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In Colorado, Immigration Reform May Decide Close Race

Image: Andrew Romanoff

Candidate for U.S. Congress Andrew Romanoff, middle, hosts several undocumented students who came to the US as children, to discuss the impact that passing immigration reform legislation would have on them and their families, at Romanoff's campaign office Friday June 27, 2014 in Aurora, Colo. June 27 marks the one year anniversary of the Senate passing immigration reform legislation, which has yet to pass in the House of Representatives. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)Brennan Linsley / AP

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., was one of only 11 Republicans to vote against a measure earlier this month rolling back President Obama’s 2012 executive action to give qualified young undocumented immigrants legal status in the United States.

The reason why was pretty simple: Coffman’s race for re-election in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District – arguably the most competitive House contest in the country – could very well come down to the Latino vote and the issue of immigration.

The district is among the more diverse in the nation. One in five residents here is Latino. And students in the local schools come from more than 130 different countries.

And it’s all the more remarkable because Coffman has opposed comprehensive immigration reform, and had previously voted stop Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, executive action.

Coffman’s challenger, Andrew Romanoff, has called out Coffman’s reversal.

"We're glad to see Congressman Coffman follow Andrew Romanoff's lead,” Romanoff communications director Denise Baron wrote in a statement issued to reporters. “It's a shame that it took a strong opponent and a tough election to get the congressman to reverse his votes for the moment and suspend his attack on DACA.”

It is clear that Coffman is too conservative for this [new] district.

Also among the 11 Republicans who voted against the bill was Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who is vying to unseat Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., this fall, and who up until recently wasn’t exactly known for his support of comprehensive immigration reform, either.

“He is trying to moderate his positions”

Given the district’s Latino makeup, Team Coffman is working hard to level the playing field.

Every night, the three-term lawmaker now clears 15 minutes out of his schedule to call his Spanish tutor. On Sundays, the two sit down for an extended two-hour drill session.

Giving interviews to Latino newspapers in Spanish and scoring A’s for effort in reaching out to Hispanic community leaders in their native language is part of Coffman’s re-election campaign playbook.

Up until the decennial redistricting, effective in 2012, Colorado’s Sixth District was staunchly conservative – and so were its congressmen.

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Now the district is close by design, said Kenneth Bickers, a political scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “The courts stripped lots of Republican voters and moved a lot of Hispanic households into the district.” The result was an electorate almost evenly divided along party lines and unaffiliated voters.

Pre-redistricting, Coffman went on the record rigorously opposing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But after 2014, he has reversed his position and supported legislation to offer conditional legal status to children who were brought to the country illegally if they serve in the military.

Then came last Friday’s vote to uphold DACA.

“It is clear that Coffman is too conservative for this [new] district,” said Peter Hanson, a political scientist at the University of Denver. “He is trying to moderate his positions.”

Shaking off the past

Coffman’s staff works overtime to offset the effects of the immigration reform debate with its preferred talking points.

“Whether through his 21 years of service in the Army and Marine Corps, including both Iraq wars, or his uncovering of the VA cover-up of falsified waiting lists for veterans across the country, Mike lives by the motto of ‘Work hard, find solutions’,” Tyler Sandberg, Coffman’s campaign manager, wrote in an email.

The plan could work. “In a district with a lot of veteran families, that issue plays for [Coffman] as much as immigration plays against him,” the University of Colorado’s Bickers said.

Republican strategists believe the incumbent is in a much better position in 2014 than he was two years ago when President Obama turned out large numbers of minority voters. In 2012, Coffman barely won re-election, 48 percent to 46 percent.

Coffman supporters also put their hopes on an immigration episode from Romanoff’s tenure as state House speaker.

In 2006, Romanoff led a special House session trying to broker a deal with immigration hardliners from across Colorado, a group that included Mike Coffman, who was the state treasurer at the time. A ballot initiative had threatened to strip state benefits from illegal immigrants. The compromise kept the measure off the ballot, but certain public services were consequently denied to undocumented immigrants, excluding children, public health and safety. Many Latino leaders in Colorado were upset.

“One thing I have said in 2006 and in every year since then is that no amount of state action can substitute for federal reform,” Romanoff told NBC News. He acknowledged the compromise “wasn’t perfect, but it was a proposal better than the initiative Congressman Coffman and his allies were pushing.”

Preparation for 2016?

Thus far, both candidates bolstered their campaign war chests with roughly $3.3 million in contributions. The contest is expected to be a magnet for outside money, and campaign officials from both parties say the price tag for the race could be $20 million and more.

Some observers already dub the too-close-to-call match-up a test run for the 2016 presidential race. Colorado’s 6th district, they argue, is magnifying national demographics and electoral structures.

Which might require more and more candidates to brush up on their Spanish.