Democrats challenge Coffman early in CD6

By Elizabeth Stortroen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Democrats already are lining up to challenge 6th Congressional Rep. Mike Coffman, the freshman Republican congressman who handily defeated CD 6 Democratic nominee Hank Eng in 2008, even as a wave of blue overtook most of the state.

David Canter, 47, of Highlands Ranch, and John Flerlage, 51, of Littleton, both hope that early momentum will carry them to victory on Election Day in 2010.

Although neither Canter nor Flerlage has ever run for political office before, both firmly believe they can win — although CD 6 has gone Republican by big margins ever since it was created in 1982.

“I think announcing my candidacy early was essential to winning,” said Flerlage, a Delta pilot who served 22 years in the Marines. “I believe you have to start early and you have to get out there and speak at all of the Democratic reorganization meetings in order to get your name out there.”

Canter, too, is undeterred by the district’s history.

“We don’t always fight the fights that we know we can win. I believe we fight those fights that must be fought and have to be won,” he said.

Eng started his race for CD 6 early in 2008, before the Republican nominee for the open seat being vacated by Tom Tancredo was determined.

Both Canter and Flerlage believe he started too late to build a constituency in the GOP-dominated district, which is why Canter announced his candidacy last November and Flerlage this past January.

Eng says he thinks it’s a good idea to start building name recognition early on.

“It is a tough district. There is no doubt about it,” Eng said in an interview with The Colorado Statesman.

Eng, however, said he believes Bush backlash may yet prove helpful in CD 6.

“I believe unless Coffman strikes out and shows he is different and sets himself apart from the other Republicans, voters might not follow him so easily,” Eng said. “Meaning he could be out, and this could be an excellent opening for Democrats to step in and be the change that voters want after seeing what the Republicans have done to this country for the past eight years,” he said.

Both 2010 Dem contenders plan to walk targeted precincts to meet residents to voice their beliefs on issues.

Canter and Flerlage said they are tired of seeing career politicians — and they put Coffman in that category — serve their own beliefs first and their constituents second.

“Take the stimulus package, for example. This is going to have the intended effect of bringing down unemployment, and Coffman voted against it,” Flerlage said. “He has consistently voted ‘no,’ and I think the people of this district deserve better.”

Coffman, naturally, disagrees. He gave this statement to The Colorado Statesman:

“My liberal Democrat opponents are absolutely correct in that I’ve been a consistent ‘no’ vote against the reckless deficit spending that is dangerously plunging our nation deeper and deeper into debt. No doubt, if elected, either one of them would fit in well with the Washington liberal elite who have absolutely no concept of fiscal discipline or a desire to ever achieve a balanced budget.”

According to Paula Noonan, Democratic chair for CD 6, neither Canter nor Flerlage is an “off the charts liberal.” That, she said, could work to their advantage.

“Their compatibility with Democratic voters will be important, but they also will have to appeal to moderate independent Republicans and Independents. Both can do that,” Noonan said. “If Coffman gets stuck as the ‘no’ candidate in an improving U.S. environment, we can give him a good race with either candidate.”

Andy Stone, western regional press secretary for the DCCC, said it is still too early in the cycle to take a stance on CD 6, but said the national campaign organization will watch how the situation develops over the next year and a half.

But the demographics of the district, which includes part of Arapahoe, Douglas, Jefferson, Elbert and Park counties, have not proven to be promising for Democrats in the past.

In CD 6, Republicans have traditionally held an almost 2-to-1 voter registration advantage, and even with the recent upsurge in Democratic registrations, especially in Arapahoe County, Republicans still hold a registration advantage of roughly 83,000 over Democrats in CD 6. The district also adds a wild card to the mix with more than 141,000 unaffiliated voters who usually tend to lean Republican.

“This is a strong Republican seat, and we are confident that our incumbent is going to keep this seat,” said Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “If you look back at the numbers, usually Republicans win that district with an average of about 60 percent of the vote. At this time, the Congressman is not on any of our lists of needing extra backing, but things change, so never say never, it’s still early.”

Scott Wills, CD 6 Republican chair, said he hasn’t heard of either Democratic candidate and doesn’t see the district turning blue unless there are redistricting changes after the U.S. Census, which wouldn’t affect the district in the 2010 election.

“We are going to do everything we can to make sure Coffman is our congressman for a long time,” Wills said. “In the last election, it was a 60/40 split, and our plan for 2010 is to bring everything we got and go get them.”

In order for either candidate to become a real contender in the untargeted district, fundraising is going to play a key role, and neither Canter nor Flerlage has been successful so far.

According to the Federal Election Commission, Flerlage raised $11,876 at the end of the first quarter, with $2,227 of that total coming from donations he made to his own campaign. So far, the only large campaign donations he has received have come from members of his family.

Canter seems to be in a similar boat, only raising $8,896 at the end of the first quarter. Unlike Flerlage, however, he is in debt to the tune of $11,000. He owes some of that to himself, and $5,000 to CommonCents Consulting LLC.

Furthermore, since CD 6 isn’t on the national Dem radar as a targeted district, fundraising isn’t likely to get any easier.

Coffman, on the other hand, already had raised almost $60,000 by the end of the first quarter.

Scott Adler, political science professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said neither man has much of a chance to take CD 6 in 2010, especially considering that the president’s party tends to lose congressional clout in midterm elections.

Adler said he believes the Democratic Party will concentrate in 2010 on keeping Democratic freshman Congresswoman Betsy Markey in CD 4 as the GOP works to unseat her.

“I don’t know if I would bet too much on either of these guys,” Adler said. “In order to unseat an incumbent, you need a substantial amount of money, which neither of these candidates has. And I imagine in 2010 lots of campaign money will be pouring into CD 4. So I don’t see CD 6 as a pick up for Democrats or as a seat Republicans will be worrying about losing.”

Does either candidate have what it takes?

Canter’s political experience is limited to his stint as an Obama delegate at the state convention and his work as a legal counsel for the Douglas County Democratic Party.

As for Flerlage, he is involved in serving at the house district level as treasurer of HD 28 and as a member of the leadership team for a new state group called the South Jeffco Democrats. He, also was an Obama delegate at the state convention.

Each has small campaign staffs. Flerlage has one paid campaigner, and Canter has ¬¬¬two, but each said they have many volunteers working for them.

The two Democrats said they have crossed paths numerous times while on the campaign trail and have respect for one another.

Canter praised Flerlage for his service and dedication to the country. Flerlage said Canter is a nice person who has a lot of determination. Both say they are more focused on Coffman right now.

Canter, a trial attorney with the Denver law firm of Miletich Pearl LLC, and the father of three, said his experience as a lawyer has taught him how to connect with people, which he said would help him relate to his constituents, if elected.

One issue that is close to Canter’s heart is education. He said every child in the country deserves a great education and the chance to go to college without having to worry about paying off that education for several years.

Flerlage said he has been preparing himself for this race ever since George W. Bush was first elected in 2000.

“It was kind of like one thing after another kept happening that I either disagreed with or thought could have been done a better way when I decided it was my time to step up and run for office,” Flerlage said.

Flerlage, also the father of three, said in order for our economy to pick up, America needs to rebuild the middles class, which he believes is the backbone of the American economy.

Pat Waak, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, said each is a credible candidate and that, by starting early, they have been doing a good job at getting themselves known.

She added, however, that things still don’t look good for 2010 Dem win in CD 6.

“It is a very tough district for Democrats, as we know. But I think we will eventually come to a time when that changes,” Waak said. “I think it is good to leave nothing left unchallenged, because we never know what is going to happen. But without this being a targeted race by the DCCC, it is going to be a tough district for either
candidate.”