There was always a chance we’d see ads like this if things went sideways for Trump but no one expected them before October. For obvious reasons: By running an ad like this, attacking your own party’s nominee, you commit yourself to annoying part of your base. That’s only worth doing if the presidential race is so far gone, with Trump having turned so toxic, that the risk of alienating swing voters by not attacking him has become greater than the risk of alienating Republicans. What you’re seeing here is a congressman who’s very, very worried that the Titanic has already hit the iceberg and that only the first people who rush towards the lifeboats have a chance to survive.
The political logic is straightforward, though, once you know something about Coffman and his district. There are two types of anti-Trump Republican congressmen. One is typified by Richard Hanna, who endorsed Hillary a few days ago. Hanna’s off the Trump train because there’s no incentive for him to remain aboard: He’s retiring after this term. He can, as a man once said to resounding boos, vote his conscience. The other type is personified by Coffman, who has the misfortune of running in a purple district in an increasingly bluish state with demographic headwinds against him. Coffman represents part of Denver; his district is rated D+1 in Cook’s Partisan Voting Index, meaning that the electorate there leans ever so slightly left. That hasn’t stopped Coffman from piling up some easy wins in congressional elections since joining the House in 2010, though, with one notable exception. That came in 2012, the last time there was a presidential choice at the top of the ticket, which always ensures higher Democratic turnout than in midterm cycles. Coffman won a nailbiter, 48/46, with fewer than 7,000 votes separating him from the Democrat. (Romney lost the district by five points.) Now he’s facing another high-turnout election with a more radioactive Republican presidential nominee at the top of the ballot and Colorado is more solidly Democratic than it was four years ago. We’ve reached the point in its transformation from purple state to blue state that Pennsylvania, where the GOP hasn’t won since 1988, is considered a stronger shot to flip than Colorado is.
But it gets worse for Coffman. Watch the second version of the ad below for a clue about the “demographic headwinds” I mentioned. His district is 20 percent Latino. Romney ran abysmally with Latinos in 2012, but if anyone’s capable of breaking through his floor, it’s the new guy. That’s why Coffman wants it known in English and Spanish that he doesn’t much like Trump. He’s calculating, maybe not wrongly, that early August really isn’t too soon to put the word out and make sure people understand that, for all intents and purposes, he’s an independent this year. And he has some encouragement from Republican strategists in that: A memo went out earlier this week from a former director of the NRCC, the group charged with getting House Republicans elected, urging GOP congressmen “Don’t buy into the Trump voter myths” and “Don’t be afraid to break with your party.”
Note how he emphasizes his military service, which, after two weeks of the Khan story percolating, is more than just a traditionally attractive credential. “Having served in Iraq,” Coffman said a few days ago, “I’m deeply offended when Donald Trump fails to honor the sacrifices of all of our brave soldiers who were lost in that war.” Any distinction Coffman can draw with Trump, he’s going to draw it in bold colors.