AURORA — On a Sunday morning in late July, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman stood at the front of a packed Ethiopian Orthodox church in Aurora, wearing an honorary scarf draped over his shoulders, to tout the work he’s done on behalf of the African immigrant community.
As the five-term Republican spoke about progress with Ethiopia’s new government and work toward ending human rights abuses, members of the congregation stood with cell phones outstretched to record the man speaking before them. Others craned their necks to see Coffman and hear what he had to say.
“I want to thank you for allowing me to be a part of your community,” Coffman told the St. Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Church, amid rounds of applause.
It’s in immigrant communities like these that Coffman has defied the odds again and again, winning over otherwise Democratic voters in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District.
But this year is very different. This year, Coffman is not only running against a Democratic challenger but in many ways he is running against President Donald Trump, too.
Coffman is facing what’s shaping up to be the political battle of his life against Democrat Jason Crow, a Denver lawyer and political newcomer, amid strong headwinds for Republicans across the nation that threaten to end his run. If Coffman faced long odds before, they’re really against him now.
Democrats must take 23 seats to reclaim the U.S. House of Representatives — a goal that appears within reach. Coffman’s seat has always been in the Democrat’s sights, but this year is even more of a prime target.
Coupled with the political climate, the district wouldn’t ordinarily be expected to vote for a Republican congressman. In the 2016 election, the 6th District chose Democrat Hillary Clinton for president but kept Coffman in office.
Democrats are spending a lot of time and money in districts that performed the way the 6th did in 2016. In Colorado, $14 million of television ad time has been purchased so far in the Coffman-Crow battle — nearly half the total spent on elections in the state. That sum is expected to grow.
“If they can flip this one, they are flipping a lot of others with similarly vulnerable Republican incumbents,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at University of Denver. “Obviously (Coffman) has survived a lot of close shaves over the last few years. There’s a reason why both parties are devoting so much money and attention to this race. It’s very representative of the sort of battleground races that are existing across the country.”
Still, dethroning Coffman — a combat veteran — is a hefty task. He has fended off challenger after challenger in four reelection bids, even as demographics in the district shifted in favor of Democrats.
But like many other incumbent Republicans, Coffman finds himself battling national sentiment about Trump that’s fueling a backlash against the GOP. He and other candidates are working carefully to distance themselves from the White House without alienating their Republican base.
“This is a challenging overall political environment for Republicans here in Colorado,” said Dick Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado GOP. “I don’t know what Trump’s numbers are, but I would have to assume they are upside down. That’s the big difference between 2018 and the previous three elections Coffman has run.”
In 2012, former President Barack Obama won the district by 5 percentage points, but Coffman toppled his Democratic challenger, state Rep. Joe Miklosi. Then in 2016, Hillary Clinton won the district by 9 points, but Coffman fended off former state Senate President Morgan Carroll by a 9-point margin
In 2014, Coffman beat Democrat Andrew Romanoff, the former speaker of the Colorado House, by 9 points as well.
Democrats think Crow is just the candidate they need to accomplish their goal. He has bullet points on his biography that previous Coffman challengers didn’t: A parent. A decorated military veteran. A first-time candidate with no voting record to attack.
What’s left is a dynamic battle unlike any other in the Democrats’ nationwide blitz to retake the House. Crow is trying to break into the communities that have long been loyal to Coffman while Coffman is trying to paint Crow as an inexperienced outsider handpicked by the partisan establishment to unseat him.
The changing 6th District
When the service at St. Mary’s ended, a swarm of people hurried over to Coffman hoping to get a photo with him in a scene that looked like fans trying to pose next to a rock star or professional athlete.
“He’s great for us,” said Liyou Tirfe, who called Trump “bad for immigrants,” as she stood outside of the church off of East Colfax Avenue in Aurora. “He helps us, whatever issue we have.”
Over the years the 6th District has been moving politically more toward the middle and the left. The number of registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters has steadily risen, eclipsing registered Republicans, whose numbers have remained stagnant.
In theory, the district looks like one Democrats should be able to easily win. It’s full of minorities and young immigrant families, two populations typically synonymous with Democratic politics.
But Coffman has been able to hold on because of his deep community ties to Aurora, which is made up of about 20 percent of people born outside the United States.
“Other Republican House districts that are seen as vulnerable this year are ones where you have a large percentage of college-educated whites, where they have not been particularly strong Trump supporters, and those districts have become a little more vulnerable,” said DU professor Masket. “CD6 is a little more different. It is an usually racially diverse district, it has a high percentage of immigrant communities. Coffman has been very good about trying to reach out to those communities and just doing a lot of constituent service.”
He added: “The real question is whether his politicking can help protect him in what looks like a significant partisan wave in the other direction.”
Ask Coffman about the largest concerns of each of the immigrant communities in his district and he rattles off their needs: Protecting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for Mexican immigrants. Finding a solution to Temporary Protected Status for Aurora’s large Salvadoran population. Human rights issues for Ethiopians. Work visas for Koreans. Civil rights for the large Muslim population.
While Coffman says it’s not unusual for him to visit his district’s diverse communities, “it’s such a big deal, just to be here.”
“These people are registered Democrats almost across the board,” he said.
But under the Republican-controlled Congress, Coffman has been unable to get much of his legislation to help these groups passed.
The bills have either stalled or failed and drawn ire from Republican leadership in Congress. That’s where Crow is hoping to pounce.
“I almost sometimes get physically ill when I see the hypocrisy coming from Mike Coffman,” Crow told a crowd at a recent candidate forum hosted by the African American Initiative of Colorado Democrats and NAACP Aurora. “The enormous gap between what he says and what he does.”
Crow is pushing a message of “new leadership” in order to sway voters.
Coffman says he recognizes not all of the legislation he brings on behalf of his immigrant constituents makes it through, but that he has been able to spark important conversations with his actions. He points to the congressional discussions on immigration — he was a major force in the DACA debate — that followed the introduction of his bills.
Coffman also says that when his measures do pass, they have significant impact. Take House Resolution 128, which Coffman was an original sponsor on and encourages defense of human rights in Ethiopia. The congressman says it helped spark change in the African nation.
“The fact that I’m standing up for them against the administration — whether on DACA, whether on (Temporary Protected Status) — that’s the point that they look at,” Coffman said of his constituents.
The “blue wave”
A group of Democrats tried to pack into a neighborhood clubhouse for a chance to meet Jason Crow one night in mid-August in Centennial at an event for Indivisible Arapahoe County. The space couldn’t hold the overflow crowd.
The roughly 90 or so attendees grabbed their lawn chairs and headed outdoors to hear Crow’s campaign pitch.
“Everywhere I go, I do a lot of these throughout the week right now, this is what it looks like,” he told the crowd. “This is the energy and this is the silver lining, if there is one, to the environment we’re in right now.”
Crow and his campaign feel confident that the national energizing of Democrats will help propel them to victory this year. The candidate says he is constantly meeting with indivisible and resist groups and “names of groups that are popping up every week.”
“There is something major happening here,” Crow said. “If you don’t recognize that, I don’t know what to say. But there’s a big change coming.”
There are signs that he’s right, and Crow is feeding off that momentum from political newcomers and the more progressive wings of the Democratic Party even if he isn’t exactly embracing some of their more extreme ideas — like abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and impeaching Trump.
FiveThirtyEight, an election data analysis site, has given Democrats an 81 percent chance of taking back the House. That includes an 83 percent chance of victory for Crow. (Those numbers were as of Tuesday.)
And a New York Times poll from last week showed Crow leading Coffman at 51 percent to 40. That was with a 5-point margin of error and 9 percent of those polled still undecided. (Coffman’s campaign has cast doubt about the predictive accuracy of the Times’ poll and said that in previous cycles polls have shown the congressman down but he’s still been able to win.)
“We have had more people than in any event in 2016,” said Laurie Ritchie, who helps lead the liberal group Indivisible Arapahoe that put on the Centennial event. “Twenty percent of the people who come to our events have become active since Trump was elected president.”
Ritchie has worked on several other races in the 6th District on behalf of Democrats.
“It’s not the same dynamic,” she said of this election cycle.
But Coffman, while recognizing the challenges he faces, says the 6th District can’t be painted into those broader national lines.
“I have been the top target for a fourth cycle in a row, so I’m well defined in this district. Battle tested, “ Coffman said.
Coffman said other incumbent Republicans will have a tougher time because they haven’t faced serious challenges in the past. And he says it’s nothing new for the party in power to face a backlash.
“That’s normal,” he said. “That’s a normal historical trend. Whenever there’s a new president, that first election is tough on the party that holds the White House. But I strongly feel I’m going to weather that storm.”
Coffman vs. Trump
During his 2016 campaign, Coffman released an ad distancing himself from Trump that drew national attention.
“People ask me: What do you think about Trump?” Coffman said in the spot. “Honestly, I don’t care for him much. And I certainly don’t trust Hillary. … If Donald Trump is president, I’ll stand up to him. Plain and simple.”
One of the biggest attack lines for Crow and his campaign is that Coffman didn’t keep that promise and that he and the president are similar.
Again and again they have accused Coffman of voting with Trump — 95.6 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight — more than any other member of Congress from Colorado. Coffman and his campaign say that number is misleading in tying the two together and say those bills encompass things like veterans care and fighting the opioid epidemic.
“We don’t have to tie Mike Coffman to Donald Trump,” Crow told The Sun. “Mike Coffman is tying himself to Donald Trump. He’s the one taking the votes. He’s the one sponsoring his agenda.”
The New York Times poll of the 6th District showed nearly 60 percent of respondents disapproved of Trump and about 55 percent want Democrats to retake the U.S. House.
But there are still historical signs the Trump-Coffman tactic could be difficult for Crow.
“I think the challenge for Crow is overcoming Coffman’s historical ability to win crossover votes in the district and tough campaigns that he has won, including significant independent expenditure resources,” said Democratic strategist Craig Hughes.
Coffman has done his best to keep the president at a distance, praising him little and seizing on opportunities to show his differences from the White House. (Don’t expect to see any Coffman ads disassociating himself from Trump this election cycle, though. His campaign is trying to focus on bipartisanship and Washington dysfunction.)
Take a recent tweet from Coffman blasting Trump — though not using the president’s name — over a statement questioning U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to prosecute two sitting Republican congressmen.
“No one is above the law in this country — no one,” Coffman tweeted. “Too many people in D.C. think the rules don’t apply to them. Jeff Sessions did the right thing.”
The post was emblematic of Coffman’s careful approach to Trump and his administration’s controversies.
“My narrative is my own,” he said. “It’s so very different from that of the president. I have one of the most bipartisan reputations in the Congress. I reach out to the immigrant communities.”
As for the voting record? Coffman says Crow’s claims are misleading.
“The president doesn’t vote, number one, and number two, that’s only related to the issues that make it to the president’s desk,” Coffman said. “There are lots of different areas that I express differences with the president, whether it’s on Russia, whether it’s on tearing families apart at the border.”
He added: “I think I’m constantly defining myself not just different from the president, but different from the establishment in Washington, D.C., in general. I think the partisanship in Washington, D.C., even prior to this president is really toxic.”
Where Crow will be attacked
Conservatives are already signaling they will be going on the offensive to try to undermine Crow’s resume — which includes a Bronze Star — and portray him as being out of touch with the district.
In late August, the Congressional Leadership Fund released a blistering ad claiming that Crow missed about a third of the meetings of the state’s Board of Veterans Affairs, of which he was a member for five years. The spot accused Crow of turning “his back on Colorado’s veterans” and called him “another all-talk, no-action politician.”
Crow and his campaign vehemently pushed back on the ad, saying it was misleading and even “disgusting.” His supporters held a rally calling for the CLF — which is linked to House Speaker Paul Ryan — to take down the 30-second video. (It’s still airing on local TV.)
“That was a volunteer community board and it travels around the state,” he said. “I don’t look at the specific numbers of what specific meetings people attended and did not. I know everyone did the best they could to attend as many meetings as they could to fight for veterans in this community. Obviously I was a young parent at the time and my service was applauded and members of the board stand with me.”
The Coffman campaign has gone even further by saying Crow didn’t look out for veterans while working as an attorney at the Denver law firm of Holland & Hart through the clients he represented. They’re also using his work as a white-collar criminal defense attorney against him.
(Coffman also hit Morgan Carroll for her record as an attorney during the 2016 election cycle.)
Crow’s campaign says that label is misleading and that he’s done a mountain of pro-bono legal work — everything from mentoring veterans to working on the veterans’ homelessness issue.
“Career politician Mike Coffman is going to do what he needs to do to survive, but at the end of the day I’m pretty pumped to put (up) my record of service to this country and community, from fighting for veterans to fighting for the substance-abuse crisis to all the pro bono work I’ve done as a lawyer,” he said.
Crow’s campaign even put out an ad defending his work on veterans issues to combat the attacks.
Coffman and his team are also hitting Crow hard for not living in the district until about a year ago.
Crow and his family lived just over its boundaries on the Denver side of Stapleton until November 2017. “It’s in the same neighborhood we’ve lived in for over a decade,” he said. “We obviously didn’t want that to be a distraction, so we made the commitment.”
But Crow also says long before the move he was working on issues in the district.
Overall, Crow will be tough to attack — or at least tougher than some of Coffman’s earlier Democratic opponents — because he hasn’t held public office.
“Jason’s going to be a difficult person to paint in a way the Coffman supporters want to,” said Hughes, the Democratic strategist, who is not working on the race. “He’s a veteran. He doesn’t have a voting record.”
County clerks will begin sending out ballots on Oct. 15.