Colorado’s 6th Congressional District is once again a key target in the Democratic effort to wrest control of the House of Representatives from Republicans this November.
Democrats are trying for the fourth time to unseat Republican Rep. Mike Coffman from a district that was redrawn in 2012. It’s a goal that has eluded Democrats for years, even as the demographics have become more favorable. Now that Donald Trump is president, political operatives on both sides of the aisle see the district as even more vulnerable.
“We’re just running our own race,” said Coffman, who is known to keep a fast-paced schedule in the community. “I’ve had the ability to establish a brand within the district that transcends being a Republican.”
He’ll need that constituent investment if he expects to win while following the playbook he’s used in past elections to reach out to Democrats and moderate voters.
The 6th Congressional District spans the eastern part of the Denver metro, including Aurora, the state’s third-largest city. It’s younger and more diverse that the state as a whole and has more African and Asian immigrants. In 2016, candidate Hillary Clinton won by 9 points over President Donald Trump.
Coffman won the 6th by 8 over Democratic challenger, and now state Democratic party chair, Morgan Carroll.
Aurora college student Shubheksha Shrestha said Coffman has always been visible in the community. She is one of those crossover voters. Shrestha is unaffiliated but leans Democratic. In 2016, she first supported Bernie Sanders and then voted for Clinton. She also backed Coffman that year and plans to continue supporting him.
“He’s always trying to help the community as best as his ability,” she said.
Shrestha, whose parents are from Nepal, recently met Coffman during his visit to the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of the Rockies in Centennial. The congressman’s visit coincided with the center’s prana pratishta ceremonial celebration. She said the President’s family separation policy was reminiscent of how the U.S. treated the Japanese during World War II.
“I wish there was more education around a lot of stuff that’s happened historically, whether that’s Colorado history or U.S. It feels like some of the history is being repeated. I feel like if we were aware of a certain part of our history, so we don’t repeat the same history again and again.”
Will Voters Still Distinguish Coffman from Trump?
Rep. Coffman didn’t vote for Trump and has pushed back against the president most strongly on immigration, opposing the family separation policy at the Mexican border and backing a version of DACA. Earlier this year, Coffman passed a House resolution aimed at protecting human rights in Ethiopia.
For his critics, though, it’s all talk and no action.
“He will introduce bills that on the surface look like they are distinguishing him from other Republicans, but in reality, after he gets positive press from introducing something, he never follows up, he never pursues it, it never sees the light of day,” said Carroll, the head of the Colorado Democratic party.
Coffman weathered comparisons to Trump in his 2016 race against Carroll, and it’s something he thinks he can do again — especially since Colorado is such a highly educated state, said Coffman’s campaign manager Tyler Sandberg.
“I think because of that, we fundamentally believe in the Coffman campaign that voters are going to take a very thoughtful approach to the ballot,” he said. “They’re not just going to vote for one party or the other.”
A New Challenger
This campaign will be the first time that Coffman has run against a veteran.
The Democrat’s chosen challenger is first-time candidate, attorney Jason Crow. He’s an army ranger and like Coffman, a combat veteran.
Former GOP state party head Ryan Call, who lives in the southern part of the 6th Congressional District, believes Crow’s military background could pose a challenge.
“I think Mike needs to really do a better job of informing people what he has been doing to support members of our military and especially our veterans. When he was running against other candidates it was enough to let people know he was a marine and a veteran and that’s it,” Call said.
Crow plans to focus his campaign on local issues such as affordable housing, health care, guns and environmental policy, while also pledging to provide a check on the president.
“Having Donald Trump do what he’s doing is one thing but having a Congress and folks like Mike Coffman that are just sitting back and allowing him to do it and supporting him, is another very troubling aspect of this,” Crow said.
It’s a common theme that he said he hears from voters.
“It comes up a lot. People are very troubled.”
A Shifting District
Over the years, the district has become increasingly more favorable to Democrats. However, it’s been suggested before that those trends would work against Coffman and he has so far repeatedly overcome it.
The 6th Congressional was solidly Republican when Coffman first won the 2008 election after immigration hardliner Tom Tancredo vacated it. The district was redrawn into a competitive seat after the Census and in 2012, Coffman defeated Democratic state lawmaker Joe Miklosi in a close race. In 2014, he widened his margin against former Democratic Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff to 9 percentage points. In 2016, Carroll was pushed aside by 8 points.
The most recent figures from the Secretary of State’s office show both Democrats and unaffiliated voters outpacing Republicans. Both sides see 2018 as a possible nail-biter.
“I’m concerned that people will buy into the blue wave and think it’s going to happen. ‘It’s a midterm and we’ll be OK without my involvement or my vote,’” said Democrat T.A. Taylor-Hunt, an attorney who calls Aurora home and a retired Air Force officer.
Unaffiliated voter Maite Wantwadi recently attended a breakfast with candidate Jason Crow that was sponsored by the NAACP and Emerge Colorado, which seeks to elect more women to office. True to the changing makeup of the district, she’s active in the Congolese community and is a teacher.
She also hasn’t decided who she will vote for yet.
Wantwadi agrees with ideas from both parties and spoke to Crow about education and making sure all children have opportunities to succeed.
“That’s where my passion is,” she said. “I work in teaching financial education to youth. Entrepreneurship is also a huge thing of mine. I work a lot with lower income populations.”
Attracting people unhappy with Trump as well as split-ticket voters will be critical for Democrats. Increasing Crow’s name recognition in the district will also be important.
It’s safe to say winning this seat will come with a hefty price tag, from millions spent on the campaign, to debates and voter outreach. For now, it stands as Colorado’s only competitive House seat, and one of the roughly two dozen Clinton districts held by Republicans that if Democrats could flip, would give them control of the House.
This story is part of CPR’s Road Trip to November coverage. Our reporters and producers are traveling around the state to hear what is on people’s minds ahead of the upcoming election. You’ll see more of these stories in the weeks to come.