One of the hottest U.S. House seat races in the country is going on right now in Colorado. The 6th Congressional district, located just outside Denver, features three-term Republican Representative Mike Coffman running against Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff.
This election will take place in a state that is seeing very competitive and well funded contests for both U.S. Senate and governor.
What’s so special about this race? Yes, it’s likely to be a very close one, but it’s unlikely to be pivotal—the Republican House majority is not facing a serious threat this year. And yes, it's somewhat novel in that a Republican incumbent appears in danger of losing to a Democratic challenger, which is somewhat the opposite partisan pattern we've seen elsewhere in the country this year.
But at least for political scientists and other political observers, it’s a fascinating race because so many of the fundamentals of politics are in play and at war with each other. To wit:
- REDISTRICTING: Coffman was originally elected in 2008 to represent a very conservative district, the same one that Tom Tancredo had represented before him. A substantial redrawing of this district after 2010 made it much more moderate, however. President Bush won this district 60-39 in 2004; President Obama won it in 2012 52-47.
- RECRUITMENT: One of the best predictors of how the out-party will do in elections is how effective they’ve been in recruiting strong challengers. Romanoff is a very strong challenger. He was a four-term state House member from Denver and served as the speaker of that chamber between 2005 and 2008, then the youngest speaker in Colorado history. He remains extremely popular among Democratic activists, has strong name identification throughout the state, and is an accomplished fundraiser and skilled debater. Democrats had recruited a somewhat less accomplished and less well known nominee in 2012 to challenge Coffman. That candidate, Joe Miklosi, lost by just two points. Romanoff's relative quality might be enough to close that gap. But this is related to...
- PARTISAN TIDES: There was a modest Democratic tilt to the entire electorate in 2012, as Obama was at the top of the ticket and winning nationwide. This year's electorate is likely to have somewhat of a Republican lean, in part due to Obama's middling approval ratings and in part due to the traditional anti-presidential turnout bias in mid-term elections. If Romanoff had been running two years ago, he'd probably have taken down Coffman. This year, that task will be harder. But that's all tied into...
- TURNOUT: Yes, it matters that this isn't a presidential election. Obama won't be at the top of the ticket, which means far fewer Democrats will turn out. At the same time, though, this election will take place in a state that is seeing very competitive and well funded contests for both U.S. Senate and governor. Senator Mark Udall, the Democrat running for re-election, is notably borrowing from Senator Michael Bennet's playbook from 2010, which involved heavy use of local field offices to boost turnout. The voter turnout efforts from those races will likely spill over into the 6th congressional district race.
- POSITIONING: Coffman has moved leftward on a number of issues in the past few years, including immigration and personhood, in the hopes of improving his chances for re-election. While there are some risks to this, exposing him to accusations of flip-flopping, it can also potentially offer significant payoffs. Voters are known to punish incumbents who seem to vote with their party too often, and Coffman is now better positioned than he was a few years ago.
- SPENDING: Both the candidates are effective fundraisers, having raised roughly $3.5 million each so far this year, and they’re being backed heavily by the national parties and a broad array of outside money. This money is being used to buy up pretty much every available advertising slot between now and November, and to fund a range of voter turnout efforts. At least so far, it looks like spending will be a wash, as the candidates are pretty well matched. But Romanoff has interestingly foresworn PAC money (even though that doesn't appear to be hurting his bottom line). Perhaps this will make a difference in the end, but given the relatively modest impact of spending on election results and the fact that the candidates are near parity, this is unlikely to be a major factor.
All in all, this is proving to be an exciting race that will have much to teach us when it's all over. But there are so many variables in play here, it's hard to know just which lessons we'll be learning.