“Wow! You’d have to be high to re-elect a guy like that.”
That is comedian Bill Maher’s take on Republican Rep. Mike Coffman’s campaign to win a fourth term in a suburban Denver district. Smoking marijuana is legal in Colorado but even stone-cold sober political analysts – from Charlie Cook to Larry Sabato – have called this race a toss-up, giving Coffman an even chance of winning.
The importance of the race to the national parties is evident in the heavy money, over $10 million by one estimate, that was raised by June. It is possible that a huge $25 million will flow to Coffman and his opponent, Democrat Andrew Romanoff, before Election Day. Much of the money is coming from Washington and both parties’ congressional campaign committees.
In a midterm campaign in which control of the House is a non-issue — the GOP is virtually certain to retain its majority — there are three reasons why Colorado’s 6th Congressional District is getting so much money and attention. All are connected to the 2016 presidential race.
First, national GOP strategists see the race as a desperate last stand by right-wing House Republicans to prove that, despite blocking immigration reform in Washington, the party can still win Hispanic votes.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the party’s brightest Latino star, is helping Coffman with fundraising and campaigning in a district that was 8 percent Hispanic in 2012 but is now 20 percent Hispanic. Colorado, a swing state, is critical to GOP hopes in the 2016 presidential campaign. Rubio, a possible candidate for the GOP nomination, wants to have Coffman as an ally going into that campaign.
Coffman has been reaching out to Latino voters by downplaying immigration as an issue while diluting his opposition to reform. He used to oppose giving citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States. Now he supports the ENLIST Act, which opens a door to citizenship for undocumented children who serve in the military.
Yet Coffman voted against the DREAM Act to give a pathway to citizenship to undocumented children in college or the military. In fact, he called it a “nightmare.” And he continues to oppose comprehensive reform.
This is a hard dance for any Republican but especially for Coffman. He was once accused of trying to “purge” voters with Hispanic-sounding last names from voting rolls during his time as Colorado’s Secretary of State. And he apologized after telling a crowd in 2012: “I don’t know whether Barack Obama was born in the [United States]… But I do know that, in his heart, he’s not an American.”
Coffman’s effort to hold onto right-wing voters opposed to reform while at the same time offering some concessions to Latino voters might well fail. If it does so, it will show that the GOP brand is so damaged among Latino voters that no half-steps can help the party with that key, growing bloc. It will also dampen any Republican hopes of claiming the state in the presidential year.
The second factor drawing attention to this race is gerrymandering.
Nationwide, Republicans have tried to insulate their incumbents against the growing number of Latino voters by drawing districts for GOP candidates that exclude Latinos and other racial minorities. The 6th District is now about one-third Republican, one-third Democratic and and one-third independent. Is that enough to insure a GOP win?
At the moment, political experts count half of the nation’s Latinos as living in only 65 out of the 435 congressional districts. Those districts are concentrated in a few large states, such as California, Illinois, Texas and Florida.
Latinos comprise only 6.7 percent of the voters in the average district controlled by Republicans today. For the few hotly-contested House seats, the New York Times recently estimated the Latino vote to average 7.4 percent. Overall, the Times concluded the “GOP could afford to lose them [all] given their healthy edge in the House.”
That cold political reality explains why the GOP majority in the House refuses to budge on immigration reform despite pressure from the Chamber of Commerce, the Senate, and the reliably conservative Evangelical community.
The unusually high 20 percent of Latino voters in Colorado’s 6th District makes it a national laboratory for the future of the GOP. Coffman is the canary in the coalmine for Congressional Republicans facing the rising power of Latino voters as they go into 2016.
The third reason the race is viewed as critical to both parties is the future of Andrew Romanoff. Coffman’s Democratic opponent is the popular former speaker of the Colorado House with ties to former President Bill Clinton that put him within the orbit of the rising Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. The former president split with President Obama to endorse Romanoff in his campaign for the party’s nomination in the 2010 Senate race.
The Denver Post reported in 2009 that the Obama administration discussed possible Washington jobs with Romanoff, apparently as a lure to get him to quit the primary race and smooth the way for their preferred candidate, Michael Bennet. In any case, with Obama’s endorsement Bennet defeated Romanoff and won the seat.
But Romanoff has star potential. In addition to Clinton’s backing, he has the support of former DNC chair Howard Dean and he is being boosted by the DCCC’s “JumpStart” program as one of the party’s elite class of challengers to Republican incumbents.
He is making sure not to be pigeonholed as just the pro-Latino candidate. His advertising focuses on jobs, education and the economy. The “Colorado Pols,” website wrote after the first campaign debate in mid-August “if campaigns were decided in debates, Andrew Romanoff would be a shoo-in for Congress…”
A new Democrat political star in Colorado could help push the state firmly into the blue column for the foreseeable future.
For all those reasons, the battle for Colorado’s 6th District is a marquee contest.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.