AURORA | The bunch of Arapahoe County Democrats that gathered at Mexican resturant El Tequileno in Aurora on Election Night were jubilant. Three self-proclaimed progressive candidates for the historically conservative Aurora City Council won three of the five seats up for grabs. As each walked into the room, the crowd erupted into cheers and hugs. One woman noted that it was a very different scene from Election Night the year prior, when Donald Trump won the presidency.
Despite a sense of optimism among local and statewide Democrats, it may be too soon to read last week’s wins into next year’s election, when voters will decide a new governor, attorney general, state House seats, county positions and perhaps a new congressman.
Arapahoe County Democratic chairwoman Mary Ellen Wolf said she has never been more optimistic about the upcoming elections as she was on Election Night this year.
“The landscape seems to be shifting,” Wolf said. “The landscape shifts rapidly, but I could make the case that if there is a strong effort by our core, then we could see (more wins in 2018).”
In contrast, Arapahoe County Republican Party chair Rich Sokol said it’s far too soon to see what 2018 might mean for each of the two parties.
“I wouldn’t read too much into what happened in Aurora on Tuesday night. It wasn’t a sweep for anybody,” he said.
Either way, several Colorado races are already in the midst of campaign season again.
Colorado’s Sixth Congressional District
Aurora Congressman Mike Coffman has been able to defend his 6th Congressional District seat since he was first elected to it in 2008. But 2018 may be prove to be one of the most challenging re-elections for the once conservative incumbent Republican who has strategically moved toward becoming a moderate. That change has now invoked a primary competitor from Highlands Ranch, Republican Roger Edwards. On the other side, three Democrats are vying for the chance to take on Coffman next year.
On the right, Edwards — who’s only venture into politics so far was an unsuccessful bid to be a delegate to the Republican National Convention last year — said in an interview that Coffman no longer represents his political views and those of GOP conservatives.
Edwards owns a small trucking company, so unnecessary regulations is a hot topic for the candidate. He’s also a staunch supporter of building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
“The government is not capable of comprehensive anything,” he said of ‘comprehensive immigration reform,’ which has largely become a buzzword around Washington.
Edwards, originally from Missouri, moved with his wife to Colorado to be close to family seven years ago. He calls himself more of a conservative than a Republican.
“Republicans have a giant stain on their brand,” he said, adding that Coffman has “his own stain he created himself.”
While Edwards said if elected he would vote conservatively, but the candidate holds views somewhere between moderate and those aligned with the Trump Administration. Edwards said he supports extending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival policy, which Coffman has introduced legislation to extend for three years, and that all birth control should be available over the counter.
But if you ask Edwards what the district’s biggest issue is, he’s not quick to answer. He paused and said he wasn’t sure how to address the question. But he does believe that Coffman is creating more division than unity in the district.
“We’re all Americans, and if we think like Americans, we’ll act like Americans,” he said.
That division is what Edwards said pushed him to run.
“It will be a miracle if the district can stay Republican,” he said.
There are three Democrats hoping that miracle doesn’t happen. The three looking to unseat Coffman: Jason Crow; a Denver Army veteran and lawyer; Levi Tillemann, a tech entrepreneur; and David Aarestad, an Aurora-based lawyer.
“Though we disagree on nearly every issue, I can agree with Roger Edwards on this: Mike Coffman has got to go,” Aarestad said in a statement after this month’s election. “Coffman’s 10 years of defending a system that rewards the wealthy, special interests and political insiders have left him out of touch with the communities he claims to be a part of.”
Edwards agrees that Washington is a bastion of corruption.
“You become what your environment is,” he said. “They (politicians) are in a corrupt environment and find ways to become acceptable.”
But it’s difficult to tell whether Edwards’ establishment sidestep will have any traction. While Tillemann said voters are sick of the proverbial swamp Trump has vowed to drain, adding that Coffman is a part of that, he said Edwards probably doesn’t have a chance in a Republican primary as “Coffman has surfed a wave of oil and gas money for election.”
Tillemann said he believes in fighting climate change, and so he hasn’t accepted money from oil, gas or coal interests.
Crow has emerged as an early front-runner in the Democratic primary. He served three tours to Iraq and Afghanistan and helped secure funding for the VA hospital in Aurora. But he caught some flack for living in Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood, just outside of the 6th Congressional District he wants to represent. He said he’s moving into the new Aurora side of the Stapleton neighborhood in preparation for the race.
Upon jumping into the race, a statement from Coffman’s campaign said Crow’s candidacy was a product of California
Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s “unhealthy obsession with beating Mike Coffman.”
Crow said he’s never even met Pelosi, and at the request of a comment about Edwards joining the race, Coffman’s campaign brought the House Minority Leader up again as a justification for Coffman’s conservative stances.
“Mike has withstood literally tens of millions of dollars of lies put on TV by Nancy Pelosi and her political cronies in the last couple years,” said Coffman campaign spokesman Tyler Sandberg. “He’s a fiscal conservative with a track record of taking on big spenders in both parties, a strong reputation for being his own man, and is more than prepared to tackle the upcoming election, in all phases.”
Some opponents are questioning Coffman’s claim to be a fiscal conservative, especially as the recently revealed GOP tax overhaul is expected to contribute $1.5 trillion to the national debt — a move Coffman and other Republicans have tirelessly opposed during the Obama administration.
While Coffman hasn’t yet given an official comment on the bill, he said it does include some good for the middle class, including doubling the standard deduction.
With obvious factions in the Republican Party at the federal level, it isn’t clear what that will mean for the CD6 race. Several political analysts have put the district on watchlists for 2018, saying the purple-tinged Republican seat could go full blue.
“Coffman has run good campaigns to defeat his last two credible challengers handily in what is a very competitive district in CD6, and that has mostly been done by Coffman tiptoeing through fields of landmines adeptly,” said Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University.
“That being said, while it is difficult to successfully primary challenge an incumbent because of name recognition and momentum, if a credible challenge does come from Edwards (note that remains a big if), it will likely pull Coffman to the right just enough to maintain the party’s nomination, which Coffman will then have to re-moderate from afterwards in such a moderate district such as CD6 in order to win against the likely challenger in Crow.”
Saunders added that Coffman’s effort may depend on how Crow positions himself while Coffman negotiates a conservative and moderate stance at the same time.
The Governor’s mansion and the top lawyer in the state
The gubernatorial race in Colorado has gathered so many candidates, it isn’t accurate to describe it as a crowded field. Instead the race that so far boasts 19 candidates from both sides of the aisle is more akin to a circus clown car, with more and more people trying to cram themselves in every week.
At this point in the race, with just seven months to go before the June primary, it’s a little unusual to see such a crowded field still fighting for campaign cash and attention. But with an open governor’s seat, along with a new open primary system, it seems no one on either side of the aisle wants to be the first to acquiesce to their competitors.
“It is an open-seat election in a really contested swing state. Colorado is purple/blue but certainly is still purple and it’s allowed for a lot of people who are very strong candidates to make the calculation they can win,” said Rob Preuhs, political science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “(The open seat) is an exceptional opportunity for both parties.”
Part of that calculation is that in a crowded field, candidates don’t have to win the majority of voters over in the primary. They just have to manage just enough votes to beat the crowded field. Which gives candidates who might not last in a one-on-one race with a major name a chance to pull out a win.
“If we’re focusing on the Republican gubernatorial primary for example, you have someone like Tom Tancredo who would have a hard time getting most of the Republican Party backing him,” said Seth Masket, political science professor at University of Denver. “But at the same time, if you end up with a field of seven, eight, nine candidates, (Tancredo) doesn’t need that much of the vote to win the nomination if the establishment vote is split amongst other candidates.”
Across the country the narrative for Republican primaries is how the Trump/Steve Bannon wing will battle it out against the establishment side of the party. But Preuhs said the dynamics are a little different in Colorado. Since the state GOP was one of the strongest supporters of the Never Trump movement and instead embraced Sen. Ted Cruz, primaries across the state could see hardcore conservatives who see more similarities between themselves and Cruz face off against more suburban Republicans, like those who supported former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
While Republicans are battling for a chance to take over the Governor’s mansion from the Democrats, whoever wins could be facing more than just a Democratic opponent. They could also be facing a tidal wave election. While Masket and Preuhs said state level races tend to be more insulated from national trends, both said an increasingly unpopular president mixed with the traditional swing seen in the first midterm election of a new presidency could lead to Democrats across the state reaping the benefits.
“Voters tend to know something about (state) candidates… Those candidates are running on a set of issues you know throughout the state and not necessarily on national issues,” Masket said. “But they’re not completely insulated from (trends). If it’s a bad year for the Republican Party, which we’d expect because a Republican is president and Donald Trump is wholly unpopular” it could affect Republicans on the ballot across the state.
For Democrats, Makset said U.S. Rep. Jared Polis is most likely the de facto frontrunner among their nine candidates because of his name recognition and his substantial wealth. While the other eight candidates will be trying to carve out a place to distinguish themselves against Polis, Masket said it was hard to see any one of the candidates trying to frame themselves as the anti-establishment candidates compared to their competitors.
“One of the weaknesses (Polis) faces is there’s concern about his electability outside of the Denver-Boulder area,” Masket said. “(The other Democrats) can try and make the argument that they can better represent rural communities or suburbs.”
With the new primary system, which opens it up to unaffiliated voters, there has been an idea that in both parties there will be more moderate candidates rising to the top. Yet both Masket and Preuhs were skeptical that it would lead to a significant change in the candidates coming out of the June inter-party contest.
“Some research I’ve done, along with others, suggest opening up the primary doesn’t change all that much in large part because the voters who show up for the primary would show up if it’s a closed primary, the hard-core partisans,” Masket said. “There’s certainly a chance for some more moderation in the field but it’s not probably going to have huge effect.”
Along with a crowded field, the state races at the top of the ticket have seen plenty of shuffling. Within just the past week, we’ve seen Arapahoe County DA George Brauchler pick up his hat out of the governor’s race and throw it into the Attorney General’s race, even though he won the Western Conservative Summit governor straw poll earlier this year. That move was based off of current AG Cynthia Coffman’s decision to run for governor instead of a second term in her current role.
While Brauchler is the sole Republican running so far, that could all change soon since Coffman has left the race without an incumbent from the right. Democrats so far have five candidates running for the spot, including state Rep. Joe Salazar. A Salazar/Brauchler race could be one of the more interesting AG races in recent memory if only for the oversized personalities the two would bring to the contest.
Salazar is a liberal firebrand and Brauchler is no shrinking violet himself. No matter who would win out of that hypothetical contest, their style would be in direct contrast to Coffman and to her predecessor, John Suthers.
Aurora’s 2018 won’t compare to 2020
Aurora could be in for an exciting state-level election in 2020. The next election cycle will see the terms end for state Sens. Rhonda Fields (D), Daniel Kagan (D), Jack Tate (R) and Nancy Todd (D), with Todd being termed-limited out then. State Rep. Jovan Melton, who represents parts of southwest Aurora and unincorporated Arapahoe County, will also reach the end of his time in the state House.
So there’s a lot of change coming and possible upheaval in a couple years. But what does 2018 hold for Aurora?
Given that Democrats have what are considered safe seats in the Aurora area, there isn’t expected to be that much drama in the 2018 cycle. But that doesn’t mean Arapahoe Republicans will be sitting on their hands.
“We’re obviously looking at the same demographic and registration numbers the Democrats are looking at. We’re focused on efforts where a flip is possible and not where the numbers are against us,” said Rich Sokol, the Arapahoe County GOP chairman. “I can’t obviously go into strategy or tactics. But everyone is aware in Arapahoe County that unaffiliated (voters) is the largest group, and we now have an open primary which none of us know how will play out next year.”
While the ground in Aurora might not look as inviting for Republicans now, Sokol said next year’s election was a long ways away, and in terms of politics, “a year is like 100 dog years.”
“A lot can change and a lot hinges on tax reform getting done,” Sokol said. “Trump is unfavorable now but that could flip pretty easy if Republicans in congress gets tax reform done.”
Sokol reiterated, “I wouldn’t read too much into what the situation is right now.”