Coffman whips three opponents to take CD 6

Wil Armstrong, Ted Harvey and Steve Ward fall

By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The four-way primary in the 6th Congressional District was always Mike Coffman’s to lose. And, during a primary campaign that lasted for the better part of a year, that never changed.

Still, the margin of Coffman’s almost 8-point victory on Aug. 12 was a surprise to some, including Coffman’s campaign manager, Dustin Zvonek, considering opponent Wil Armstrong’s late-campaign spending spree.

“In the end, I thought it would be closer,” Zvonek said, at Coffman’s celebration party at the Marriott Hotel in Littleton. “You expect that when somebody spends $500,000 of their own money.”

Coffman took 40.1 percent of the vote, Armstrong 32.8 percent, Ted Harvey 15.3 percent and Steve Ward 11.8 percent.

To be precise, Armstrong, a businessman from Greenwood Village and the son of former U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong, spent $531,009 of his own money during the campaign. Armstrong’s TV ads began running July 8, and they ran steadily for the next month.

In retrospect, Armstrong’s flood of advertising was one of the few developments in the campaign that turned out to matter at the polls. While Coffman held a 28-point lead over Armstrong in late May, polls commissioned by the Coffman and Armstrong campaigns showed the gap between the candidates closing as July ended. The gap began to close after three steady weeks of Armstrong TV advertisements, including one contrasting Coffman’s political experience with Armstrong’s business background.

However, by the time votes began swinging to Armstrong, mail-in voting had already been going for at least a week. Those ballots were mailed out to voters starting July 11.

“The record-breaking number of absentee ballots, coming disproportionately early, likely worked against us,” said Jack Stansbery, Armstrong’s campaign manager.

Stansbery said perhaps the campaign should have begun the ad blitz a few weeks before, in order to boost Armstrong’s name recognition earlier.

Meanwhile, Coffman was a known commodity in the district — TV ads or not — having served as a state legislator, state senator, for two terms as state treasurer, and currently, as secretary of state. Coffman is also a veteran of the Iraq and Gulf wars.

“We were working against 20 years of building name ID,” Stansbery said.

As the frontrunner, Coffman was subject to attacks not only in Armstrong’s TV ads, but also from rogue members of the 501(c)4 group Protect Colorado Jobs, who, at the end of July, sent an anonymous Coffman-bashing campaign mailing to every voter in the district.

Coffman said in an interview that voters had ended up rejecting the negative campaigning.

“I think that the voters of the 6th Congressional District responded to a positive campaign that stayed on the issues,” he said.

Armstrong pushed ‘outsider’ message, but some objected

While Armstrong’s primary-watching party at the Fox and Hound Restaurant in Littleton was littered with politicos, Coffman’s party of about 150 held few politically prominent faces; most celebrants were volunteers.

“It was the man versus the machine,” commented Coffman volunteer Dave Lewis.

Throughout the campaign, Armstrong repeatedly pushed the message that he was an outsider to the political process, a message Stansbery called “effective” but “obviously not effective enough.”

Considering that Armstrong’s father is considered the dean of the Colorado Republican Party, the message was blasted for being hypocritical by everyone from bloggers to primary opponents.

Consider Ward’s post-primary comments.

“The party apparatus backed somebody who had absolutely no qualifications to serve. And it was just because of his father,” Ward said. “The same people that dug this hole for us are not going to dig us out.”

“That Mike got elected bodes well. He was able to overcome just a ridiculous parade of endorsements,” Ward added, referencing endorsements for Armstrong from former Gov. Bill Owens, Attorney General John Suthers and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, among a slew of others.

Armstrong, in his typically upbeat manner, said he was unscarred by such digs.

“None of that bothered me,” Armstrong said. “I was enormously blessed by my father and his involvement in the campaign.”

“These are friends of mine,” Armstrong added of the endorsements. “These are people I’ve worked with — and people I want to go to bat for in the future.”

Ward, Harvey lacked funds to compete

While Armstrong made some inroads against Coffman, the Ward and Harvey campaigns never really challenged the secretary of state. In large part, that came down to money.

Armstrong had a total of $1,170,714, including the $531,000 of his own money. Coffman had $968,970, including $100,000 from loans. (The Coffman campaign said future donations could help pay off Coffman’s debt, while Armstrong said he was not sure if his campaign debt could be paid off by contributors.)

Meanwhile, Harvey raised only $182,330, while Ward had $97,091.

Their comparative riches allowed Coffman and Armstrong to litter the district with TV ads and campaign literature, something Ward and Harvey couldn’t do.

Even though the Ward campaign knocked on thousands of doors and had some 200 volunteers, Ward said, to compete with Coffman, he would have needed to raise $150,000 more than he did.

That Ward returned from serving as a Marine in Iraq in February, while Coffman and Armstrong began their campaigns last winter, played a major role in the poor fund-raising, said Ward campaign manager Christine Burtt.

“We heard constantly, ‘I’ve already committed to Mike.’ Or even, ‘I’ve already committed to Bill Armstrong,’” Burtt said.

Ward said although he may have come in fourth, he influenced the policy views of the other CD 6 candidates through his strong debate performances.

“By June, they pretty much adopted everything in my book,” Ward said of his three opponents. “Mike Coffman even stole entire paragraphs from my speech, which he would deliver when I was out of the room.”

Meanwhile, Harvey had maintained throughout the campaign that his grassroots support in Douglas County was overwhelming — so strong that it had scared Coffman and Armstrong away from qualifying for the primary ballot through the CD 6 Assembly. They instead petitioned onto the ballot.

But that support didn’t carry him to victory. Harvey essentially flopped in Douglas County on Election Day, coming in third behind Coffman and Armstrong, and winning less than 21 percent of the vote.

“It was all talk,” said Zvonek, Coffman’s campaign manager.

Harvey had staked out a position as the proven social conservative in the race, but his coalition apparently came unstuck.

“If the religious conservative base had stayed together, then Harvey could have won,” commented Ward. “They didn’t. They fractured everywhere.”

While Coffman won in all five of the district’s counties — and Armstrong took second in all five — it was in Douglas County where he built his big lead over Armstrong, besting him by about 2,500 votes.

Harvey, looking a bit flustered, briefly stopped by Coffman’s victory party at the Marriott on Tuesday, about half-an-hour before Coffman declared victory.

“How is he not here yet?” Harvey asked.

Harvey then made a beeline up to Coffman’s hotel room to congratulate the winner, and did not return for Coffman’s victory celebration. Neither Harvey nor his campaign manager returned subsequent phone calls seeking comment about the primary result.

Candidates discuss political futures

What are the political futures of the candidates, who, at the very least, all increased their name recognition by running in CD 6?

Ward, who gave up his state Senate seat to run, said he has no plans to run for future political office, since he’s primarily interested in national security and energy issues — issues he says can’t be addressed at the state level. Harvey, meanwhile, can return to the Colorado Senate.

Armstrong said he would return to business and that he is not sure of his future political plans. He emphasized that he would be working until November, however, to ensure Bob Schaffer is elected to the U.S. Senate and John McCain is elected president.

While Coffman is strongly favored to defeat Hank Eng in the general election in the overwhelming Republican district, he said he would still campaign hard for the general election so as to turn out votes for Schaffer and McCain.

If elected, Coffman would become one of the first Republicans to serve in Congress who also served in Iraq.

Other Republican Iraq veterans who are likely to join Coffman in Congress include Duncan Hunter Jr., of California, and Steve Stivers, of Ohio, according to the National Republican Campaign Committee. The Democrats already have an Iraq veteran in their ranks in Rep. Patrick Murphy, of Pennsylvania.

Ritter will appoint new secretary of state

Coffman’s victory requires him to leave his job as secretary of state, a job he won in a hard-fought election only two years ago.

Coffman promised to stay on board, however, until all the votes have been tallied in the November election.

Gov. Bill Ritter will almost assuredly appoint a Democrat to fill the post, leaving only one Republican holding statewide office — Attorney General John Suthers.

For that reason, GOP Party Chair Dick Wadhams initially tried to dissuade Coffman from running last fall. With the reality of Coffman’s victory, though, Wadhams’ tune has changed.

“I think Mike Coffman will be an outstanding member of Congress. I never had any doubt about that,” Wadhams said. “The voters of CD 6 spoke, and the issue [of a Democratic secretary of state] was raised in the primary. I’m also confident that whoever Bill Ritter appoints will be defeated by a Republican in 2010.”

Democratic House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, a rising star in the party who is term-limited, has told The Statesman he would at least consider taking the job. Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon, who lost to Coffman for secretary of state in 2006, has said would almost assuredly accept the position. And former Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald — also a former Jefferson County Clerk — who lost to Jared Polis in the Congressional District 2 primary, is a new possibility. Her campaign declined to say whether she would be interested in the job.

Wadhams said he didn’t really care who Ritter appointed.

“They’re all fine and good people. They’re all competent,” he said of the possible candidates.

But Wadhams noted that there’s a reason Republicans have controlled the secretary of state’s office in Colorado for the past 40 years.

“People have confidence in Republicans to run fair and open elections. They don’t have confidence in Democrats to do so. And over the past several years, a major difference has developed between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans see ballot security as the priority, and Democrats see ballot access as the priority,” he said.

Suzanne Andrews, a Coffman supporter and the GOP candidate in Senate District 29 against Democrat Morgan Carroll, said sending Coffman to Congress, for her, trumped having a Republican as secretary of state.

“We’ll just have to work with him, and pray for him, that he doesn’t take Democratic stances,” Andrews said of whichever Democrat is appointed. “We’ll pray that he believes in right and wrong, according to the Bible. He’ll have a lot of people praying for him when he takes over this job.”

For Andrews and other Coffman supporters, though, praying about the new secretary of state could wait until after Tuesday night.

“We can celebrate tonight for what we have put behind us,” Coffman told them. “And that is the Republican primary.”