AURORA | Colorado Democrats envisioned a new congressional district outside Denver that would give the incumbent Republican a rockier road to re-election. So far, those redistricting plans have worked better than Democrats could have hoped, with two-term Rep. Mike Coffman facing the fight of his political career.
Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, once so Republican-leaning that Democrats fielded only nominal opposition, has shed some of its most conservative turf and picked up precincts in Aurora. The result is a district that’s divided about evenly among Republicans, Democrats and independents — with a congressional campaign that’s as bumpy as any in the state.
The once-sleepy district has taken a turn for the dramatic — partly because of Coffman missteps, and partly because the congressional district now figures largely in the national political landscape.
Coffman rolled up big margins after he was elected to replace the retiring Rep. Tom Tancredo in 2008. A former secretary of state with extensive military experience, Coffman avoided controversy and made a quieter replacement for the outspoken Tancredo.
The congressman seemed poised for a third term even after the court-approved redistricting plan gave him a newly competitive district. The district’s new turf is in Aurora, Coffman’s hometown. And Coffman’s Democratic opposition is a state lawmaker with just two terms in the state House, Denver Rep. Joe Miklosi, who didn’t even live in the 6th District when he started the campaign.
Coffman started making things interesting last summer when he introduced a bill in Congress to end requirements for ballots in languages other than English. Though Coffman’s new district wasn’t set, the proposal was curious for a lawmaker facing the prospect of a Latino constituency that more than doubled under the redistricting plan. The Colorado Latino Forum blasted the idea, which didn’t become law.
The congressman saw more heat this May, when he questioned the citizenship of Democratic President Barack Obama.
“I don’t know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States of America. I don’t know that,” Coffman told a GOP fundraiser. “But I do know this, that in his heart, he’s not an American. He’s just not an American.”
The remark gained national attention and prompted Coffman to repeatedly apologize and write a mea culpa for The Denver Post calling his comment “boneheaded.” Miklosi said the remark was more fitting from conservative talk radio than from a member of Congress. Just this week Coffman backpedaled after the website BuzzFeed reported that the Obama remark had been briefly scrubbed from Coffman’s Wikipedia entry.
The other factor making the 6th District a race to watch is its role in national politics. Both presidential campaigns are working furiously to court voters in Arapahoe and Jefferson counties, and the district also plays an outsize role in Democrats’ hopes to gain the 25 seats needed for a majority in the U.S. House.
“If Democrats are going to take the House back, the 6th District in Colorado has got to be one of those they pick up,” said Floyd Ciruli, a nonpartisan pollster in Denver.
Miklosi’s donor rolls underscore the point. He’s raised much less money than Coffman, about $640,000 to Coffman’s $2.2 million at the end of June. But Miklosi’s donors show national Democratic interest in the seat. Miklosi contributions have come from several national unions and from political action committees connected to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.
Miklosi is also benefiting from the Colorado chapter of the Fair Share Alliance, a left-leaning activist group affiliated with the Occupy movement. The Colorado chapter set up shop in Aurora, and members have poked at Coffman by visiting his campaign offices and a golf course near his house for satiric “Where’s Mike?” videos posted online.
Miklosi insists he isn’t running simply to pick off an incumbent. He says his blue-collar background, as the son of a waitress and a schoolteacher, combined with his interest in economic development makes him a good choice for fresh energy in an unpopular Congress.
“A lot of Americans are seeing the American dream disappear, and I still believe it exists, for the working poor and the middle class, and I think we can all rise up the economic ladder together, not just a select few,” Miklosi said in a recent interview at his Aurora campaign headquarters.
Miklosi’s campaign slogan is the same he used to run for the state Legislature — “Not Your Average Joe!”
Miklosi’s campaign planks include pushing for a national renewable energy standard, an unpopular idea among conservatives but one Miklosi believes would create clean-energy jobs. Miklosi also wants to see the federal government adopt contracting preferences for domestic goods and services (Miklosi sponsored a similar idea in the state Legislature, but the idea was rejected by the Republican-led House).
Coffman is banking on his solid GOP credentials opposing government spending and calling for lower taxes to appeal hang on to his seat. He voted against the new federal health care law, and is one of the few Republicans who talk about cutting spending even in national defense. On a recent visit to an assisted-living facility in Highlands Ranch, Coffman talked up his military background and his efforts in Washington to reduce the national deficit.
After talking with the elderly voters for about an hour, Coffman shook hands with longtime constituents and smiled when asked if he’s in danger of losing his seat.
“I’ve never lost this district, and so I’m pretty confident,” Coffman said.