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TRAIL MIX | Keeping score on Coffman and Trump

Author: Ernest Luning - September 14, 2018 - Updated: September 27, 2018

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U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman (left) was on hand as President Donald Trump signed the “VA Mission Act” during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House on June 6. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

There’s no question the November election will be a referendum on President Donald Trump. Voters tend to treat congressional midterms as a chance to render judgment on the party in power, and this time around it’s the Republicans — who control the White House and both chambers of Congress — facing the crucible.

By all indications, the GOP is in for a shellacking on a national scale, with only the extent of the party’s defeat to be determined. It’s an open question in Colorado, however, whether individual Republicans in swing districts have distanced themselves enough from Trump to withstand the wave.

Few Republican members of Congress have made such a show of standing up to Trump as U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, who even cut an ad vowing to do just that two years ago before Trump won the presidency.

But Coffman’s opponents, including Democratic challenger Jason Crow and a raft of Democratic-aligned organizations, have been questioning that proposition — and spending what will eventually add up to millions of dollars telling voters it just ain’t so, despite what Coffman says.

Coffman is running for a sixth term representing the evenly divided, suburban 6th Congressional District, which hugs Denver’s eastern side and includes portions of Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties. One of two dozen Republicans nationwide who hold House districts won by Hillary Clinton, he’s one of the Democrats’ top national targets.

Last week, one of those groups launched an attack on Coffman for his record on environmental matters. “Take the ‘cough’ out of Congress,” the League of Conservation Voters ad concluded, along with a graphic depicting Mike “Cough”man in front of belching smokestacks, in a play on words that left some groaning and others grinning.

The ad calls out Coffman for voting contrary to the LCV position over the years. Then, as a grainy image of Trump shows up on screen, the narrator adds: “And who does Coffman vote with 96 percent of the time? The worst polluter of all.”

The percentage represents how often Coffman has voted with Trump’s position on House measures where Trump’s position has been clear, as measured by the FiveThirtyEight.com blog, which slices and dices political statistics. At this point, that amounts to agreeing with Trump in 86 of the 90 votes Trump has weighed in on since Trump took office. (That’s out of more than 1,000 total votes taken by the House, many procedural.)

It’s a figure that other Coffman detractors have been bandying about lately — including U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, the Democrat from Massachusetts who early on endorsed Coffman’s Democratic challenger and fellow Iraq War veteran Crow.

At a recent town hall organized by the Crow campaign in Aurora, Moulton called for more bipartisan cooperation in Congress and praised state lawmakers who have crossed the aisle to come up with solutions — although he didn’t point out that Coffman is a member of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers caucus.

Hold on a second, Colorado Politics asked Moulton after the event. Isn’t Coffman the kind of Republican you’re saying should be encouraged, not wiped from the map?

“I like Mike,” Moulton said. “He’s a nice guy, but 96-percent voting record with the president is not cutting it.”

A few days after the LCV ad started airing, another national figure came to Coffman’s defense, tweeting out a lengthy statement that denounced the attack.

“I’ve had the privilege of witnessing Mike Coffman’s congressional service for years,” wrote Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer and former Republican from Utah who ran for president two years ago as a conservative alternative to Trump. “He’s an honorable leader who is dedicated to serving every member of his community on issues from health care and immigration to veterans affairs, even when it means standing up to Republican leadership.

“He’s now under attack by super PACs trying to mislead members of Colorado’s 6th District by casting him as a yes-man for President Trump, but Mike is nothing of the sort. He is an independent-minded leader who has remained committed to American values, his constitutional duties in Congress and serving his district, even when it puts him at odds with the president and his own party.”

Which is it? Does Coffman’s “Trump score” mean he’s the president’s enabler, or is it measuring something else?

Not surprisingly, depends who you ask.

“There are a lot of unabashed Trump enablers in Congress, but calling Mike Coffman one of them is absurd,” McMullin said in a statement to Colorado Politics. “I’ve been in the room when he’s bucked his own party’s leadership, and in the Trump era he’s shown time and again that he is still willing to put his principles over partisanship. You can’t boil leadership down to unqualified percentages alone.”

Coffman’s campaign manager, Tyler Sandberg, agrees, calling the number “garbage” because the score counts dozens of routine votes while ignoring that Coffman broke with Trump on the most crucial votes, including Russian sanctions, repealing Obamacare and net neutrality.

What’s more, Coffman has been among the most vocal Republicans to cross Trump on immigration policy, striking at the core of what it means to support Trump.

But Alyssa Roberts, LCV’s communications director, scoffed.

“Coffman’s campaign is grasping at straws,” she wrote in an email “If Mike Coffman wants to distance himself from Trump, it’ll take more than talk – he needs to take real votes.” She went on to cite dozens she considers meaningful, including blocking local input on public lands, allowing fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic and what she termed “blocking climate solutions.”

Crow’s communications director, Mitch Schwartz, sounded amused at the controversy, suggesting that there was “something (Coffman) could’ve been doing about that for the last two years,” like putting his vote where his mouth has been. Schwartz added that the campaign had no intention of shelving the number and pointed to an ad released this weak that features it.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.