Aurora, Colorado –
Shortly before Paul Rodkin encouraged me to pursue a job at Fox News, he vigorously defended President Donald Trump’s tumultuous first six months in the White House.
“Trump can do no wrong in my eyes,” the 70-year-old Centennial, Colorado, resident who used to run a granite slab company told me. The constant upheaval in Washington, he said, was to be expected at the outset of Trump’s administration.
“When he gets rid of all these people in the swamp, then it will prove that he means business,” Rodkin said.
As we stood in the parking lot of SouthGlenn Mall, Rodkin described himself as an “extremely conservative Sean Hannity Republican” and expressed disdain for the media and Republicans in Congress, chiding them for pursuing Medicaid cuts. His loyalty lies with Trump – not House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both of whom “need to go,” Rodkin said.
“I hope Fox hires you,” he called out to me as I walked away.
In this hot summer of political discontent, Rodkin represents the looming challenge for Republicans aiming to keep control of Congress next year. The GOP made big promises about what it could accomplish if it gained full control of Washington yet has delivered very little to conservatives – a problem that is now a blinking red light in the aftermath of the spectacular collapse of the Obamacare repeal bill. Meanwhile, the left is fired up and some Trump voters are beginning to show signs of buyer’s remorse.
Vulnerable Republicans such as Rep. Mike Coffman are left in an epic bind. His congressional district here wraps like a horseshoe around the eastern suburbs of Denver and backed Hillary Clinton by nearly 9 points in November. He’s already thinking about his next race and must convince voters that his brand is different than the Republican brand without distancing himself so far from Trump that he alienates diehard conservatives like Rodkin.
GOP Rep. Mike Coffman is a top target for Democrats after Hillary Clinton handily won his district last year
“I want the President to be successful. I’ve obviously been disappointed in some of the things he’s done,” Coffman told reporters in Henderson at the beginning of August as he tried to master this balancing act. “I think people in the district see me as an independent voice. ...If I’m seen as someone who is following the President at every turn, I think it’s problematic.”
Coffman is perennially at the top of the list of toss-up races. He beat his Democratic opponent last year by 8 points but is facing especially strong headwinds going into 2018. He represents one of the 23 congressional districts held by Republicans but won by Clinton last year. Democrats are going to put everything they’ve got into seizing those districts. If they flip one more, they’ll have the 24 seats needed to regain control of the House.
That’s a tantalizing prospect for a party desperate to dent Trump’s power, step up investigations into his administration and potentially pursue impeachment, which is a process that originates in the House. But it’s also a tall task – remember those four competitive special elections Democrats lost earlier this year?
Still, Democrats are hopeful as they try to move past the disaster of 2016. They’re promoting an agenda for moving forward chock full of the economic populism Trump was so successful at harnessing last year. And, of course, they’re banking on the President’s unpopularity.
Even Rodkin allowed one caveat to his sweeping praise of the President: “I don’t think he’s bringing new people in to his cause yet.”
That is quite evident in Colorado’s Sixth District, where even some Trump voters are starting to sound wobbly about their President. Ask a question here about Trump and you draw one of three reactions: a cringe, a shrug or a sigh.
Outside a popular brunch spot in the southern part of the district, Trump voter Amanda Heibult, 37, paused on a recent morning when asked to list the President’s accomplishments thus far. She instead offered him some advice.
“I’d like to see some maturity; just some professionalism.”
“I’d like to see some maturity; just some professionalism,” Heibult said of Trump, as she sat on a bench with her husband watching a family toss beanbags in a game of cornhole while waiting for their table. On a more granular level as a neo-natal health care worker, Heibult said she favored the repeal of Obamacare, but was alarmed by the GOP’s attempt to cut Medicaid, which she believes would harm the babies she cares for.
“I think they need a better ear to what is actually happening out here,” she said.
Jason Heibult, who works at Boeing and also voted for Trump, said he is baffled by the President’s tweets – his insistence on engaging in pointless, personal skirmishes with his adversaries.
“In the office of the presidency, you have to have better stuff to do than that,” he said bluntly. “I was hoping that he would grow up a little bit once he was in office…. People are going to like you, or people aren’t going to like you. Don’t worry about those people, worry about the policy.”
“I think he has some of the right ideas, but it’s all about the execution,” he added. (And that, he said, has been entirely lacking.)
Such bewilderment begs the question: if things keep going like this, what motivation will GOP voters have to turn out at the polls in 2018?
I thought the political temperature outside Washington might drop once it became clear that Republicans couldn’t pass a bill repealing Obamacare. But the grilling Coffman got at his August town hall back home proved that’s not the case.
I was trying to interview a young voter from Aurora when there was a jostling, then shouting at my elbow as a conservative attendee in a red-striped shirt lunged toward a female Democratic activist, who had argued with him about health insurance. The police hung back. Adversaries from both sides stepped in to diffuse the situation.
The mood was just as tense inside Prairie View High School, where Coffman’s town hall was underway. Coffman’s first question was from a woman in a pink Planned Parenthood shirt, who said it was impossible to have a meaningful dialogue with him. A short time later, Democratic activist Tom Sullivan drilled him about Russia: “You told us you were going to stand up to Trump,” he said as members of the audience held up signs that said “collusion.” A home health care worker told Coffman about a 93-year-old in her care who pointed to Ryan on TV during a discussion of Medicaid cuts and said “They’re trying to kill us.”
Audience members of both political persuasions yelled insults at questioners and one another – (“Shove it!” “Shut up!” “Answer the question!”) – as Coffman took sips of water and briskly walked back and forth across the stage, reflexively clenching his jaw as the microphone buzzed and squealed with static. Countless times, he noted his bipartisan work (his support for citizenship for some DACA recipients, his participation in a bipartisan health care working group, and membership in a “problem-solvers” caucus).
Toward the end of the contentious first hour, one woman tearfully told Coffman many problems stem from “the divide in this country” and intolerance between partisans.
“Partisanship is probably the greatest problem in Washington, D.C.”
“I think partisanship is probably the greatest problem in Washington, D.C.,” Coffman replied. “If you look at the 435 districts across this country, there are 35 that are competitive, maybe 35. The other 400 are either very red or very blue,” he said, as the crowd shouted “gerrymandering” at him.
“I don’t think compromise is a pejorative,” Coffman said. “I think you are advancing your agenda, just slower. But I don’t know how you can govern without ever compromising.”
Coffman’s race has yet to really take shape. Questions about it mainly draw blank stares. But his resilience in previous elections has to do in part with his background as a former Marine who claims he still does 500 pushups a day. His website notes he is the only member of Congress to have served in both Iraq Wars.
One of his most prominent Democratic challengers in the still unsettled field is 38-year-old Jason Crow, a lawyer who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In his kickoff, Crow sought to link Coffman to Trump. But Crow was immediately mocked for declaring his run before he and his family had moved into the district.
(A similar controversy over residency swirled around Jon Ossoff’s failed bid to flip a longtime Republican district in Georgia this summer.)
Crow, who said he and his family live just six blocks outside the district and will have moved by the end of this year, argued in an interview that Coffman does not represent the interests of his constituents. He sharply criticized Coffman for voting with Trump’s agenda most of the time.
When I pointed out some of Coffman’s recent criticisms of Trump, as well as his recent vote against the House Obamacare repeal, Crow notes that Coffman supported Obamacare repeal many times in the past.
“I come from a background where it’s not what you say, it’s what you do that matters,” Crow said over coffee in Denver. “He can say things in the district and then when he goes back to Washington, he votes 95% in support of Trump's agenda, and serves as a rubber stamp for that agenda – that’s not leadership. And we need leaders that represent the values of this district.”
Coffman’s childhood home is within the boundaries of the district.
He initially inherited the district of immigration hardliner Tom Tancredo, but it was redrawn with a far more moderate cast after the 2010 census. Coffman has adapted to the demographic changes here – leading to criticism from Democrats that he is a shape-shifter.
About 15% of the population of Arapahoe County is now foreign born. Many immigrants were drawn by jobs in Denver’s tech sector and the relative affordability of Aurora; others came as part of refugee resettlement. Some 130 languages are spoken in the local school district, which leads to jokes that their school field trips sometimes look like a visit by the United Nations.
Coffman tries to fly home each weekend, holding office hours and attending even the most mundane events in his district.
Coffman tries to fly home each weekend, holding office hours and attending even the most mundane events in his district, which is a string of strip malls along its northern edges that leads into miles of suburban houses and townhome developments with names like Painted Ridge.
“He goes to everything,” said Owen Loftus, a Republican strategist here who was Coffman’s former spokesman. “He’ll go to the New Moon festival and then a Coptic Church later that weekend. He wants to know everyone, and has done a really great job connecting with the immigrant community in his district, which is growing rapidly. He’s up all day and all night.”
Coffman radically softened his position on immigration, learned Spanish – in part by watching telenovelas and Spanish-language news. He now insists on doing some events in Spanish, like the recent designation of the first Salvadoran consulate in Aurora on S. Havana Street.
While his accent makes his staffers wince, the effort has helped him dispatch a series of strong contenders, including former state Senate President Morgan Carroll and former Speaker of the Colorado House Andrew Romanoff (whom he debated in Spanish on Univision during their 2014 race).
One strip mall where I interviewed voters had an Afghan and a Mexican restaurant, a bustling Asian market, a clothing store specializing in Indian and Nepalese apparel, and a “Bangla Bazaar.” Coffman targeted the many different nationalities in his district last cycle with dozens of social media ads in different languages, and plans to do so again.
He was also the first Republican congressman in the country to put out an ad mildly criticizing Trump in 2016: “Honestly, I don’t care for him much,” he said in the spot.
Coffman is already laying the groundwork to run that kind of campaign again. He has long pledged his support for repealing and replacing Obamacare, but was one of only 20 Republicans who opposed the House health care bill. He was concerned that it did not protect patients with pre-existing conditions, he said.
During a recent interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Coffman said Congress would “absolutely” override a presidential veto on the Russia sanctions bill.
Coffman, a veteran member of the Armed Services Committee, also criticized Trump’s decision to make “major policy by tweet” when he announced transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the military. He said he was “very disappointed” that the President tweeted the policy, apparently without any notice or preparation.
The congressman’s aides note with pride that Breitbart labeled Coffman as a member of the “Traitor Caucus” after he co-authored a bill this year that would have protected undocumented youth if the Trump administration discontinued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Corry Bliss runs the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC that Ryan intends to use to protect the House majority. Though Republicans won all four competitive special elections this year, Bliss is quick to recount the history of how the pendulum most often swings to the opposing party in the midterm after a closely contested presidential election.
“History says Republicans are supposed to lose seats this cycle, but good candidates who run campaigns with a good message can defy history,” Bliss told me. “Elections are about choices and we have Republicans like Mike Coffman who have a history of winning tough elections. On the other side, we have the gift that keeps on giving, which is the Democratic Party led by Nancy Pelosi and the resistance movement.”
The Ryan super PAC has pledged to spend $100 million on midterm races, including Coffman’s. That’s double what the super PAC spent throughout the 2016 cycle. They are already out in the field polling each of the contested districts—finding out what local issues are most important, no doubt to help steer the conversation away from Trump. They have 12 field offices open today and say they have already knocked on 1.3 million doors seeking information from voters.
The GOP template for winning in these swing districts is Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s 2016 race, which Bliss ran last cycle. Portman faced tough odds, but the campaign ran 36 ads on issues as disparate as a local algae bloom to opioid addiction. He won by double digits, outperforming Trump’s victory in the state.
“What Georgia showed us is that when given a choice of a government run by Pelosi versus Ryan, people overwhelmingly choose Ryan”
When I asked how he plans to replicate that success in districts like Coffman’s, Bliss pointed to the results in the Georgia special election. “What Georgia showed us is that when given a choice of a government run by Pelosi versus Ryan, people overwhelmingly choose Ryan,” he said.
The Trump administration has been so erratic that many Republican strategists are loathe to predict what the political climate will be like by next year. But they expect it to be tough, even if Republicans are able to pass tax cuts for the middle class.
It was evident in several dozen interviews here that Democrats are far more fired up to turn out for the midterms than Republicans.
And many unaffiliated voters, who outnumber both Democrats and Republicans in this evenly divided state, seem entirely unimpressed by Trump or the work of congressional Republicans so far. Coffman may have to do a lot of convincing to turn them out next year, and he needs their votes.
Troy Bell, a 49-year-old from Aurora, laughed when I asked what kind of change Trump had brought to Washington, and said he couldn’t define it. “Change is definitely happening,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up in a war…. I don’t know how we got here.”
When I asked Reyna Gooding, a 62-year-old voter from Aurora, about Trump, she immediately asked if I had seen the movie “The Ugly American.”
“That’s what it’s like,” she said, describing Trump as “immature” and “childish” as she watched her grandchildren scamper around an Aurora playground. “I’m embarrassed for our country.”
“I’m just watching him, and he’s just not listening,” Gooding said.
Clearly many Republicans like Coffman hope he will start.
Illustration by Jonathan Calugi.