Republican representative Mike Coffman of Colorado was the No. 1 target for defeat by House Democrats in 2014. Making matters worse, he had been gerrymandered out of his solidly Republican district and was opposed by the most impressive candidate Democrats could recruit. His future as a congressman did not look bright. Yet he was reelected.
How did he do it? He learned to speak Spanish.
Coffman gave speeches in Spanish. Five days before the election, he debated his Democratic opponent in Spanish, an event carried nationally on the Spanish language television channel Univision. He held his own. Coffman won the election, 52-43 percent.
The Democratic obsession with ousting Coffman began in 2012 when his district in the suburbs to the south and east of Denver was transformed. It became 20 percent Hispanic, 9 percent black, and 5 percent Asian, along with a mélange of smaller minority communities. Coffman had won with 61 percent of the vote in 2008 and 66 percent in 2010. But in 2012, in the new swing district, he beat Democrat Joe Miklosi only 48 to 46 percent.
That narrow victory signaled his hold on the district was weak. It led to the major effort by Democrats this year. They recruited the candidate of their dreams, former state house speaker Andrew Romanoff, 48. He had made a strong bid for the Senate in 2010, losing in the Democratic primary to Michael Bennet, who went on to win the Senate seat.
Romanoff had to move into the district, but that was his only drawback. He’s a Yale graduate, a tireless campaigner, a highly effective fundraiser, and fluent in Spanish from having taught school in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. “He was very formidable as an opponent,” Coffman says.
Early in the two-year election cycle, Coffman, 59, learned that the tight communities of Asian (Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese) and African immigrants (Somalis, Ethiopians) were easy to reach. “I worked the immigrant groups pretty hard,” he says. But the larger Hispanic community—150,000 people—was not so easy. They had to be reached through the Spanish-speaking media. And that meant he needed to speak Spanish.
He hired a tutor and met her weekly for two hours and talked to her frequently on the phone. He used Rosetta Stone, a popular tool for learning languages. He read Spanish newspapers and watched Spanish-language television. He even tried keeping up with soap operas, but found them too ranting. He struck up conversations in Spanish with House colleagues.
Learning a language while serving in Congress isn’t easy. It took discipline. Coffman is a former Marine who served in both Iraq wars. He does 500 pushups a day—“in 10 sets of 50,” he says.
The climax of Coffman’s effort was the debate on October 30. It’s believed to be the first televised debate entirely in Spanish between two Anglo congressional candidates. They were given a list of questions beforehand. “I was well coached in preparation for the debate,” he says. He had to look at notes occasionally before answering questions. Romanoff, more comfortable in Spanish, didn’t.
Learning Spanish wasn’t the only reason Coffman won. He’s a conservative Republican who benefited from the GOP wave. He’s known for making it possible for veterans to get private medical care in some cases. He favors opening federal land in Colorado to oil and natural gas production.
But something else happened to him on the way to reelection. He substantially softened his position on immigration reform. Or as he says, he “moderated” his view.
The House seat he captured in 2008 had been held by Tom Tancredo, a firm opponent of amnesty of any kind for illegal immigrants. Coffman had agreed with him for years. But spending time with immigrant families—and needing their votes—“influenced my position,” he says. He’s now a supporter of immigration reform.
“I clearly want to see something get done,” Coffman told me. He opposes the “comprehensive” reform that passed the Senate last year. And he’s critical of President Obama’s plan to legalize illegal immigrants by executive order.
Coffman says overhauling the immigration system must be done in a series of legislative acts. And it must achieve three things: secure the border, spur economic growth, and act compassionately in keeping families together. He’s proposed legislation to give adults who entered the United States illegally a path to legalization, but not to citizenship. Their children could seek to become citizens.