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U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, reads an emotional concession speech on Tuesday night, Nov. 6, 2018, at a Marriott Hotel in Lone Tree. "in the end, the waves were too big for this ship of ours," the five-term incumbent said.

Days before the election, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman stood at a busy intersection in the 6th Congressional District waving campaign signs and smiling at passing motorists, searching for any sign that he might keep his job.

His 30-year political career hung in the balance, and the five-term incumbent Republican from Aurora acknowledged that he was the underdog in the polls. But polls, Coffman reasoned, had been wrong about him before.

Besides, Coffman had a survey of his own. As he waved to voters at the intersection of East Sixth Avenue and Airport Road in Aurora, he counted the thumbs up and down from drivers zooming by.

“It was about a three-and-one ratio on the thumbs,” Coffman said, embracing a too-fleeting moment of encouragement. “It’s a dogfight of a race.”

But he needed more than hand signals on Tuesday night to beat Jason Crow, a first-time candidate and Denver lawyer backed by the Democratic Party’s establishment and moneyed outside groups. 

Jason Crow talks with a voter in Highlands Ranch on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Coffman’s long reign ended Tuesday in a decisive defeat, a national case study that showed the difficulty for a moderate Republican to win in the era of President Donald Trump.

His loss boiled down to a potent formula, with Trump as the leading ingredient — one so defining that it made Coffman’s re-election a near-futile endeavor from the start. It didn’t help that he was also facing a candidate supported by deep-pocketed groups seeking to make the race a referendum on gun control, no matter the price.

“In the end,” Coffman said in his emotional concession speech Tuesday night, “the waves were too big for this ship of ours.”

Crow’s victory — he is the first Democrat to be elected to the 6th District seat, created in 1983 — is part of the formula that allowed Democrats to retake the U.S. House.

Just as profound is what Coffman’s loss says about the Republican Party and its voters in a purple state like Colorado. Coffman is a Republican in a blue district, one of 25 in the nation that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but backed a GOP candidate for the House, but his efforts to distance himself from the president failed to convince voters.

The Colorado Sun spoke with dozens of people over months of covering the 6th District race to explore why Coffman — who two years ago was called “officially bulletproof” and has held nearly every major elected office in the state — couldn’t survive the blue wave of 2018.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, at a campaign office in Greenwood Village on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A lopsided battle over money

“Hey, Jill, this is Congressman Mike Coffman. I’m so sorry that I missed you,” Coffman said, leaving a phone message last week as he worked to reach undecided voters. “… Jill, I really appreciate your vote for this election. Thank you. Bye.”

Coffman knew he was vastly overmatched in money. But his campaign went old-school, relying on “retail politicking” — personally selling himself to voters to try to make up the gap.

“Sweat equity,” said Tyler Sandberg, Coffman’s campaign manager. “I mean, the congressman’s unparalleled work ethic is the secret weapon. Always has been, always will be.”

Coffman has gained a reputation as one of the hardest-working members of Congress. He regularly wakes up at 4 a.m. to work out and study Spanish before diving into work.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, shows off his 2005 combat boots at a campaign office in Greenwood Village on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018. He wore them when heading out to meet voters. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Last week, after spending hours making phone calls to undecided voters, speaking to a Littleton Rotary club and signing thank-you letters to donors, he headed out to the intersection of South Santa Fe Drive and Mineral Avenue in Littleton, where he stood in his Marine combat boots for two hours in a cold rainstorm, waving at rush-hour traffic.

But this kind of personal investment couldn’t come close to balancing the scales.

At almost the exact same time Sandberg made the “sweat equity” comment, the Michael Bloomberg-backed Everytown for Gun Safety group, pushing for tighter gun regulations, dropped a $700,000 ad buy scheduled for the election’s final week.

Meanwhile, two of the biggest GOP players backing Coffman, the National Republican Congressional Committee and Congressional Leadership Fund, pulled their considerable resources in the final weeks of the race.

“A lot of people would have curled up in the fetal position under a desk after a gut-punch like that,” said Cinamon Watson, a Republican strategist who worked on Coffman’s campaigns in 2014 and 2016.

Outside groups backing Crow far outspent those supporting Coffman. While those numbers are still rolling in, by one estimate the deficit was about $20 million to $8 million.

TV spending on Crow’s behalf alone was at least $10.2 million.

While the battle for the 6th District seat has been expensive before, Coffman had not experienced such a lopsided surge of outside money in his previous re-election bids.

In 2014, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsible Politics, $4 million was spent against Coffman by outside groups while $4.2 million was injected into the race opposing his challenger, Democrat Andrew Romanoff. In 2016, $5.2 million was spent against Coffman by outside groups while $6.4 million was spent opposing Democrat Morgan Carroll.

Campaign fundraising in the district this election cycle was also not in Coffman’s favor where it had leaned his way or been closer before. 

In 2014, Romanoff hauled in more money, but only by about $400,000. In 2016, Coffman outraised Carroll.

Coffman, however, couldn’t compete this year. Crow raised $5.1 million to Coffman’s $3.4 million, according to the latest numbers.

The campaign’s internal polling showed that the unrelenting TV ads run during the contest linking Coffman to Trump resonated with voters.

Crow and outside groups supporting his campaign claimed Coffman aligned with Trump “96 percent of the time,” and the line stuck. When asked about Coffman, people repeated that number.

“I think that’s a cherry-picked number …  and things that everybody would have voted for,” Coffman said. “Pay raises for the troops. Combating the opioid crisis. I think if you say it enough people believe it, but it’s not weighted in any way.”

A year ago, Coffman ran a TV ad critical of Trump. This year he didn’t, in part because he needed support from the Republican voter base.

Republicans also failed to present an effective message against the Democratic candidate. Outside groups tried to paint him as a hypocrite for campaigning for tighter gun laws while his employer, Holland & Hart, lobbied for the gun industry. But Crow didn’t take part in the lobbying and the attack didn’t stick.

Crow did not take part in the lobbying, but because he is a partner at the law firm, he would have received some financial benefit.

From left: U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, and his campaign manager, Tyler Sandberg, at a campaign office in Greenwood Village on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“A referendum on the president”

It wasn’t just lack of money that spelled Coffman’s doom.

The heart of the 6th District, Arapahoe County, became a source of backlash against Trump by white, educated voters and women this year. Although that trend repeated itself in many other suburban congressional districts across the country, Coffman’s territory exemplified it to a greater degree.

No matter how much Coffman tried to distance himself from Trump, it was a tough sell to voters who increasingly disapproved of the president.

Coffman knew it, too.

“I think there will be fewer crossover voters than there were in the past,” Coffman admitted in the twilight of his campaign. “They might say, ‘I like Mike Coffman, but I want a Democrat-controlled House as a check on the president.’ ”

Trump’s approval rating in the district, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll in September, was 37 percent. The survey also found that 54 percent of voters preferred that Democrats retake the U.S. House.

One other prominent number from the poll: The number of voters who supported an assault-weapons ban. It reinforced how potent the issue had become in the race.

Crow’s first TV ad debuted in February and focused on gun violence. It marked a turning point. In prior races, Democrats had approached the issue with caution out of deference to the area’s tragic history. The 6th District is home to the Columbine and Arapahoe school shootings and the Aurora theater shooting.

Crow used the issue to draw a clear policy contrast and received millions of dollars in outside support from like-minded interest groups to reinforce it.

The largest of those donors was Giffords PAC, a group formed by and named after former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who survived a 2011 assassination attempt in a grocery store parking lot. Giffords dumped more than $2 million into the race on Crow’s behalf, more than it spent on any other congressional race in the country.

Throughout the campaign, Coffman touted his work on legislation to expand so-called “red flag laws” and programs similar to Colorado’s Safe2Tell, but they were overshadowed by spot after spot linking him to the National Rifle Association, which didn’t come to his aid this election cycle as it had in the past.

But gun safety proponents recognized an opening.

“What we saw,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the Giffords PAC, “is that the message resonated deeply with voters in his district.”

Democrat Jason Crow, left, talks to voters outside Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Attacks bounced off Jason Crow

Minutes before an Aurora Chamber of Commerce debate between Coffman and Crow last month, Coffman’s campaign manager scurried around a hotel ballroom distributing sheets of paper with information he hoped would land a heavy body blow.

Crow’s law career, the document claimed, had been sanitized: His older official online bio at Holland & Hart mentioned his role representing white-collar criminals. The new one excised that information.

But the tactic never gained traction with voters. Attempts to raise questions about Crow concerning his work as a white-collar criminal lawyer fell flat throughout the campaign. 

“It really is frustrating,” Coffman admitted.

That failure illustrated an essential challenge confronting Coffman’s campaign: On top of the money and Trump, he faced a political newcomer with little to criticize.

Unlike Coffman’s previous three opponents, Crow had no legislative record to attack. In addition, Coffman’s military service no longer set him apart. Crow, too, is a combat veteran with a Bronze Star. 

In retrospect, even the subsequent political slapstick in that Aurora hotel ballroom seemed somehow emblematic of the campaign’s futility: a Crow supporter followed Coffman’s guy around the room, tearing up the detrimental handouts as quickly as they were distributed.

Crow’s biography is one reason he appealed to Democratic strategists. Even the fact he didn’t live in the district didn’t concern them. (Crow moved from Denver to Aurora six months after he entered the race.)

Democrat Jason Crow speaks at a campaign event in Centennial in August 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

He ran a play-it-safe campaign with few mistakes and let Trump do the work for him. Voters driven by the national political atmosphere showed up in droves at Crow’s campaign events, eager for change.  

“It’s all about President Trump,” said Joe Miklosi, the former Democratic lawmaker who lost to Coffman in 2012. “Trump freaks out so many people who are normal.”

As a candidate, though, Crow didn’t excite Lindsay Saperstone, a 33-year-old Democratic voter who lives in Aurora. She backed Crow’s more liberal primary opponent, Levi Tillemann.

She said people she’s talked with felt the same, but the bigger point of the election was to send a message to Trump. Saperstone works with Colorado People’s Action where she’s canvassed on Crow’s behalf. “It’s not because (Crow’s) bad, but there’s a real disillusionment,” Saperstone said after she ran into Crow as he campaigned Saturday at Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace. “With things as bad as they are in Washington, we do need to have a candidate vote against Trump.”

Crow said time and again on the campaign trail that the nation is changed.

“We just looked at the environment we were in,” he said. “We didn’t know how the money was going to turn out in the end. We had no idea 20 months ago. Our approach was: we thought that if we put in the work and we stayed true to our message that would resonate.”

At first, Crow said, there was a pool of naysayers who told him there was no way he could beat Coffman and his deep ties to the district. “But as we progressed, we just stayed focused.”

The district’s voter makeup also favored Crow. Since 2014, more Democrats and unaffiliated voters have moved into the territory, eclipsing Republicans. Where Coffman was able to win crossover voters before, he had to work that much harder this election cycle.

“I do think that this cycle for Coffman was the first time where he had to run a race where he had a president that he had to defend instead of attack,” said Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for the PAC End Citizens United, which lobbies to get big, corporate money out of politics. “This is the first time that Mike Coffman faced a strong candidate in a good year for Democrats. I think you needed both, and I think this is the first time he’s had both.”

End Citizens United spent $1 million in the race on Crow’s behalf, part of a concerted national effort from Democratic-minded groups to capture the seat for the long-term.

“For some, that seat has kind of been like a white whale,” said Bozzi, who was a longtime spokesman for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. “I do think that now if you win it, it should be a seat you can protect. And then you go into redistricting and maybe it even gets safer.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, third from right, poses for a photos outside of St. Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Aurora in July. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“I’ve done other things, too, with my life,”

Shortly before Election Day, a television reporter asked Coffman what he would do if he lost.

“I’ve done other things, too, with my life,” Coffman said. “I (had) a 17-year business career when I was in the state legislature. I had a career in the military.”

The fact of the matter, though, is that Coffman’s career in public office is what defines him. The 63-year-old is recently divorced from outgoing Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and has no children. He has invested almost every moment of the past decade in his congressional work.

When he first ran for Congress in 2008, his district was a safe seat held by Republican firebrand Tom Tancredo.

But when the district’s lines were redrawn ahead of the 2012 election cycle, Coffman suddenly needed to gain the confidence an increasingly diverse electorate that included a mosaic of foreign-born residents. He threw himself into the job of learning to represent the reconstituted district.

“It was just so alien to me,” he said.

After surviving a close shave in the run against Miklosi that year, even as President Barack Obama won in the district, Coffman was able to win over many of his immigrant constituents, which helped propel him to victory in 2014 and 2016.

“It’s one thing to read about it in the paper,” Coffman said of how his views on immigration changed when the district was redrawn. “It’s another thing to sit across from a person and hear them tell you their story. What I understand now that I didn’t understand then is: give them a chance to come out of the shadows.”

Mike Coffman. (Handout)

It’s part of a political transformation that happened over three decades. Coffman began his public life in 1989 in the state House and went on to become a state senator. Then he won election as treasurer and secretary of state. As those close to him say: “He’s like a shark. If he doesn’t keep moving, he dies.”

Perhaps that could fuel a run to reclaim his lost political turf, in whatever form it takes after another round of redistricting in 2020. If that should happen, Colorado might hear a familiar bipartisan refrain: Never count Mike Coffman out.

“When Mike decided to run for Congress I pointed out to him how much he hates to get on an airplane and go anywhere,” said Cynthia Coffman, who remains close with her ex-husband. “He doesn’t like to travel, but he chose to run for Congress and to make that trip every week because it meant so much to him to be able to serve the state and Washington.”

Cynthia Coffman says that anecdote is the perfect example of how Mike viewed his work in public service: as a sacrifice worth making.

“I think Mike has literally made a career and a life out of serving others,” she said. “And I think he, and everyone who is reflecting on his career, should think about that kind of commitment and how rare it is that someone is willing to give three decades of their life to one profession, to one goal, which is to serve the public well.”

Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.

Update: This story was updated at 9:10 p.m. on Nov. 7, 2018, to correct a reporter’s error in a quote from Lindsay Saperstone. She said: “With things as bad as they are in Washington, we do need to have a candidate vote against Trump.”

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....