A year ago at this time, the battle for the 6th Congressional District drew national attention and big money as a top-tier swing district in the fight for control of the U.S. House.
Jason Crow won that race by defeating five-term Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, making him the first Democrat elected to hold the seat since its creation in 1983 and helping to put his party in power in Washington.
Now the race in the Aurora-centric district is barely registering on the political radar, with all indications suggesting Democrats can hold the seat. Two leading national political analysts label the seat as “safe Democratic” and a third rates the district as “likely Democratic.”
“It will be very difficult for any Republican to win the 6th CD in 2020,” said Dick Wadhams, a Republican political consultant and the former state party chairman.
Still, Republicans plan to make it a fight.
Steve House, the former chairman of the state Republican Party, announced his candidacy for the 6th District on Tuesday. He is the first prominent Republican candidate to enter the race. Others also are weighing bids.
The stakes extend outside the district’s borders as Republican strategists see the race as crucial to their fortunes in other major contests, including the reelection of U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and retaking control of the state Senate.
The district “is a major population center and a very swing area, so how a Republican congressional candidate does may reflect how well Cory Gardner does statewide. On top of that, our top two most competitive state Senate races are within that district,” said Ryan Lynch, a GOP strategist in Colorado. “I think it’s extremely important … in terms of energizing voters, improving turnout and perhaps attracting middle-moderate voters to the ticket.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee plans to target the race again in 2020 and believes it’s the kind of district it needs to win to retake control of the U.S. House.
“It’s the kind of seat we think we can win back,” said Bob Salera, an NRCC spokesman. “Jason Crow is probably too liberal for what is essentially a swingy district that is evenly divided. We think he has gone too far out on a limb on a lot of issues that are important to the district.”
In an interview, House said he can appeal to the middle-of-the-road voter who determines elections in the diverse district that includes large immigrant populations and stretches like a backwards “C” around Denver’s eastern flank.
“I think the unaffiliated (voters) are going to decide it,” House said, pointing to the district’s past penchant for ticket-splitting between major parties. “I think we, as Republicans, need to be able to debate any type of issue.”
House points to health care as top issue in his bid
The 58-year-old House is a health care consultant who lives in Brighton. He most recently served as the state party’s chief executive officer until late August, working under U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, the current chairman. House served as the party’s leader for two years starting in 2015 and ran unsuccessfully for the party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2014.
In his campaign, House said his two top issues will be health care and immigration. “I have this wonderful passionate side of me … that believes America is on the threshold of the greatest decade-and-a-half in our history, and there’s all these amazing things coming to solve,” issues such as health care, immigration and the environment, he said.
When it comes to health care, House said repealing the Affordable Care Act is “not necessarily the first step.” He also supports allowing immigrant children in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to find a path to citizenship, even though he said he doesn’t support amnesty policies.
More broadly, House believes government is not looking forward enough and is too divisive to make needed changes, saying the “government is operating way too much in the past — they are still fighting over 2016.”
He found himself in the center of the contentious 2016 election when U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz claimed all the state’s 2016 party delegates and then-candidate Donald Trump cried foul about the party’s caucus process.
House, then the party chairman, became the target of threats from Trump supporters, but he doesn’t blame the president, whom he supports. “I want the president to be successful and I think all Americans should want the president to be successful,” he said.
Earlier in his tenure at the party helm, House became embroiled in a controversy in which Republican leaders including former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman accused him of having an extramarital affair. House initially suggested he would step down, but then reversed course and said he wouldn’t be coerced. He denies the charges of infidelity.
To face Crow, House must first win a party primary. Casper Stockham, who lost two prior bids against Democrat U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette in Colorado’s 1st Congressional District, is a declared candidate in the 6th District race.
MORE: How Donald Trump, guns and cash spelled an end to Mike Coffman’s decade in Congress
In first test as incumbent, Jason Crow looks to hold the seat
Democrats are preparing for the challenge. The district is on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s watch list, and Crow is raising large sums to defend his turf. The first-year lawmaker reported $797,000 in the bank at the end of June after raising $921,000 since January, according to federal campaign finance reports.
In his first eight months, Crow has emphasized the need for tougher gun laws and demanded more accountability from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has a detention facility in the district. His campaign would not answer questions about his reelection bid.
So far, the outside organizations that pumped millions into the race to help Crow are pleased with his work and primed to support him again.
“Jason Crow has been a gun-sense champion and we stand ready to help him win reelection in 2020,” said Andrew Zucker, a spokesman for Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that backs tougher gun laws.
“He ran on these issues that are central to our organization, to fixing Washington and reforming our democracy and making Washington work for people. And he’s kept his promises since he was elected,” added Adam Bozzi with End Citizens United, a group pushing for a campaign finance overhaul.
Even though it’s early, Bozzi said Crow’s reelection is “going to be a top priority for us next year. Whether or not he needs help is the question, and that’s what we’ll see over the next nine or 12 months.”
Joe Miklosi, a former Democratic state lawmaker who lost his 6th District bid in 2012, said the party’s 2020 prospects are “a testament to how steady Jason Crow has been in office.” But he said Democrats can’t get distracted.
“I still view it as a competitive purple district and Jason’s a perfect fit for that because he’s an Army veteran, an attorney, a family man. He’s fits the demographics of the district well,” said Miklosi, who now works as a political and business consultant.
MORE: Three graphics that explain the 2018 election and Colorado’s political future
Republicans not bullish on 2020 in the 6th District
Even though it was a competitive district, Crow won by 11 percentage points in 2018 after national Republicans threw in the towel weeks before Election Day. Coffman held the seat for 10 years and survived tough political fights for years.
The larger-than-expected margin came in part because of the strong Democratic tide against Trump. And the president is unpopular in the district, which he lost by 9 percentage points to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 even as Coffman won convincingly.
Republicans hope the electoral dynamic is different in 2020, when voters can weigh the presidential race independently from the rest of the Republican ticket. The party’s strategists suggest the best candidate is one who can reach across the aisle and appeal to the diverse communities in the district, particularly in Aurora.
“Crow really won on this wave, so he hasn’t been tested on his merits. 2020 will be the first test for that,” said Tyler Sandberg, who managed Coffman’s campaign in 2018. But he added, “Trump’s shadow will loom large.”
Sandberg doesn’t think House or Stockham can beat the incumbent, but the question is whether they “can prosecute the case against Crow, so he doesn’t get a free pass.”
“I think that’s what this cycle represents — holding Crow accountable,” he said.