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Former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords speaks to attendees of a Jason Crow campaign event in Aurora on Sept. 20, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Deep-pocketed Giffords, a political action committee named for the former Arizona congresswoman who survived a 2011 assassination attempt, is a growing force in the 6th Congressional District battle between Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and Democrat Jason Crow.

Giffords, a gun-violence prevention group seeking tighter firearm controls, has already spent $1.5 million on television ads in the race, putting it in the among the top five outside influences, in terms of money, on the contest. The PAC has plans to pour in more resources ahead of the Nov. 6 election.

In fact, it has spent more money in the 6th District than any other 2018 race in the nation.

“I anticipate that Giffords PAC is going to be one of the top spenders in this race,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords. “We’ll be announcing other investments in the future.”

Ambler says Giffords is trying to make the 6th District race, and others it is working on across the nation, a referendum on gun violence issues.

Crow has already made gun violence a front-and-center element of his campaign. Giffords thinks it’s a winning strategy for Crow and other candidates given changing national sentiments toward firearms, Ambler says.

“If we succeed in making the race a referendum on gun safety, the influence of the (National Rifle Association), then that’s going to put Jason Crow in a very good position to win,” Ambler said.

MORE: In his toughest political battle yet, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman is trying to navigate his way to another re-election against growing headwinds

Giffords has already launched one emotional ad attacking the five-term incumbent Coffman over guns — using a fictionalized text-message thread between a mother and daughter, named “Emily,” who is apparently trapped in a school where a shooting is happening.

The message harks to the text Emily Keyes sent her father before she was killed by a gunman at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey on Sept. 27, 2006. Emily’s last message to her father was “I love u guys.”

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(Coffman on Tuesday called for the spot to be pulled, saying to exploit “the name and horrible death of one of our own to try and win an election is below basic human dignity.” He added: “I can take criticism, but this is reprehensible.” Keyes father also called for the ad to be taken down in an interview with 9News.)

And then on Tuesday a second Giffords spot began airing, using images from the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, that calls Coffman “the NRA’s ‘yes’ man.”

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Giffords PAC has spent more than $1 million in two other congressional races this year, targeting Republican U.S. Reps. Barbara Comstock, in Virginia, and Jason Lewis, in Minnesota. But Coffman, at least so far, appears to be the prime target.

That follows trends being seen in contests across the country, where Democrats are more and more often using the the topic of gun violence to try and sway voters.

And the money Giffords is spending on the 6th District in Colorado is combined with millions more being spent on Crow’s behalf by groups including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC (each at more than $2 million), making it part of a potent coalition against Coffman.

Attendees of a Jason Crow campaign event, including many mothers pushing for tighter gun laws, where former Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords appeared in Aurora on Sept. 20, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Last week, Gabby Giffords, the former Democratic congresswoman for whom the Giffords group is named, and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, appeared at a campaign rally in Aurora with Crow hoping to get out their message.

“Fight! Fight! Fight!” Giffords told a fired up, standing-room-only crowd that featured a sea of women wearing T-shirts from the gun-violence prevention group “Moms Demand Action.”

The Giffords group sees Coffman as especially vulnerable given the district’s history: The 1999 Columbine High School shooting happened before its lines were redrawn to form the current, Aurora-centric district. And the 2012 Aurora theater shooting happened within its latest confines.

Ron Barnes, of Aurora, waits for former Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords to appear with Democrat Jason Crow at a Crow campaign rally on Sept. 20, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Crow has made gun violence prevention and pushing for more rigid firearm regulations a key component of his campaign since the start. His first ad featured him talking about the issue and it’s a routine talking point on the campaign trail.

“He will not lead on this issue,” Crow said of Coffman during the rally, “but I will.”

The first-time candidate and decorated military veteran is calling for universal background checks on gun purchases, limits on magazine capacities and the expansion of so-called “red-flag laws” that would allow judges to seize firearms from people deemed an imminent risk. He is also interested in placing limitations on assault- or military-style weapons.

A recent New York Times poll of the district, which showed Coffman down 11 points in the race, said 63 percent of respondents approve of a federal ban on the sale of assault-style guns and high-capacity magazines. (Coffman’s campaign has questioned the poll’s accuracy.)

There is still a risk he could alienate some voters with his positions on firearms, but he is working to battle that perception.

“I’ve encountered people who are afraid that Democrats are coming to take their guns,” Crow told The Sun in an interview. “That’s a narrative that the NRA has fed certain people in the community. It’s not true. I tell people it’s not true and I talk to people about my own experience.”

Coffman and his camp, however, accuse Crow of endorsing extreme measures and say that the outside spending by Giffords will actually hurt the challenger.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, is a combat veteran. Jason Crow is one, too. (Provided photo)

“There are steps we can and should take to prevent the sick or the mentally ill from getting guns, but sweeping gun control that limits the rights of the law-abiding citizens won’t stop evil people from doing evil things,” Coffman said in a written statement.

Coffman’s campaign manager, Tyler Sandberg, says 6th District constituents are “suspicious of outside money trying to mess with gun rights.”

Coffman’s campaign this week put out a digital ad counterattack ad, featuring Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock calling the Crow’s proposals “extreme.” The spot also calls Crow a hypocrite since his law firm, Holland & Hart, has represented the gun industry.

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(Crow’s campaign says linking the him to the lobbying work by his firm is misleading because Crow isn’t a lobbyist and didn’t receive money from the firm’s work on behalf of the gun industry.)

Coffman says he has worked to address gun violence, like  advocating for a red-flag law and pushing for the national expansion of programs like Colorado’s Safe2Tell initiative that was launched after Columbine.

Coffman is, however, against ban on a military- or assault-style weapons. In the past, he has received an “A” rating and campaign contributions from the NRA — frequent attack points for Crow and Giffords.

Voters in the 6th District should expect to see more ads relating to guns ahead of the November election, both from Giffords and from Everytown for Gun Safety, the group founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Everytown is gearing up to spend $5 million on digital ads targeting Republicans in the 2018 elections, including Coffman in the 6th District, Politico reported.

Rising Sun

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...