U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman won 65.7 percent of the vote in his first Colorado Congressional District Six reelection campaign two years ago. It’s likely to be quite a bit closer this time.
Before Coffman, the district was represented by far-right anti-illegal immigration crusader Tom Tancredo. It was the sort of solid Republican district Coffman could have held forever, or at least until he was ready to retire or take a run at even higher office.
Like Tancredo, Coffman used his safe seat like a pulpit, speaking his mind without concern for how his views would play in the next election.
Then the 2010 census came out and the state’s congressional map was redrawn. In the old Sixth District, John McCain won with a 6 percent margin over then-candidate Barack Obama–this coming in a state that Obama carried by 9 points. Voters drawn into the new Sixth District went for Obama by more than 8 percent.
Altogether, 29 percent of current Sixth District voters were in other districts for the 2010 election, with the bulk of those coming from CD-7, which is represented by Democrat Ed Perlmutter, and which gave Obama a 19 point margin in 2008.
The Sixth District’s Latino population has gone from 9 percent to 20 percent. And the district has gone from 42 percent Republican and 26 percent Democrat to a more modest and more typically representative of the state Republican advantage of 34-33.
Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy, who served as a Republican appointee to the state legislative Reapportionment Committee, told the Colorado Independent last year that Coffman would move to the center in order to compete in his new district.
“I will go ahead and confidently predict that Coffman’s politics will change,” he said, laughing. “That’s what politicians do. They’re very good at that. They change when their constituencies expand– when, for example, they move from a state office to a federal office. Well, in effect, that’s what has happened to Coffman. His constituency has vastly expanded.”
Loevy estimated that the number of voters who will now decide who represents the 6th District in Washington has jumped six fold.
“Instead of appealing to a small group of activist Republican primary voters, Coffman now has to appeal to a large number of more moderate Republican general election voters and to the large number of unaffiliated voters who now hold the balance of power in that district.”
But now, on what he had thought was Coffman’s likely move to the middle, Loevy says he was wrong. Coffman does not seem to have taken much of a step toward the middle, Loevy told the Independent by phone. Since redistricting became official, Coffman has been as outspoken as ever.
He still opposes abortion, but he no longer talks about it much. He still supports Official English legislation and English-only voter ballots. He still opposes gay marriage. His congressional web site contains this statement: “Marriage is the union of a man and a woman. The life of the unborn must be protected.”
“He had a record and didn’t want to be accused of switching sides. That’s Mike Coffman,” Loevy said. “He’s a conservative. He may have knocked some of the sharp edges off but he’s saying ‘I’m Mike Coffman and this is who I am.’”
Loevy believes Coffman may be counting on the power of incumbency to keep him in office. “He has some good reasons for not going overly far toward the middle,” Loevy said.
Arapahoe County Republican Chair Joy Hoffman thinks Coffman’s undiluted conservative campaign is a good thing. “It would be disingenuous to shift positions because of redistricting,” she told the Independent. “It would have been dishonest.” Hoffman thinks the district might be more conservative than voter registration numbers indicate.
“The district includes Buckley (Air Force Base) and also includes a lot of people who used to be at Buckley. There are also a lot of older people who are registered Democrats but have become more conservative as they’ve gotten older, but haven’t changed their registration.” she said.
John Buckley, Democratic Party chair for Arapahoe County, says that, if anything, Coffman has moved further to the right since redistricting.
“I have not seen any evidence that Coffman has made any move to the middle. The Tea Party caucus has taken control of the Republican Party.”
Buckley said Coffman has seemed to ignore voters in Aurora, which now makes up a large part of the district. “I think he is running scared from Aurora voters,” he said.
Numerous progressive groups have made the point that Coffman is not holding public events, especially not in Aurora. Coffman told the Denver Post it was hard to hold public events because when he does he is hounded by these same groups. He told the Post he would answer any questions submitted by constituents to firstname.lastname@example.org. He did not respond to questions we submitted to that address, nor did his staff return two phone calls.
“I don’t think he represents this district anymore,” said Ellen Belef, an Aurora civic activist who moved from Perlmutter’s CD 7 to Coffman’s CD 6 as a result of redistricting. “Coffman is not mainstream in this new district. His views are way out there on so many things.”
Buckley said he likes Coffman challenger Democratic state Rep. Joe Miklosi’s chances.
“I’ve watched him since he first set foot in this race, and I’ve never seen a candidate work harder. He’s hosting town hall meetings and knocking on doors personally. He’s doing everything he needs to do to win.”
The Latino Vote
In the current Congress–and since redistricting–Coffman was one of the cosponsors of a bill, offered practically every session, to make English the official language of the United States. In a similar vein, he has worked to repeal laws that require county clerks to sometimes provide ballots in languages other than English. His most recent effort in that vein came right before redistricting became final but after the lines were drawn.
He has also gone out of his way to praise Tancredo.
“I have to recognize my predecessor, Congressman Tom Tancredo. You know, having been in Washington for the three years–going on the fourth, I can tell you that when I look at the history of post-World War II America, no member of Congress has fought harder to defend and secure our borders more than Tom Tancredo. And thank you so much, Tom. Thank you,” he said at a meeting this August, as reported by blogsite ColoradoPols, which has audio of the remarks here.
Miklosi opposes the Tancredo-Coffman-style hardline against immigration reform.
“I support the DREAM Act, so that these young kids can help contribute to our economy once they are educated. I believe in responsible immigration reform,” Miklosi said.
“We don’t feel Congressman Coffman represents his district as it’s been redrawn,” said Corrnie Fowler of Colorado Progressive Action. “The district is heavily Latino today. Coffman has been against the DREAM Act. He’s voted to make English the official language of the United States, which is very troubling to us. He’s out of touch with the district.”
In past years, Coffman has taken a no-exceptions position on abortion. This year, his campaign says he is pro life, but that is all they will say. Miklosi is pro-choice.
In 2008 and 2010, Coffman supported personhood measures which would outlaw abortion in all cases, including rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. This election cycle, Coffman refused to take a position on personhood, which ultimately failed to make the ballot.
Coffman has begged off discussing personhood by saying he was running for federal office and that personhood was heading only to the state ballot.
Coffman carries a “zero” rating on support for women’s health from Planned Parenthood Action. His current campaign website makes no mention of his views on abortion.
When the Independent called and asked for the campaign spokesman, our calls were not returned. Finally, we called, did not identify ourselves and simply asked the staffer who answered the phone, “What is Rep. Coffman’s position on abortion?” We were told, “He is pro life, however, he wants to focus on energy, jobs and the economy.” When asked if he had any exceptions to his pro-life position, we were told, “He has not issued a statement but he really does not want to focus on social issues.”
Coffman had no such reservations in past years. When Coffman appeared on Dan Caplis’s radio show in 2008, he apparently misstated his position and then wrote Caplis a letter to make sure his stance was known:
“Dan, I would deeply appreciate it if, during your show, you could state that I wanted to make sure that my position was clear, unequivocally, that I oppose abortion in all cases of rape and incest. I believe that all life is equally sacred irregardless of how it came into being.”
Miklosi told the Independent that he fully supports “a woman’s right to choose.”
“I support women’s health freedoms,” he said. “I want to make abortions safe, legal and rare. My opponent supports the radical personhood amendment that would outlaw certain forms of birth control and even outlaw abortion for rape and incest victims. That is disgusting and inhumane,” he said.
“Coffman’s support for personhood is clearly not representative of the district,” Buckley added.
“His views on abortion are anti-woman,” agreed Belef, who is co-chair of We Are Women Colorado. “Women don’t use abortion as birth control. The decision to have an abortion is usually pondered long and hard,” she said.
She said Perlmutter represented her old district well, with many public meetings. She added that both her state representative and state senator also have frequent meetings in the district.
“If he (Coffman) wants to represent the district, he needs to be in touch. All of my calls and emails go unreturned,” she said.
Prior to redistricting, Coffman voted against repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which prohibited gay soldiers from serving openly, and he was a cosponsor of a measure to define marriage as only a union between a man and a woman. Today, his stands on these issues are absent from his campaign website.
“I believe God made us all who we are, and I believe that gay and lesbian people should have the same rights as straight people,” Miklosi said, adding that treating people differently because of their sexual orientation is “very inhumane and unfair.”
“The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell strengthened our military. Coffman was flat wrong on that. Most of the people joining the military today are younger and they believe in equality. Coffman is just behind the times,” he said.
Like President Obama and many others, Coffman says he embraces an “all of the above” energy policy, but since redistricting, Coffman has voted to roll back energy efficiency standards and even to stop the military from aggressively pursuing strategies that could reduce its reliance on oil, which is often difficult and dangerous to procure in war zones.
“Our troops are in great danger when they are transporting fuel into war zones,” Reppenhagen said. “We need more renewables in the military just to keep soldiers safe.”
Miklosi said he would work to “help make Colorado the renewable energy capital of the United States.”
In a newsletter emailed to supporters and constituents Aug. 31, Coffman wrote that it may be time for the country to consider only subsidizing college programs that lead directly to employment in related fields.
“I think it is time to question whether a significant number of the majors taught at undergraduate institutions are a good investment. This relates to the taxpayers, who subsidize the cost of higher education by either bearing part of the cost at public institutions, or by subsidizing loan programs at private ones. Graduates, with liberal arts degrees, often find entry level jobs that are little better than what they would have gotten had they never attended college in the first place.
“The question needs to be raised, during such challenging fiscal environments for both states and the federal government, whether taxpayers should only be subsidizing majors, or curriculums, that directly lead to employment in technically a related field.”
“That just shows a lack of perspective on the diversity of education and how different degrees can empower people to obtain the positions they earn later in life,” Miklosi said.
The things he says
Taking another page out of the Tancredo playbook, Coffman recently has gained attention for speaking off the cuff in strident tones.
At a fundraiser in May, he took up a question from a so-called birther member of the audience. Coffman said he didn’t know whether Obama was born in the United States. “But I do know this,” he added, “that in his heart, he’s not an American. He’s just not an American.”
Video of his remarks ran first on 9 News and then virtually everywhere. Coffman then said he believed the president was a natural born citizen but he stuck to his guns on the rest, at least sort of. Confronted by the media, he seemed trapped between not wanting to fully retract what he said and not wanting to repeat it.
“I stand by my statement that I misspoke and I apologize,” he repeated to a series of 9 News questions on the topic. The sentence became a gagline for Miklosi and for Colorado’s progressive community.
Later, speaking to another friendly crowd, Coffman said he expected Obama to pull some sort of “October surprise” — a military action designed to cause Americans to rally around the president as Election Day draws near.
“It sound like he’s Colorado’s version of Rush Limbaugh, not a member of Congress. From calling our president unamerican–and with his military career, he should know better–to the October surprise comments to his personhood comments, those are not becoming of a member of congress,” Miklosi told the Independent.
Buckley said Coffman does not do the district or the state proud when he questions Obama’s patriotism. “When he says the president is not an American, that is not representative of the people of this district. It is not representative of anyone, frankly.”
Reppenhagen said comments like Coffman has made lately are “beneath the office. Obama brought Bin Laden to justice,” he said. “We absolutely don’t have any reason to believe that there’s any October surprise. A president that got us out of Iraq and is getting us out of Afghanistan is not going to get us into a war,” Reppenhagen said later by email.
Loevy says Coffman’s chances have been improved by a tightening presidential race. “For a while it looked like an Obama blowout and a Democratic sweep, but now it looks like a much tighter race at the top and that helps all Republicans running. You have to understand that the Democrats didn’t turn CD 6 into a Democratic district; they turned it into a competitive district,” he said.