Democrats are once again eyeing Rep. Mike Coffman’s elusive Colorado seat as they look to take back the House in 2018.
For the past three election cycles, the Republican congressman’s personal brand and relationships with minority communities in the diverse 6th District in suburban Denver, along with a relentless campaign apparatus, have propelled him to re-election since the district was redrawn in 2012. Some Democrats say an anti-Republican environment could sweep Coffman out of office, while others aren’t as confident.
“Every year, people look at the year and say, ‘This is the year that we can honestly unseat Coffman,’” said one Colorado Democratic consultant. “Hasn’t worked so well, has it?”
But Democrats say energy is on their side, coupled with historic trends, which suggest the president’s party does not fare well in the administration’s first midterm elections. Operatives from both sides of the aisle acknowledge that Coffman is a formidable incumbent, and they are already laying the groundwork for what could be one of the most closely watched races in the country.
Coffman’s campaign has developed an effective field operation, and it isn’t wasting any time, according to Josh Penry, a consultant to the congressman.
“We’re already rolling,” Penry said. “We also know that they’re coming for us. We have an operation and effort that really never stops.”
A campaign adviser said volunteers knock on doors of undecided voters and document what issues matter to them. Coffman follows up with personal phone calls and handwritten notes explaining his position on those issues. Last cycle, Coffman sent around 5,000 notes to voters.
The 6th District has been a top target for Democrats this decade. While Coffman won re-election last fall by 8 points, Hillary Clinton carried the district by 9 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Republican.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee already has an organizer on the ground in the district, and liberal groups such as Indivisible are also organizing and participating in voter registration training.
“Mike Coffman has an extremely tough road to re-election,” said Ian Silverii, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado. “An energized progressive base [is] ready to do whatever it takes in 2018.”
Democrats say enthusiasm in their base in opposition to President Donald Trump, combined with potentially deflated Republicans, could shift midterm turnout in their favor. But Republicans say Coffman has withstood such climates before.
“How much better of an atmosphere can you get [for Democrats] than Hillary Clinton carrying a district by 9 points?,” said Dick Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. “I sure don’t see how the environment could get much worse than what Mike had to deal with last time.”
Some Democrats said they were discouraged after former state Sen. Morgan Carroll failed unseat Coffman last year. (Carroll now leads the state’s Democratic Party.) But they did not believe repeated losses would dampen fundraising for the 6th District, which is part of the expensive Denver media market.
“That’s always going to be a consideration for the DCCC and, like I said, Mike’s been formidable,” said Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter of the neighboring 7th District, who is running for governor. “But it’s a district that has numbers that really are leaning slightly blue. So you can’t ignore that.”
Registered voters in Coffman’s district are roughly evenly divided between Republicans, Democrats, and the unaffiliated. The district is also ethnically diverse with the city of Aurora at its heart, where one in five residents are born outside the United States. Strategists in both parties expect immigration, health care, and veterans topics (with a new Veterans Affairs hospital opening in Aurora next year) to be top issues in 2018.
Democratic battle ahead
Like districts across the country, Democratic energy in the 6th District is culminating in a crowded primary for the first time since redistricting. And, for the first time, unaffiliated voters can participate in partisan primaries.
Army veteran Jason Crow, who served in Iraq, is a candidate to watch, according to one national Democratic strategist. Democrats believe Crow’s military service can counteract Coffman, a former Marine who served in the Gulf and Iraq Wars. Crow said he can take a “fresh look” at the race as a first-time candidate.
Crow said he plans to focus on an economic message. He attended DCCC candidate training, though one potential candidate cautioned the national party against taking sides in the primary.
“I think that the worst possible thing we can do … is attempt to clear the field,” said Levi Tillemann, who formed an exploratory committee last month. “That is not the logic of democracy.”
Tillemann served in the Obama administration and his family has roots in Colorado politics. He expects to make a decision on a congressional run by the end of June.
David Aarestad, a local lawyer, is also running, as is Gabriel McArthur, a supporter of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Aarestad, whose wife battled breast cancer, was inspired to run after House Republicans unveiled their health care bill.
Democrats could face a familiar issue in the district: residency. Crow does not currently live in the district, a fact Republicans are quick to point out, and a criticism hurled at Coffman’s opponents in 2012 and 2014. Crow said he expects to move into the district by the end of the year, though he dismissed it as a problem.
“There are so many other issues other than my address that really are impacting people’s everyday lives,” Crow said. “People are concerned about health care, people are concerned about the VA hospital, people are concerned about immigration.”
The eventual Democratic nominee will likely attempt to tie Coffman to Trump. Despite being unsuccessful with that strategy last year, Democrats say, this time, Coffman will have to confront Trump’s record in office, and his support for GOP policies.
First elected in 2008 to replace firebrand Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, Coffman has moderated some of his stances since redistricting in 2012 made his district more Democratic. He has also increased outreach to minority communities, learning Spanish and being a consistent presence at community events.
Coffman has broken with the administration on issues such as immigration and called for a special prosecutor to investigate possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. He also voted against the GOP health care bill, though he originally pledged support before it was amended.
The Coffman camp is confident he has established himself as independent.
“We expect them to throw the kitchen sink at us, like they’ve done cycle after cycle,” a Coffman campaign adviser said. “And we’ll kick their a– again.”