Dem starts early at unenviable run for CD 6

By Peter Jones
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Republican Mike Coffman has yet to be sworn in as the newest representative of Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, but a Democratic challenger is already itching to unseat him.

Canter

David Canter, a Highlands Ranch attorney, is wasting no time in his quest to secure the seat being vacated in January by U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo. On Nov. 5, a day after Coffman handily defeated Hank Eng, the Democratic candidate in CD 6, Canter filed paperwork to face off against Coffman in 2010.

“The idea was to get my name out there so people know who I am,” Canter said. “As you become more familiar with me and my stances on the issues, we can raise the money to be competitive. Getting in early is the key to doing all that.”

Even if Canter’s early arrival eventually yields name recognition, the demographics of the district — which includes parts of Arapahoe, Douglas, Jefferson, Elbert and Park counties — have proven anything but promising for Democrats.

CD 6, where Republicans have traditionally held an almost 2-to-1 registration advantage, hasn’t sent a Democrat to Washington since its creation in 1982.

Still, in what Canter considers a glimmer of hope, district voters turned in majorities for Democrats Barack Obama and Mark Udall this year and for Bill Ritter in 2006.

Canter says Eng, Bill Winter and other Democrats who have sought to represent the highly Republican District 6 in recent years all have made the same fatal mistake: starting their campaigns too late.

In contrast, Canter’s strategy is not unlike that of Senator-elect Udall, who announced his candidacy for the Senate in 2006, two years before he was elected in November.

By launching his underdog campaign early, Canter hopes to have at least $1 million in the bank by the time the public starts paying attention to the midterm elections in 2010. In May of that year, the campaign will begin buying media time, according to the candidate.

In the meantime, the Democrat says he will spend much of the next 18 months rubbing elbows with the party insiders who can potentially help him as he builds his base and tries to raise funds. Plans call for initial campaign mailers to be sent to district residents as early as next month.

“There are a lot of people who are excited,” Canter said. “These people know the hard work and dedication that it’s going to take to win this district. They’re lining up to offer their services. This is going to be a marathon for two years, and I’m up to the task.”

If a tree falls in the forest...

The early bird may catch the worm, but after a contentious presidential election, a prolonged Democratic primary, congressional races and months of debates about Colorado’s crowded ballot initiatives, is anyone really interested in meeting an arguably long-shot candidate who won’t even be on the ballot until 2010?

The short-term outlook is not particularly promising for the Democratic newcomer says Floyd Ciruli, a political consultant and pollster who has closely watched CD 6 since its inception.

“I don’t think people in the party are going to be unhappy that there’s somebody dedicating themselves to this,” he said. “But I don’t believe there’s anybody that’s going to be at all interested in it. The public has some mild interest in politics at the moment, but it’s either focused on the Senate replacement [for Ken Salazar] or the inaugural and the transition in Washington. It’s way too early.”

According to Ciruli, there is scant evidence that even an aggressive and long-working Democrat can make headway in a district that easily sent Tancredo, one of the GOP’s hottest firebrands, to Congress four times.

“As a matter of fact, I would argue that it might even be less likely this time,” the pollster said. “Coffman is more moderate than the previous Republican congressman. Assuming he does what freshmen tend to do — and that’s work very hard and get himself established — he will be re-elected.”

Even with a recent upsurge in Democratic registrations, especially in the now “blue” Arapahoe County, Republicans still hold a registration advantage of roughly 83,000 over Democrats in CD 6. More than 141,000 unaffiliated voters are the district’s wild card, and they usually tend to lean Republican.

In recent state and federal elections, the GOP candidate has typically taken about 60 percent of the district’s vote, often with little effort.

“I don’t think starting earlier was the problem,” Ciruli said of Canter’s approach. “It’s the fact that the district is still strongly Republican. Keep in mind, it took Democrats many, many years to win in the 4th District [in northeastern Colorado]. The real question in 2010 won’t be, ‘Can they pick up the 6th?’ The real question will be, ‘Can they hold the 4th?’ ”

Given the numbers, the district’s history and Coffman’s record as a political moderate and prolific vote getter, Nathan Chambers, chairman of the Arapahoe County Republican Party, believes Canter’s chances are slim to none.

“The campaigns are starting earlier and earlier now, and to beat Mike Coffman in the 6th District, he should have started 10 years ago,” Chambers said. “It’s going to be very difficult for him to get any earned media. He’s going to have to buy name recognition. He’s got an uphill climb on loose rock.”

But Mike Hamrick, chairman of the Arapahoe County Democratic Party, thinks Canter’s head start at fundraising and his early meetings with party activists could be the winning ticket to representing the elusive 6th District.

“It’s a very difficult district to run in, and that’s why this change of strategy is important,” Hamrick said. “You need to file early to do things like fund-raise and get that message out and get your name out. If you look at a lot of the past candidates in the district, nobody really knew who they were.”

Who is David Canter?

The first-time candidate for public office is no stranger to Colorado politics. Canter has worked for various political campaigns and served as legal counsel for the Douglas County Democratic Party. Earlier this year, he was an Obama delegate at the state Democratic convention.

The candidate believes his two-decade-long history as a civil litigator and trial lawyer will help him forge compromises in Washington’s legislative trenches. Canter notes that he has settled some 97 percent of his cases out of court.

“Having been on the plaintiff side and the defense side, it gives me the ability to take a look at the issue from various perspectives and take a reasonable approach to conflict resolution,” he said. “It’s that same ability that’s going to give me strength as a United States congressman.”

The self-described moderate supports universal health care and a “measured withdrawal from Iraq,” and takes a nuanced position on illegal immigration.

“We need to put [illegal immigrants] on the road to becoming United States citizens,” he said. “I would consider any approach that would bring these people into the system.”

By Canter’s reckoning, the time will be right in 2010 to make a cogent argument that a Democrat who holds such positions should represent one of the safest GOP districts in Colorado.

“The people in the 6th District need real representation,” he said. “We have a Democrat in the White House and a Democratically controlled Congress. The way the district is going to get real representation is by having someone who can work within that group.

“Someone who’s a Democrat — and that’s me. That’s something a Republican can’t offer.”