Top Ten Stories of 2016 #4: Coffman’s Trump Triangulation Triumph

Captain Ahab and Moby Dick.

Rep. Mike Coffman of Aurora is today one of the longest, if not the longest-serving elected politician in the state of Colorado. Rising through the ranks of the state legislature in the 1990s, then serving as Colorado’s Treasurer and Secretary of State before his election to Congress in 2008, Coffman is the epitome of a “career politician”–and on paper, he’s been ripe for a fall at many points in his long career.

But Coffman has survived, again and again, despite determined attempts to dislodge him from his seat in Congress. In 2011, Coffman’s congressional district was reshaped from a staunchly Republican safe seat formerly held by far-right Rep. Tom Tancredo into a diverse and competitive battleground. Democrats were gleeful at the prospect of claiming CD-6 and holding it easily for the coming decade.

Coffman dashed tentative Democratic hopes in 2012, as he squeaked to victory in President Barack Obama’s second election against a relatively unknown and underfunded Democratic opponent Joe Miklosi. The missed opportunity in 2012 was underscored in 2014, when in that Republican “wave year” Coffman trounced a much better-financed and organized opponent in former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

In 2015, Democratic hopes for this district soared with the entry of former Colorado Senate President Morgan Carroll into the 2016 race against Coffman–a longtime representative from Aurora with charisma and deep bonafide ties to the community. The national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) rated the CD-6 race one of the very top Democratic pickup opportunities in the nation in 2016, and unlike previous attempts, national Democratic resources stayed in this race to the very end.

Going into 2016, Coffman’s handlers understood that they faced a potentially disastrous problem with the success of Donald Trump in the GOP presidential race. Trump’s alienating rhetoric was downright poisonous in a culturally diverse place like Aurora, and made it too easy to draw parallels from Trump to Coffman’s own long record of right-wing ugliness–like Coffman calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and asserting that President Obama “is just not an American.” Trump’s hard line on immigration similarly cast Coffman’s unsteady reinvention on the issue since redistricting into unflattering relief.

Working in Coffman’s favor were two principal factors: first, Coffman’s reversal on immigration began before Trump came on the scene, in response to redistricting, which made it appear more credible. The second, perhaps most important factor, is Coffman’s top-notch re-election team–who worked overtime to schmooze with, persuade, and where necessary to bully the local press into accepting that Coffman’s protestations against both Trump and his own record were genuine.

The result, much like the Democrats’ frustration in nailing Cory Gardner on his multitude of falsehoods in 2014, is that Coffman succeeded in triangulating off the anger against Trump instead of succumbing to it. Media coverage of Coffman’s record and statements on Trump gave him the benefit of the doubt that his change of heart was genuine. Even fact checkers struck back at Democratic allegations about Coffman’s “Trumplike” record, declaring them false by celebrating his “new position” on the issues in question. In the end, voters saw enough of Coffman’s ad declaring without specifics that he “doesn’t care much” for Trump to believe it over all the Democratic ads insisting Coffman was just like Trump.

And in the same congressional district that supported Hillary Clinton and Michael Bennet by solid margins in 2016, Morgan Carroll lost just as badly as her predecessor. The disappointment over this loss among Colorado Democrats turned to outrage–though not surprise–just a few days after the election when Rep. Coffman declared, red Trump hat literally in hand, that he is “excited about the next two years and look[s] forward to working with the president.” With that statement, everything Coffman had done to put daylight between himself and Trump during the election, and all the obsequious press coverage that helped him, was revealed as fraudulent.

Today, it’s anybody’s guess whether Democrats will field a credible challenger to Coffman next election, but his ability to survive so many very different electoral climates and the complete refashioning of his congressional district make another serious run at Coffman increasingly difficult to justify. There remains a possibility that political upheaval caused by President Trump’s first two years could put Republicans on the defensive in time for 2018, more than the usual risks to the party in power in a midterm election.

But for now, “Teflon” Mike Coffman is a model of political survival to study.

Or, depending on your point of view, a cautionary tale.

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