Man on a wire: Rep. Mike Coffman’s political balancing act

(Above image courtesy of Coffman.house.gov)

There are two kinds of swimmers at the beach: those who can ride the waves to shore, and those who fight the tide and wind up with a mouth full of saltwater. Politically speaking, Mike Coffman is the first type. 

As the Representative to Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, Coffman has faced tougher challenges than almost any politician in the state, and many in the country. He represents a battleground district in a swing state, where Democrats are willing to put up a major fight in hopes of tipping the political balance.

In spite of these challenges, or maybe because he’s learned from them, Coffman seems to be made of Teflon. Every two years Democrats deliver a stronger, more popular and better-funded challenger, and every two years Coffman deflects their attacks and returns to his seat. This election was business as usual, except for a major presidential twist.

After defeating Democratic challenger Morgan Carroll in his fiercest race yet, Coffman took the stage for his acceptance speech only to be booed by supporters of his own party’s presidential nominee. It’s a surreal situation for any politician to be in, and it’s easy to imagine Coffman thinking to himself, how did I get here? 

District 6 wasn’t always a political battleground.

Since its creation in 1983, District 6 has elected white, male, middle-aged Republicans across the board. The district’s voters, in large part, consisted of white, middle-class men and women living in the Denver suburbs.

Coffman began his first term serving the district in 2008, taking the helm from Tom Tancredo, who was known for his strict anti-immigration policies.

 A former Marine who’d served in lower offices and just finished a tour in Iraq, Coffman fit right in. He was more moderate than Tancredo, but shared some of his anti-immigration policies.

 Early on, Coffman was an outspoken critic of President Obama’s DREAM Act, which offered a pathway to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants. In 2011, he proposed a repeal of part of the Voting Rights Act, which allows for the distribution of bilingual ballads to minority communities. Defending his position, Coffman committed one of his worst political gaffs, saying minority voters ought to, “…pull out a dictionary when they are at home.”

 For a while, none of these positions posed much of a problem for Coffman. Then, in 2012, his district transformed.

Redistricting completely changed the ethnic and political makeup of District 6. Counties like Douglas and Elbert, which served as Republican strongholds, were cut out. Meanwhile, Arapaho County, which includes the city of Aurora, was pulled into the district. This redrawing left Coffman in charge of one of the state’s largest Hispanic communities.

The representative responded by signing up for Spanish lessons and meeting with various groups within the district’s diverse new minority community. Before long, Coffman’s policies began to shift as well.

In 2013, Coffman introduced the Military Enlistment Opportunity Act, aimed at giving immigrant children who served in the U.S. military a path toward citizenship.

 The following year, in 2014, Coffman faced off with popular Democratic challenger and former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives Andrew Romanoff. Coffman, the same man who once said minority voters should pick up a dictionary, conducted a full debate with Romanoff in Spanish, and what some predicted would be a to-the-wire race wound up as a dramatic win for Coffman.

Despite all the attention Coffman’s transformation on minority issues earned him, it was his suburban Republican base, in large part, who helped him secure another term, said Joseph Zamadics, a University of Colorado graduate student who wrote about Coffman and Romanoff’s 2014 race in the book, “The Roads to Congress 2014.” If everyone would have showed up to vote that year, Zamadics said, “things would have looked a lot different.”

 Still, it’s hard to imagine that Coffman’s push toward the center on immigration issues didn’t help him with his 2014 re-election. This year, however, Coffman’s tactics may have caused some complications for the representative’s future.

 While the 2014 election was all about Coffman and Romanoff, 2016 was a coattails race.

This year, Coffman faced a truly worthy opponent in Carroll, during a truly unique presidential election. 

Carroll, who served in the State House before becoming minority leader of the Colorado State Senate, had a strong following in Aurora and powerful supporters to back her.

Her political ads featured the likes of President Obama. In addition, Democratic Party candidate Bernie Sanders helped her raise funds and held stump speeches on her behalf. She came close to matching Coffman in campaign funds in one of the 10 most expensive House races in the country, despite the fact that the billionaire Koch brothers backed Coffman. 

Carroll’s mantra throughout the campaign was that Coffman “stood with Trump,” referring to the Republican Party’s nominee, Donald Trump.

 She dug up Coffman’s old voting records and replayed his comments about pulling out a dictionary to try and prove that Coffman wasn’t the changed man voters kept hearing about. In attack ads, Carroll featured clips of Trump’s most outlandish comments beside images of her opponent.

Coffman countered with an ad, produced in English and Spanish, in which he spoke out against his own party’s candidate saying, “People ask me, ‘What do you think about Trump?’ Honestly, I don’t care for him much.” While Carroll hammered Coffman on standing with Trump, Coffman promised to stand up to him. 

Ultimately, Coffman never endorsed Trump, and after footage of Trump making lewd remarks about women rocked the presidential race about a month before Election Day, Coffman urged the candidate to step aside. His remarks made it clear that he wasn’t expecting a Trump victory.

“For the good of the country, and to give the Republicans a chance of defeating Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump should step aside,” Coffman wrote in a statement to The Denver Post. “His defeat at this point seems almost certain and four years of Hillary Clinton is not what is best for this country.”

Fast forward to Nov. 8, when celebrating Trump supporters booed Coffman at his own acceptance speech.

Trump’s victory means that Coffman’s fifth term may be his most complicated yet.

Coffman is in a peculiar situation these days. His own party gained control of the Executive and Legislative branches on the promise of harsh anti-immigration policies, yet there he is, releasing ads to his voters in Spanish. On top of this, president-elect Trump is not known for being one to forgive and forget, and Coffman was one of his most outspoken Republican critics.

Whether Coffman remains moderate on immigration or moves further to the right to suit his party will likely depend on his long-term goals, said Josalyn Williams, a CU graduate student who studies American politics and has followed Coffman’s run.

 If Coffman aspires to a higher office, Williams said, he may mold himself to work well with his Washington, D.C. colleagues. On the other hand, if his goal is to remain in his current seat, he’ll need to continue pleasing his diverse voting base.

Zamadics predicts Coffman would likely vote in favor of legislation to build a border wall, but that legislation addressing actual deportation of immigrants would put Coffman in an awkward position.

Realistically, it’s Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) who Coffman should worry about, Zamadics said.

Ryan has the power to act as a filter for legislation passed down from Trump, Zamadics said. In his role, he could potentially protect representatives like Coffman from controversial votes.

“Ryan can anticipate, ‘I don’t want some of these bills coming to the floor because it’s going to hurt members like Mike Coffman – I don’t want Mike Coffman to have to vote on this because he will loose District 6 and that is a seat Republicans will be down in 2018,’” Zamadics said. “It will be interesting to see how much guarding Ryan does.”

For now, some of Coffman’s most vulnerable immigrant constituents will have to take him at his word that he will, in fact, stand up to the President-elect.  

 

 

 

 

 

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