In a swath of suburban Denver, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman survived a redrawing of his district's map seven years ago that brought more ethnic diversity into electoral play.
A few years later, he fended off a challenge by a former state House speaker. Next, he kept a former state Senate leader at bay, cruising to victory in 2016 even as district voters supported Hillary Clinton by a wide margin.
In a district known for the deep immigrant culture in Aurora, Coffman had appeared near-invincible, but his hold on the seat ended with the Nov. 6 election. And the five-term congressman's kryptonite, political analysts say, may have been President Donald Trump.
“No other Republican could have won and held onto that district like Mike did,” said Dick Wadhams, political strategist and former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. “But this time the anti-Trump sentiment was just too deep, too strong.”
Coffman has clashed with Trump more than a few times, and the president expressed little concern for the congressman's downfall.
“Too bad, Mike,” Trump said at a news conference Nov. 7.
Coffman's loss to newcomer Jason Crow, an attorney and military veteran, came amid Colorado's manifestation of the much-mentioned blue wave, a predicted flurry of Democratic wins amid backlash against the president. Democrats swept the high-profile state offices, electing an openly gay man — current U.S. Rep. Jared Polis — to a governor's seat for the first time in the nation's history.
Coffman couldn't be reached for comment by Colorado Community Media, but he offered thoughts in the concession speech that capped his nationally watched race, the Associated Press reported.
“In the end,” Coffman said, “the waves were too big for this ship to stay afloat.”
Writing on the wall
Crow led Coffman by about 11 percentage points, about 54.1 to 42.9, in unofficial results the night of Nov. 8. That margin surpassed Wadhams' expectations, but the loss wasn't a shock, he said.
“Because again, Trump was so unpopular in the 6th District,” said Wadhams, who noted it was clear in the early analysis of Colorado's ballots that Republicans wouldn't have the advantage they had in past midterms.
In early voting during the 2014 midterms, about 110,000 more Republicans than Democrats voted, according to Wadhams. But this year, Democrats held about a 7,000-ballot lead just after midnight on Election Day, according to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office. That gap widened to nearly 20,000 votes as of Nov. 8. What's more, unaffiliated voters — who ended up outvoting Democrats by about 30,000 votes — showed as the largest voting bloc, and they leaned blue.
“We saw in the primary (election in June) that unaffiliateds took the Democratic ballot over the Republican ballot 60 to 40,” Wadhams said. Unaffiliated voters showed a lean in the Nov. 6 election, too, he added.
“We've never seen that kind of turnout, and they definitely tilted toward Democrats,” Wadhams said.
Matter of immigration
In the district's anchor, Aurora, about one in five people was foreign-born, and Trump's views on immigration may have hurt Coffman, said Robert Preuhs, political science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
“A lot of the administration's message leading up to election had been immigration and stirring that level of fear, that immigrant communities essentially saw that and literally saw red, and turned their vote to blue,” Preuhs guessed. “I think that's a big part of it.”
Trump made a caravan of Central American migrants making its way through Mexico a focal point in the weeks leading up to the election, claiming the group includes criminals and people from the Middle East, national outlets reported. Public-school students speak more than 160 languages in Aurora, a place where voters strongly favor Democrats. Both Coffman and Crow call the city home.
“I don't know if (Coffman) would have lost if there wasn't that substantial immigrant community in his district, or if there was not a blue wave,” Preuhs said. “The combination of the two really led to it.”
In addition to Democratic stronghold Aurora, the district includes south suburbs like Centennial, Littleton and Highlands Ranch, which have traditionally voted Republican, and to the north, Brighton and part of Thornton, which are part of decidedly blue Adams County. Aurora accounts for about 44 percent of the district's roughly 815,000 people.
The 6th District once comprised only a portion of Aurora and was mainly made up of GOP strongholds, encompassing almost the entire south metro area, including Castle Rock on the south end and Elbert County to the east. But after a redrawing of the lines in 2011, the district includes Aurora and stretches north all the way to parts of Adams County. Gone from the district are Elbert County and Douglas County, except for Highlands Ranch.
Coffman has taken a different tone on immigration since the district changed, Wadhams has said. He's been proactive in reaching out to minority communities in the district.
The past two Democrats who ran against Coffman were Andrew Romanoff in 2014 and Morgan Carroll in 2016, both of whom were established politicians after having served in the state Legislature. Romanoff served as state House speaker and Carroll as state Senate president.
In a district where Clinton beat Trump by 9 points, Coffman still won his race in 2016 by 8 points. Many voted for Clinton while also voting for Coffman, Wadhams has said.
Coffman, a military veteran, was first elected to the seat in 2008.
The Cook Political Report, a prominent, nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes elections, listed CD6 as one of 30 toss-ups in the country — and the only one in Colorado — in September.
The question on the national radar was if the district would finally flip blue, given its demographic makeup. The Democrats' chances of taking control of the U.S. House on Nov. 6 were expected to be reflected in this race's outcome, local pundits had said.
“The Democrats took the House but not by a huge margin,” Wadhams said. “Republicans gained seats in the U.S. Senate. Nationally, it was more of a mixed result, unlike in Colorado, where it was clearly a Democratic landslide.”
Crow sought to capitalize on backlash toward the president and tried to paint Coffman as being in lockstep with Trump and out of touch with the people of the district, a charge his campaign vehemently denied. Tyler Sandberg, Coffman's campaign manager, said previously that Coffman has broken with Trump on issues like health care and sanctioning Russia.
Underscoring Trump's influence, Coffman said the race for his seat was a “referendum on the president,” the Associated Press reported.
In his concession speech, Coffman touched on the demographics of his district and said spending time with diverse communities made him a better congressman and a better person, the AP reported.
Crow, who couldn't be reached for comment after the election, looked to sow unity in his victory speech, praising Coffman as a hard worker who served his country well. He also touched on diversity in his address, calling it an attribute that makes the country strong.
“Americans value and celebrate our diversity,” Crow said. “We are more than just a melting pot of cultures — we are a vibrant melting pot of ideas.”
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