Democrats are once again bullish about the prospect of taking down Republican Rep. Mike Coffman (Colo.), but the party’s favored candidate may have to wade through a contentious primary first.
Top Democrats are excited about Jason Crow, a Denver-area lawyer and veteran who has emerged as the clear front-runner.
However, the field could get crowded as other Democrats — including Levi Tillemann, the grandson of storied former congressman and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos — weigh a bid.
While Coffman has long been a top target for Democrats, he’s pulled off convincing victories in each of the past two cycles. Now, Democrats believe that a potential national tide mounting against the GOP could finally help sweep Coffman away, even though he outperformed President Trump in 2016 by almost 20 points in his district, which Trump lost.
“He’s a very adept campaigner and runs a very aggressive constituent service operation. Do not underestimate Coffman,” a Colorado Democratic strategist told The Hill.
“That said, it’s very different in a midterm that’s a referendum on the past two years. … Now, Republicans control the House, Senate and the presidency and Coffman has a voting record that is, in many ways, pro-Trump.”
Many Democrats see Crow as the right kind of challenger to take on Coffman, a five-term congressman, former statewide officeholder and veteran.
After growing up in a working-class family, Crow served in Iraq and Afghanistan, first as a paratrooper, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star, and later as an Army ranger.
He returned to civilian life as a lawyer and a member of the Colorado Board of Veterans Affairs, playing a role in winning funding for an area veterans medical center. He also advised the Democratic campaigns of former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden Supreme Court study panel unanimously approves final report To advance democracy, defend Taiwan and Ukraine Press: GOP freak show: Who's in charge? MORE, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Colorado Sen. Mark UdallMark Emery UdallKennedy apologizes for calling Haaland a 'whack job' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland courts moderates during tense confirmation hearing | GOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change | White House urges passage of House public lands package Udalls: Haaland criticism motivated 'by something other than her record' MORE on veterans issues.
“Our family worked hard and struggled economically, so I realized at a fairly young age that the deck is stacked against a lot of working families,” Crow said.
“I’ve spent my adult life serving the community and fighting for those who need a champion, largely out of politics.”
Crow, who won an influential endorsement from Udall last week, trained his ire solely on Coffman in an interview with The Hill. He highlighted the Republican ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill and GOP stonewalling on immigration reform as two issues on which Coffman and his party aren’t right for the district — although Coffman voted against the final House version of the healthcare bill despite supporting an earlier iteration.
“We are not going to solve the political dysfunction in Washington by electing the same people who contributed to it,” he said.
“Coffman has been talking about immigration reform for almost a decade, yet we are in no better place than when he took office.”
Crow is the highest-profile candidate in the field, which also includes fellow lawyer David Aarestad and Gabriel McArthur, a former 2016 Democratic National Convention delegate for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill White House 'strongly opposes' Senate resolution to stop Saudi arms sale MORE (I-Vt.).
But Crow could also face a challenge from Tillemann, who is exploring a bid of his own and already pulling no punches.
Tillemann’s grandfather, Congress’s only Holocaust survivor and the co-founder of the Congressional Human Rights Commission, isn’t his only political relative. One of his grandmothers, Nancy Dick, served eight years as Colorado’s first female lieutenant governor.
Tillemann, who speaks five languages and enrolled in the Denver-area Regis University at the age of 15 before transferring to Yale University, has his own background to tout.
He’s a green energy expert and author who advised the Department of Energy during Obama’s administration. Tillemann is now the managing partner at Valence Strategic, a consulting firm focused on “transformative industries.”
In an interview with The Hill, Tillemann stressed his experience on clean energy solutions and dealing with economic changes like automation.
“If coal comes back, the money won’t come back for the miners, but it will go to the people who own these automated coal mines. That’s a reflection of the broader economy, and we have to start preparing,” he said.
But on top of the expected digs at Coffman and discussions about his policy platforms, Tillemann framed himself as a progressive willing to take up the fight. In contrast, Tillemann labeled Crow as a tool of the Washington establishment and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the House Democrats’ campaign arm.
“The DCCC likes Jason Crow; they like his resume. He’s a classic DCCC candidate in that [the DCCC] is good at three things: collecting a resume, raising money and losing elections,” Tillemann said.
“Jason Crow wants to be a congressman, but it’s pretty unclear what he wants to do once he’s a congressman. That’s the classic DCCC problem. They don’t collect people with fire in their bellies.”
He even criticized Crow’s profession, arguing that “we need fewer lawyers in Washington and more entrepreneurs and more fighters.”
Crow told The Hill he wouldn’t engage when approached with Tillemann’s criticisms.
“It’s a shame to hear that there are potential candidates taking that approach, because that’s not my approach. I’m a positive person by nature, I have a positive message based on the issues, and I will talk about the issues keeping myself and this community awake at night,” he said.
“I’m not anyone’s anointed candidate — I’m out in the district every day, meeting with folks and trying to earn every single vote. If there’s a primary battle over the next year, that’s something that I’m looking forward to, to have a substantive debate.”
That kind of sparring is what Republicans hope will cut the Democratic nominee down a peg ahead of an uncertain general election.
Coffman first won the seat in 2008, winning reelection by at least 9 points every cycle except in 2012, Obama’s reelection.
But with Trump’s approval rating well underwater and the uncertainty surrounding the Russia investigation swirling, election analysts and even vulnerable Republicans are admitting the national tide could put safer seats in play.
Democrats are ready to tie Coffman to the GOP and the unpopular president, arguing that it’ll be harder for him to distance himself now that the GOP agenda can be directly tied to Trump.
And while Coffman broke with the administration in voting against the plan to repeal ObamaCare, Democrats say he’ll still have to own the plan thanks to his support of an earlier iteration.
“President Trump actually has a record now, and people are facing the reality of what that means,” a Democratic strategist working on Colorado House races said.
“He thinks that one vote can somehow distract from the 60-something other votes where he’s been on record voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act?”
But national and local Republicans who spoke to The Hill aren’t worried about Coffman, who has deftly parried challenges from both the former state Senate minority leader and the former state House speaker in the past two general elections.
Coffman is part of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Patriot Program, a fundraising tool for vulnerable members that gives him access to valuable resources. And after Coffman outran Trump by almost 20 points in 2016, they think he’s separated himself enough from the president.
“Democrats are going to try to hang this around Coffman’s neck, saddle him with his voting record with Trump,” said former Colorado GOP Chairman Ryan Call.
“That is not going to resonate with the voters who know Mike to be independent-minded and a strong advocate for that constituency he represents.”
--This article was updated at 9:55 a.m. to reflect Tillemann's comment about the DCCC.