DENVER — Mike Coffman took the stage with U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner as Republicans gathered around him shouted “Trump!” and “sellout!”
A Donald Trump victory looked increasingly possible and Trump supporters were emboldened as Coffman addressed them to claim victory after a campaign in which he aired ads against the GOP presidential nominee in a district that favors Democrats.
This year’s race for control of Colorado’s favorite battleground congressional district was the most competitive yet. Coffman faced Democratic State Sen. Morgan Carroll. The Associated Press called the race in Coffman’s favor, with 51 percent of the vote to Carroll’s 43. As of this posting, Carroll has yet to concede defeat.
In his victory speech, Coffman promised to combat a “culture of corruption” in Washington.
“Republicans never win the support of minority communities, they said, and we proved them wrong,” he said.
Beating a candidate as strong as Carroll in a district that favors Democrats, in a presidential election year when more Democrats are turning out, means it’s hard to think of who could actually unseat Coffman in the near future.
The race took place in one of the few super-competitive congressional districts in the country. While Democrats didn’t expect they would wrest power from the GOP-controlled U.S. House, this is a seat they thought they could flip.
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 gave Democrats an opportunity to pick up a seat in the Republican-controlled House was 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 toughest 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 cut ads for Carroll. But it wasn’t enough.
Meanwhile, this congressional race was the only one in the country in which Americans for Prosperity, the political group backed by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, actively campaigned for the defeat of a candidate (Carroll) rather than focusing on voter education.
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.
Coffman’s 180 in response to his district’s changing demographics 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 faced Carroll, 44, a lawyer and the former leader of the Colorado Senate when Democrats had control of that chamber in 2013. She ran on her record of passing progressive bipartisan legislation in a divided statehouse.
Carroll scoffed 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.”
Some policy issues did break through. Immigration was a big one, and an issue on which the candidates differed widely based on their statements during this campaign.
Carroll said she wanted 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 said 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.”
When it came to healthcare, Coffman voted multiple times to repeal Obamacare. Carroll supported a public option for health insurance coverage and wanted to empower Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate wholesale drug prices. Both were against the ColoradoCare universal healthcare ballot measure.
They 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.
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.
Photo by Ramsey Scott