Mike Littwin: After latest round of elections, which CO Republican should be the most worried?
August 11, 2018
We didn't have any races in Colorado in the latest round of pre-midterm elections, but that doesn't mean we didn't feel the ripples of another bad Republican night. In fact, the most critical political question now is which of the state's Republicans should be most worried come Election Day in November.
I'd say it's a toss-up among Mike Coffman in the 6th CD, Walker Stapleton in the governor's race and any state senator in a swingish district.
It's an off-year election, which is generally problematic for the party that holds the White House. And in this off-year election, it's not just any Republican president, it's Donald Trump, who, I think I can say without contradiction, is unlike any president belonging to any party in any part of the universe.
If the expected blue wave actually happens — and if there's anything I learned from Trump's victory, it's to be slightly more cautious on the prediction front — it would obviously affect U.S. House races. Since the Civil War — and, kids, you can do the Google if you're fuzzy on the dates — the presidential party has lost an average of 32 House seats in midterm elections.
But how deep would it go? A blue wave would likely mean a major swing in governors' races, where Republicans hold a huge majority. And Democrats are busily investing important money in state legislative races, where Republicans had feasted during the Barack Obama years. That makes 2018 the kind of year (like almost all others) where people say we're facing the most important election of our lives. But this is one where some people might actually mean it. And most of those people would be Democrats.
If Mike Coffman were a normal Republican candidate — and not a bonafide escape artist who not only beats tough opponents in thought-to-be-toss-up races, but beats them handily — I'd say he should be the most worried. But underestimating Coffman, as Democrats have learned, is a fool's game.
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In advance of this race, he has done his best to separate himself from Trump on some key issues, particularly immigration reform and DACA kids, but it's hard to escape the fact that a Republican House is Trump's House and the Republican Party, as constituted, is Trump's Republican Party and, in any case, Coffman votes with that party and president overwhelmingly.
The news out of Ohio, in CD 12, is that the Republican candidate seems to have squeaked by in a special election by less than a percentage point. That would be good news for Republicans if it weren't a district that Republicans have held since 1982 and have lost only once since the Great Depression. And it would be good news if Trump hadn't carried the district by 11 points. And it would be good news if there weren't a distinct trend line here, in what is being called the rural/suburban divide. The rurals are sticking with Trump, the suburbans not so much. And then there's the enthusiasm gap. What's not to worry about?
According to the numbers crunched by FiveThirtyEight.com, since Trump first stepped into the Oval Office, special election House races have shown a 16-point Democratic lean. By any count, that's a lot of leaning. According to the Cook Political Report, there are 66 at-risk Republican House seats and five Democratic seats at risk in November. That's a lot of risking. And Coffman's seat is once again rated a toss-up.
Yes, Trump just tweeted that he's expecting a red wave, and, I'm sure, somewhere in the background, Mike Pence is nodding in agreement. But is there anyone else who agrees? The reliably right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial page calls such thinking "an illusion." I'd go with delusion, but I guess that's why I don't write for the Journal.
And so, you get this from Sen. Lindsey Graham, a sometimes Trump ally and a sometimes Trump critic: "There's a real likelihood that (Democrats) not only win the House, but they win it by 10 or 12 more seats than they need."
He adds, "If I was a House guy in an R plus-10 or less seat, I'd be getting on the phone and raising money and putting a sign on my dog."
I don't know if Coffman has a dog. I do know that his district is Democratic leaning, that Hillary Clinton carried it by nine points. And I know that, in the past two elections, both considered toss-ups going in, Coffman beat Morgan Carroll (2016) by nine points and Andrew Romanoff (2014) by eight points.
By my math, that's two big wins for Coffman, but two wins under Graham's plus-10, and if a blue wave is coming, it may take more than Spanish lessons (you remember Coffman's classic Spanish-language debate with Spanish-fluent Romanoff) to pull out another highly contested race, this time against Jason Crow.
Democrats need to swing 23 seats in order to win the majority in the House. Most of the smart handicappers make them at least a slight favorite. Some have even suggested the possibility of a 50-seat swing. There can be no 50-seat swing that Coffman survives. It's hard to see how he could survive Graham's 35-seat scenario.
The problem for Coffman, and for every Republican in a swing district in Colorado, is Trump, who lost to Clinton by five points here. And one of the biggest problems with Trump is that he doesn't believe he's a problem. Trump's plan for October and November is to be on the campaign trail every day he's not at one of his golf courses.
Republicans have enough trouble winning the governor's seat in Colorado — only Bill Owens in theplast 40-plus years — without Trump. They're hoping that Jared Polis is seen as too liberal for Colorado, but I'm wondering if the election will be about anything but Trump. You've seen Stapleton, who more than embraced Trump during the primary, trying to dodge the question of whether he wants Trump to campaign for him. He finally had to say he would, while not-so-secretly hoping Trump would stay away.
Maybe, if Stapleton is lucky, Republicans will send Ivanka as the Trumpian surrogate who can say she thinks locking children in cages is a bad idea. But if Stapleton is out there talking constantly about so-called "sanctuary cities" — as he almost certainly will be — he'll basically be bringing Trump's Mexicans-as-rapists-and-murderers bigotry with him.
And since many millions of dollars will be spent on television ads by both sides in the governor's race, immigration will be constantly on, and in, the air. It's just one more reason Coffman, a five-term incumbent, has to be worried. As he should be.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for Colorado Independent.com.
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