Insights: Crazy Legs Coffman has all the right moves Republican candidates should learn

Author: Joey Bunch - June 18, 2017 - Updated: January 7, 2018

Election season is like baseball season. It lasts forever with just enough action before the seventh-inning stretch to sell peanuts and hot dogs. People already are spitting theories and angles — as one candidate after another joins the races — about who might have the mojo in 2018.

We’re all just guessing. In quirky and purple Colorado, there’s still too much in play to get a clear sense now of what anything will mean then, or a month from now, or the day after tomorrow.

For Republicans, there’s no sign President Trump can stay off Twitter and out of the headlines long enough to focus on his economic agenda. Ned Ryun, the founder and leader of the conservative American Majority project, told me a couple of weeks ago it’s imperative for Trump to notch some economic wins to  provide cover to supporters running for Congress next year.

Democrats will do everything they can to keep the talk on Russia and not trade policy, tweets instead of spread sheets.

Trump is a plausibly deniable Republican, however. He ran on a conservative platform in the most general terms. In July of last year, the very excellent Red State blog said Trump had abandoned GOP values.

“First Republican candidate to suggest cradle-to-grave, big government care,” wrote Red State’s Susan Wright. “First Republican candidate to suggest pulling out of NATO and allowing Russia to take a bigger role on the world stage. First Republican candidate who knows absolutely nothing about any of the traditional platforms of American conservatism.”

As Ryun assessed, if Trumpeteers could point to kept promises on jobs and the economy, it lifts all campaign boats flying the Republican colors, at least a little. And if Trump is exonerated by then it could serve as the proof of conservative persecution, always jet fuel for the base. If  Trump is still in the chunky peanut better and jam he’s in today, most Republican candidates will need to distance themselves.

No one can win a general election without their party’s base, so defectors take a suicidal risk.

But consider the Coffman Maneuver.

Republican Rep. Mike Coffman avoided Trump’s shadow in his evenly split district in east metro Denver last November by standing up to Trump.

Already Coffman has positioned himself on the side of a thorough Russia investigation, and he’s kept a distance from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as Cory Hutchins of the Colorado Independent noted Thursday. There is no risk in supporting a thorough investigation into whether Russia is meddling in American affairs. Even Coffman’s biggest detractors believe him to be a principled patriot, because he is.

Last year Coffman made the case he was no fan of Trump, (“I’m a Marine; for me country comes first.”) without alienating base Republicans who liked Mike more than Donald. Former Sen. Morgan Carroll tried her best to run against a straw man Trump-Coffman ticket, a nod to the district’s significant immigrant population. Whoever emerges from an ever-crowding Democratic field will try, likely in vain, to do the same.

Crazy Legs Coffman is always running, and he hasn’t lose a race since he first ran for the Colorado House in 1988.

Democrats can’t count on anti-Trump momentum to catch up.

On the other hand, there’s history here. In the 2010 midterms, Republicans got onboard the tea party express, and Sarah Palin was in her ascendancy. They whipped Democrats like donkeys, picking up 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate. Obama kept his firewall because of other tea party candidates who respectively felt compelled to explain she wasn’t a witch and another who told a Latino student union at a high school some of them looked Asian. Ken Buck, who won a seat in the U.S. House in 2014, drank the tea party’s brew and lost to Michael Bennet in 2010.

That year was a midterm election, and Democrats have turnout problems when there’s not a presidential race on the ballot, like next year. Democrats got crushed and lost the House in 1994, the mid-term after President Clinton moved into the White House.

Another wild card next is the participation of unaffiliated voters in Colorado, after voters approved semi-open primaries last year. If moderates flood into either party’s primary next June, that opens the door for a moderate to win. But there’s not enough hard data yet to prove that could happen.

Chasing moderates means leaving the base behind, and nobody wins a general election anymore without their party’s base.

But moderation still has to be in the back of the minds of candidates who might normally try to outflank the other challengers in the primary the face a hard climb for the general election in a moderate state. (Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back our old friend Darryl Glenn.)

It’s even more complicated for Democrats. Next year, the party already has a bunch of heavily contested primaries at the state and congressional level. That’s unusual for Colorado’s establishment left, which in the past has coalesced early behind a single candidate.

The right is used to that. Republicans in recent years have had a half dozen or more candidates in nearly every major primary. Nominee Bob Beauprez had three challengers in the GOP primary in 2014, a field that had narrowed from nine. In 2010, John Hickenlooper was handed the nomination by his party leaders. (Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back our old friend Hillary Clinton.)

Republicans know who their primary voters are and how to manage intra-party riffs. Democrats don’t.

The batters are up, but the trip around the bases is going to be a jagged path.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.

One comment

  • Donald E. L. Johnson

    June 19, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    With Donald Trump doing all he can to get impeached and maybe even convicted and thrown out of office, haven’t the odds that Republicans in tightly contested districts like Mike Coffman’s are at more risk than they’ve been in years?

    Coffman can hold his own when a GOP president is popular, but Trump’s approval rating is down to the mid 30s, and the way he’s going, it could be in the mid to low 20s by November 2018. That very likely would cost Coffman his seat. If he voted for impeachment, Trump groupies would vote against him. Should he vote against impeachment, Democrats and unaffiliated voters would vote to fire him.

    Either way, Coffman’s got a tougher than usual race coming up next year, I think.

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