounded up at least a dozen ads or statements throughout this one campaign that earned false or misleading ratings from fact checkers.
In a Reality Check segment for Denver’s CBS affiliate, fact-checker Shaun Boyd called Coffman’s first attack on on Carroll misleading. “If you’re going to call someone sleazy and shady you should have strong evidence to back it up,” she said. “Coffman doesn’t.”
Politifact weighed in on another ad, stating, “Coffman falsely says Carroll voted to make it ‘easier to sue’ doctors, small businesses, nurses.”
When Coffman ran an ad saying Carroll made it easier to sue small businesses, 9News said it needed context, adding, “The ad uses bogus facts to back up its claim – suggesting the Coffman campaign doesn’t actually have a case.”
Writing for the Denver Post, University of Colorado’s CU News Corps looked into a flier by Americans for Prosperity that said Carroll had a conflict of interest in legislation she sponsored that benefited her and her law firm. “AFP’s claim of a ‘conflict of interest,’” CU News Corp wrote, is “not true.”
Politifact called an ad by the National Republican Campaign Committee “misleading,” when it said Carroll “racked up $1 billion in new spending.”
9News called an ad by the The National Republican Congressional Committee that accused Carroll of being soft on sexual predators “misleading.”
Politifact rated an ad by the National Republican Campaign Committee “mostly false” when it said Carroll “opposed” tracking sexual predators.
CU News Corps found a Coffman news release “somewhat misleading,” when it stated the Obama administration had “broken a long standing U.S. policy of not paying for hostages and are now rewarding brutal behavior with cash.”
Denver’s ABC affiliate rated a Carroll campaign statement about Coffman “mostly false” when her campaign said Coffman said “stop the deportations” in Spanish during a Univision debate but warned undocumented immigrants, “you’re going to be deported,” when speaking English in an interview for 9News.
Politifact rated “false” a May news release by a group called Colorado’s Voice that said Coffman was “with Trump.”
9News said the Carroll campaign had a “faulty argument” when it stated Trump mocks those with disabilities and Coffman says nothing.
Politifact rated “false” a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ad that said Coffman would “support” Trump, and gave another “false” rating to the group for linking Mike Pence to Mike Coffman by saying both “oppose equal rights for LGBT Americans.”
Want to see these candidates square off in person? Here’s a 9News televised debate between Coffman and Carroll, moderated by political reporter Brandon Rittiman and anchor Kyle Clark:
Where is the money in this race and how much?
They have each raised more than a million dollars for the race.
In the final stretch, Carroll raised more, but Coffman had more to spend. Carroll got help from Bernie Sanders, raising around $425,000 between Oct. 1 and Oct. 19 alone. She has raised most of her money from individuals who gave $100 or less. In the closing days, Bernie Sanders is stumping for her, and unions, including the AFL-CIO, are helping her campaign canvass voters. The national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has made the race a priority, and so has the well-funded League of Conservation Voters.
Coffman’s top five financial supporters are Land Title Guarantee Co., First Bank, Seakr Engineering, Liberty Media Corp., and Bloomin’ Brands, according to The Center for Responsive Politics. Constituencies that give him the most money are retirees, leadership PACS, oil-and-gas companies, and securities and investment interests.
Another notable development in this particular race is the involvement of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity group, which is spending money and canvassing neighborhoods to work against Carroll’s election.
If Coffman wins on Tuesday…
If Coffman beats a candidate as strong as Carroll in a district that favors Democrats, in a presidential election year when more Democrats are turning out, then it’s hard to think of who could actually unseat him in the near future. Then who knows? Run for governor? U.S. Senate?
Because he is seen as one of the few truly vulnerable incumbent Republican members of Congress, if Coffman wins there likely will not be a national Democratic wave across the country.
If Carroll wins…
It will be a sign of a strong campaign with a known candidate from the area, but also will have proven how damaging Trump really was to down-ballot Republicans— even those who tried their best to thread a needle of distancing themselves from Trump without trying to reject his supporters completely.
It will also show the difference between a general election and an off-year election for Democrats in Colorado’s swing districts. Pundits thought Coffman had a close race in his last election in 2014, an off-year midterm race, but he won in a blowout against a strong Democratic candidate.
If Carroll wins — or Democrat Gail Schwartz wins her own congressional election on the Western Slope — then Democrats would take control of Colorado’s congressional delegation. Of the state’s seven congressional representatives right now, four are Republicans.