Carroll’s challenge to Coffman in Aurora’s CD6 raises swing district stakes

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AURORA | The outcome of Aurora’s 6th Congressional District race in 2016 could prove a bellwether in a swing district almost evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and independents, and that is also the state’s most ethnically diverse. 

“A lot of what we’re going to see in this race is a test of the democratic theory that demography is destiny,” said Professor Tony Robinson, chair of CU Denver’s political science department. He said that’s especially true with a race that pits state Sen. Morgan Carroll, a strong Democratic challenger, against longtime Republican incumbent Mike Coffman.

“Last year was such a bad year for Democrats. 2016 is going to be an entirely different electorate. There’s going to be much larger turnout of traditionally Democratic constituents,” he said. Robinson said Carroll has much on her side that Romanoff did not in 2014, including running during a presidential-year election where Hillary Clinton will likely be the face of the Democratic ticket. Minority voters also turn out in higher numbers during presidential election years, while conservative voters tend to dominate midterm elections. Latinos make up about 20 percent of CD6 voters, and blacks and Asians make up more than 13 percent of the district. 

Carroll filed federal election forms Tuesday, making official her race for Colorado’s 6th Congressional District seat, currently held by Republican Mike Coffman. She announced Thursday she would step down as senate minority leader. State Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, is expected to win that leadership position.

“The theme of the campaign is going to be about real results,” she told The Aurora Sentinel in an interview Monday. “Congress has been paralyzed. It’s a crisis of confidence to get anything done.”

Carroll, 43,  said she would best describe herself as a populist, with a focus on how leaders in Washington, D.C., have not fixed middle-class issues such as soaring student loan debt, affordable healthcare, immigration reform and affordable higher-education opportunities. She said she has and always will side with the everyday residents in the district versus larger, monied interests.

The campaign sounds similar to the one Andrew Romanoff mounted against Coffman in 2014 in a race that was predicted to be one of the country’s most-competitive. Coffman won re-election over the former Colorado House Speaker last November by 9 percentage points. Carroll said she expects this campaign to cost as much or more as both parties work to gain seats in Congress. So far, neither Carroll nor Coffman face primary opponents.

Robinson said Carroll has another advantage over Romanoff in that she can call herself a longtime resident of the district, whereas Romanoff was viewed as a Denver transplant.

“She will be stronger candidate than Romanoff or Miklosi. She has roots and is seen an effective, organic Democrat out of that county,”  Robinson said.

Carroll has seen a host of fierce legislative battles while serving in the statehouse. She worked on legislation to regulate the way homeowners associations operate in the state and played a critical role in passing gun control laws that mandated criminal background checks and put limits on the size of ammunition magazines. Carroll also led a state fight to corral the health insurance, developer and workers’ compensation insurance industries. She said those battles would serve her well in a Congress defined by stalemate and controlling big interests. 

“I’m really proud of my record in a time when no one was sure anything could get done,” she said.

Carroll already has the support of high-profile D.C.-based organizations such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She said that unlike Romanoff, who refused political action committee money in his race against Coffman, she would accept PAC money, like Coffman.

“I know who I’m fighting for. The people who give to me know what I am what I’m fighting for,” she said.

Carroll said she plans to launch a districtwide listening tour July 18 as a way to hone in on and better-understand residents concerns.

“It will remain a tough (race), but I think it’s a good year to run. I’m hoping to be able to do a really strong grassroots campaign,” she said.

Coffman was first elected to CD6 in 2008 after the retirement of former Rep. Tom Tancredo, and he has so far been able to hold onto the district after it was redrawn in 2011 to include most of Aurora, and many more Democrats. In addition to defeating Romanoff in 2014, Coffman won over Democratic nominee Joe Miklosi by 2 percentage points in 2012.

Earlier this year, Coffman was heavily courted by state and national Republicans to challenge Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett for his Senate seat next year. Last month, Coffman, an Army and Marine veteran,  declined, saying he wanted to continue his work in the 6th Congressional District, focusing on issues affecting veterans and the military. A former state legislator, state treasurer and secretary of state, Coffman  has worked to soften his reputation for being a staunch conservative, which appealed to the majority of conservative constituents in his former district.

“He has effectively painted himself as moderate, serious Republican,”  Robinson said of Coffman. “His record is conservative, but in his style as he presents himself, he’s not seen as a Republican firebrand.”

During and after the last election, Coffman shunned party-line objections to some illegal immigration reform concessions and sought to distance himself from hot-button federal issues such as gay rights and abortion rights. Coffman’s wife, Cynthia Coffman, was just last year elected Colorado attorney general. She was recently drawn into a state Republican Party quagmire over allegations that she and Tancredo sought to blackmail state party chief Steve House to force him out. Cynthia Coffman has denied the claims, saying she discussed rumors of an alleged affair with House as a way to get his attention. All sides seek to scuttle the issue now.

Carroll, who is term-limited and plans to serve through the end of her term ending in 2016, said she is not worried about a tough battle with Coffman, and the inevitable barrage of attack ads likely to come with it.

“If (voters) like status quo, they are likely to back Mike Coffman,”  she said of her opponent. “You’re not going to change anything if you’re afraid of taking on big fights. I’ve never shied away from big fights.”

Coffman’s political team has so far pegged Carroll as just another candidate in the Democratic Party’s machine.

“We already know Nancy Pelosi is salivating at the idea of replacing me with their handpicked liberal candidate. They spent $5 million trying to beat me last cycle, and there’s no doubt they’ll try to do it again,”  Coffman stated in an email sent from the campaign Mike Coffman for Congress after Carroll made her announcement. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Morgan Carroll had the support of Emily’s List. The organization has not yet endorsed anyone in this race, but a spokeswoman with Emily’s List said the organization is excited about Carroll’s candidacy.