Rep. Mike Coffman wants his constituents to know he is digging in — to the center.
The Colorado Republican is a rare breed in his conference, a moderate who represents a district that swung for Barack Obama in 2012 and barely sent him back to Congress, where he’s served since 2008.
So unlike many of his Republican colleagues, Coffman’s big concern isn’t proving his conservative bonafides as the fight over the debt ceiling and the shutdown fights intensify, but showing he’s strongly in the center.
“You have members from very deep red districts that are fairly ideological, where the notion of compromise is troubling to them,” the congressman told MSNBC.com Tuesday in an interview. “But in a divided government I don’t know how you govern without compromising. We’re a majority party in the House, so we have a responsibility to govern.”
The position makes him the kind of Republican to watch as Congress barrels toward an Oct. 17th deadline to raise the debt ceiling. Polarizing figures on Capitol Hill might be dominating the debate, but it’s lawmakers like Coffman — who are caught in the middle– who could ultimately get a deal done, if Republicans and Democrats have to get together to do it.
“It might not be popular to say so, but I believe that extremists in both parties have kept us from finding real solutions,” Coffman wrote in an OpEd in his hometown paper this week.
Looking at the tough race he’s set to face in 2014 and blowback he’d already gotten a week into a government shutdown, it’s not hard to see why he’s trying to show he’s a voice of reason. The question: will it be enough to keep him in the House come next November?
Coffman’s district is one of the most competitive in the country, and a virtual must-win if Democrats want to have any hope of gaining the 17 seats they need to win back the majority — and they know it.
Democrats landed an early top recruit — former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff to run against Coffman. The Democrat had made an ill-fated primary challenge to Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010, even selling his own home to finance his campaign.
Private polling from both sides shows the race deadlocked, and both men have touted early massive fundraising hauls. Outside groups are already spending in the expensive Denver media market, and it’s expected to be one of the closest and priciest races in the country.
Coffman is under other pressures as well. The congressman’s change of heart wasn’t swift enough for his hometown paper. In an editorial last Thursday, the Aurora Sentinel blasted him for “an epic lack of judgment that he must carry with him to the next election and for the rest of his political career.”
“In the meantime, his constituents and everyone else in the country must suffer and pay for the worst political decision Coffman and Tea Party Republicans have ever made,” the editorial board wrote.
An automated Democratic poll over the weekend also showed Coffman trailing a generic Democratic challenger by eight points, with 50% saying they would be less likely to support Coffman if they knew he supported a government shutdown to block Obamacare. And the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC has already spent $30,000 on online videos and search advertising hitting Coffman for “holding the economy hostage to pursue [his] extreme agenda.”
Coffman said he began thinking last Thursday of joining what was then a growing bloc of Republicans who would back a clean CR to re-open the government, in order to shift the focus toward the impending debt ceiling debate.
“I think Republicans got a win in the last debt limit negotiations where we got the spending cap, so I think we ought to just sign the CR forward with those spending caps and open the government,” said Coffman “It was pointless to try to link Obamacare to itanymore– we had those votes, we had that debate, it’s time to move on.”
But offman’s Democratic opponent told MSNBC.com the move came too little too late, and said Coffman could re-open the government now if he would sign onto a Democratic discharge petition to bring a clean CR to the floors. Republicanshave argued that maneuver would be too slow and ineffective.
“You’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem,” said Romanoff.
The former state legislator said that in his three years as Speaker of the Colorado House, he had to work across party lines, forming a productive relationship with then Republican Gov. Bill Owens, even when they disagreed.
“When I was speaker, I didn’t have the luxury of deciding what bills to bring to the floor and which ones I didn’t,” said Romanoff. “Congress could learn a lot from Colorado.”
While the 6th District only has about 15,000 federal workers or retirees — about 2% of its population — Colorado as a whole has one of the highest concentration of government workers in the country. The district is also home to Buckley Air Force Base, where many civilian employees were furloughed. And after suffering devastating floods across the state last month, crucial emergency aid is also being delayed.
“This is not an Act of God that created the shutdown,” said Romanoff.
With GOP approval taking a hit though amid the shutdown and impending debt limit crisis, and polls showing it’s Republicans shouldering the brunt of the blame, even veteran Colorado Republicans admit the crisis isn’t helpful. But those observers also note that Coffman has done the best he can to separate himself from the more conservative wing of his party.
“Congressman Coffman is a classic example of the incumbent Republican who cannot afford for this stalemate to go too long and to start directly impacting his constituents,” said former Colorado GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams. “The vast majority of Republican congressmen represent relatively safe districts — he doesn’t.
Wadhams said Coffman “took the right tack” with his op-ed that was “basically condemning both sides” in the bitter stalemate, but added that the larger problem for the GOP was that there’s still no clear way out of the shutdown.
“I didn’t like the way we as Republicans almost blundered this way into our situation with no real way of how it would turn out,” said Wadhams. “That’s not exactly how you win in politics.”
“Coffman’s move to support the clean CR is not at all surprising,” said veteran Colorado Republican consultant Katy Atkinson. “He’s been doing some things in Congress that really are not standard traditional lockstep Republican things.”
Still, even if it’s a short-term story for both parties, each side has certainly been thinking of the political fallouts. National Republicans also counter that Democrats have been too eager to make political — and financial — hay of the government shutdown, including Romanoff’s campaign.
“Here’s the bottom line: Congress isn’t working. We don’t need a poll to tell us that. What we need is new leadership. And that’s exactly what Andrew will deliver,” Romanoff’s campaign manager wrote in a fundraising e-mail that went out Monday.
“The only thing [Romanoff] has done so far is he’s been trying to fundraise off the issue. I have no idea what his positions are,” Coffman bristled toward his opponent, adding, “I think the campaign’s a long way away.”
“The last thing Washington needs is another professional politician, like Andrew Romanoff, who will put partisanship ahead of hardworking Colorado families,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton. “If given the chance, Andrew Romanoff would have sided with Nancy Pelosi and voted for the government shutdown at the expense of vital government services like cancer research and veterans’ programs.” -
Still, Democrats argue, that even 13 months away, the damage to the GOP brand in such crucial swing areas like the 6th District is exactly the kind of catalyst they need.
“Congressman Mike Coffman’s days in Congress are numbered, now that he’s facing a voter revolt over forcing a government shutdown to meet his irresponsible demands,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Emily Bittner.”In the wake of his reckless shutdown, Congressman Coffman is left twisting in the wind, flip-flopping and saying he’s for re-opening the government before voting against it.”