Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman (R) is used to tough campaigns. His suburban district east of Denver voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Mrs. Clinton, in fact, beat President Trump in the district by 9 points – almost the same margin by which Representative Coffman beat his last Democratic challenger.
But at a town hall meeting last month, one week after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, the Republican congressman found himself thrown on the defensive over gun violence. Emotional participants confronted Coffman repeatedly over his stance on gun-control legislation and whether he would continue to accept campaign donations from the National Rifle Association.
It’s a scene that’s playing out in a number of suburban districts across the country, where GOP lawmakers – already on shaky ground among their moderate, well-educated constituents, who tend to view Mr. Trump unfavorably – are seeing their political fortunes further complicated by the issue of guns.
For years, the conventional wisdom surrounding gun politics has been that it is a voting issue for those most concerned about protecting their Second Amendment rights, but not for those who favor more restrictions. For Republicans worried about a primary challenge, that has created little incentive to cross the NRA.
But there are signs that that may be changing. Student activists from Parkland have kept the issue front and center, demanding action – something that’s likely to continue with tomorrow’s national school “walkout,” and the march on Washington at the end of the month. Public polling shows support for new gun-control measures is at the highest levels in years, with two-thirds of voters now saying they would back more restrictions. And of the 11 most endangered House Republicans, six of them have lately embraced new measures that would limit access to guns, according to a recent Reuters analysis.
The issue is particularly resonant in this district, which is home to the Aurora movie theater where, in 2012, James Holmes killed 12 people and wounded 70 at a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Columbine High School sits just a few miles away.
And while Coffman, who has an “A” rating from the NRA, hasn’t changed his position on guns, he “is being forced like never before to juggle and finesse the difficulties that are coming out of being a representative in Washington,” says Floyd Ciruli, a Colorado-based pollster. “My sense is the last blow is gun control.”
A bellwether district
Even before the gun issue gained prominence, Colorado’s sixth district was a top Democratic target. Almost evenly split between Republicans, Democrats, and independents, it’s exactly the sort of the suburban district that Democrats will need to win if they are to take back control of the House of Representatives this fall.
It’s “going to be a bellwether not only of this election but of broader trends in politics,” says Jason Crow, the leading Democratic challenger to Coffman.
As a candidate, Mr. Crow embodies many of the qualities the national Democratic Party is looking for in candidates they hope can win back Republican seats. He’s a veteran – a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan – who has been active in veterans’ affairs. He has blue-collar roots. He’s an affable family man with young kids. Most important perhaps, in the current climate: He’s a political newcomer.
“Coffman is not a new target for Democrats, but Democrats have just never been able to crack the code,” says Nathan Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan Inside Elections newsletter. “The key is that the environment should be much better than when they’ve tried to target him in the past.”
In order to keep his seat as the district has trended more Democratic, Coffman has moderated some of his political stances from when he was first elected. He’s done outreach to minority communities and immigrants. In 2016, he ran an ad touting his service as a Marine and promising voters he would stand up to either Trump or Clinton, regardless of who was elected. (He even released a Spanish-language version of the ad targeted at the district’s 20 percent Latino population.)
Many independents in the district may have split their vote, say experts, both because Coffman was a known quantity they liked, but also in expectation that Clinton would win the election and he would help provide balance in Washington.
Now, with Trump in power, that’s a harder argument to make. “Trump is toxic among Democrats and also pretty unpopular among Independents,” says Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver. Being part of the Republican Party “makes it harder for Coffman to portray himself as someone independent of who the president is.”
At a recent Crow rally in Aurora, that dynamic was in full force, with plenty of emphasis on how much Coffman’s voting has aligned with Trump’s agenda.
“I think Coffman has been a good campaigner, but he goes to Washington and votes 95 percent with Trump. He speaks out of both sides of his mouth,” says Mark Kastler, attending the rally with his wife. Mr. Kastler is from the solidly red town of Centennial, and says he doesn’t expect many of his neighbors to vote against Coffman, but he has hopes that Crow’s status as a former Army Ranger will “neuter Coffman’s perennial appeal to having been a combat veteran.”
Taking on the gun lobby
Significantly, almost all the speakers at the Crow rally talked about gun control – eliciting more cheers than perhaps any other topic.
“People told me, ‘Don’t go up against the NRA and the gun lobby in a swing district,’ ” Crow told the crowd, citing the town hall at which Coffman dismissed those who showed up as “the angriest voices.” “I’m here to tell you that Mike Coffman has made a big mistake.”
“My son is a police officer here,” says Kellie Wagner, a bank worker in Aurora who attended Coffman’s town hall meeting as well as the Crow rally. She says she asked Coffman what he would do to protect her son and other officers from the kinds of shootings Aurora police have faced lately, and didn’t get a satisfactory answer. “If he had said, ‘I won’t take any more NRA money,’ so many people would have applauded,” Ms. Wagner says.
Crow acknowledges that gun control can be a tricky topic to wade into in a state with a long history of gun ownership. “Conventional wisdom is not to [talk about it],” says Crow, noting that his campaign put out a digital ad on the issue last month. “But this is something I’m not afraid to lead on.”
And Crow’s biography – both as someone who grew up hunting and someone who fought in Iraq – gives him substantial credibility. “I know something about firearms,” he says. “My right as a hunter would not be impacted in any way by all the common-sense reforms we’re talking about.”
It’s too soon to know whether gun control will still be as top-of-mind for voters in November. Certainly, electoral history would argue against it. But for now, Democrats point to a recent poll that shows Crow running ahead of Coffman 44 to 39. It’s a small poll from a Democratic polling firm, and early in the race, but analysts say it’s the first public poll of any kind they can recall showing a challenger ahead of Coffman in the past 10 years.
“Coffman has had hard races in the past, but this is his hardest one,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia’s nonpartisan elections newsletter. “It’s a legitimate tossup race, as it has been in the past – but it’s maybe the toughest environment he’s had to run in.”