If Demographics Are Destiny, Why Can’t Democrats Win This Denver District?

Soupany Saignaphone, left, and her father Soukanh, who emigrated from Laos, dropped off their primary ballots in Aurora, Colo., part of the Sixth Congressional District.

AURORA, Colo. — In the fast-changing political battleground that is suburban Denver, Somali families dine on goat soup and fish fritters in a onetime Chinese restaurant where golden dragons still guard the doorways.

Where the English Teacup cafe once stood, a new Japanese dessert bar now stays open late, selling green tea soft-serve and fish-shaped pastries to lines of Korean and Latino teenagers.

And up and down Havana Street, auto lots once run by the likes of Dealin’ Doug are now Ethio-Motors, Maaliki Motors and Jordan Motors — names that reflect the new owners and new customers who are part of a hyperspeed transformation of this old stretch of suburbia. It has become a mile-high United Nations, where 160 languages can be heard in public-school hallways and nearly one in five people is foreign-born.

If demographics really were destiny, this place would be a gold mine for the Democratic Party’s efforts to reap political gains from an increasingly diverse and nonwhite America.

Instead, Colorado’s Sixth Congressional District has become a scene of frustration and failure for Democrats. In election after cash-soaked election, Democrats have been unable to unseat Mike Coffman, a five-term Republican congressman, even after his Republican-layup district was redrawn to slice out some conservative white voters and include thousands more Hispanic residents.

Mr. Coffman has kept winning in part because he has sought to show he embraced the needs of his newer constituents. He has positioned himself as a renegade Republican on immigration issues, scalding the president’s policies and breaking with his party’s leadership on the need for an immigration overhaul.

He has forged bonds with his district’s immigrant communities, learning to speak Spanish and spending weekends floating between meetings at Ethiopian and Korean churches, Buddhist temples and Islamic centers. He supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, and he won re-election easily in 2016 even as his district backed Hillary Clinton by 9 percentage points.

But that was before President Trump and “zero tolerance” along the southern border. This year, liberal groups and immigration activists hope to flip these diversifying suburbs, in part by mining the fear, anger and activism unleashed by Mr. Trump’s policies.

They are pinning their hopes on Jason Crow, a lawyer and former Army Ranger who won the Democratic primary last Tuesday to challenge Mr. Coffman in November (Mr. Coffman was unopposed in the Republican primary).

Activists are focusing not just on the district’s Hispanic, African and Asian populations, but also on liberal white voters priced out of Denver who are following the expanding light-rail lines into Aurora and the other big-backyard suburbs that ring the city.

The effects of the administration’s immigration policies and Mr. Trump’s rhetoric about infestations of immigrants are already being debated here, in Amharic, Somali, Korean, Spanish and Hindi. The Aurora City Council recently sent a letter objecting to the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census form. Some immigrant residents seethed after the City Council declined to pass a symbolic measure naming Aurora as a sanctuary city.

“It’s scary out there,” said Soupany Saignaphone, 36, whose family emigrated from Laos more than 20 years ago after her father was imprisoned there following the Vietnam War.

As Ms. Saignaphone and her family watched the news from the border, they remembered their own American journey: their family’s path across an ocean, years of double-shift jobs picking crops and working in restaurants, and finally, stability in the form of a big off-white house on a grassy exurban lane.

“A lot of us tend to put our heads down, work and not get involved,” Ms. Saignaphone said. “But I think that’s changing. We can’t turn our back on people who need help.”

Her father, Soukanh, fears what President Trump and his allies might do next on immigration. After more than two decades in the country, his wife is still a permanent resident, not a citizen, and is terrified of not being able to return to the country if she travels abroad. He is determined to vote for Democrats in the fall.

“Immigrants like us, we don’t feel safe,” Mr. Saignaphone, 63, said, with his daughter translating. “We’re citizens, but things can still happen to us. What if tomorrow he chooses our group to target?”

As they cast ballots in the primary last week, several voters in Aurora said that immigration was just as important an issue to them as rising health care costs and their struggles with soaring housing costs and student debt. Some had brothers and sisters who were protected under the DACA program; others had parents who had once been undocumented.

Luis Xoy, 47, who fled Guatemala in 1999, became an American citizen in January and voted for the first time in the primary. He criticized Mr. Coffman, saying the congressman paid lip service to immigrants but had not been able to pass any major reforms. Come November, he said, he will vote against Mr. Trump and other administration officials who “don’t think we’re human beings.”

Mr. Coffman has further distanced himself from Mr. Trump’s immigration tactics as the furor over family separations has heated up. He called the separations “unacceptable” and “misdirected” after visiting the border in late June. He said Mr. Trump should fire Stephen Miller, the adviser who pushes a hard line on immigration and was a leading voice behind the policy.

But Mr. Coffman’s Democratic opponent, Mr. Crow, is still intent on portraying the incumbent as a Trump enabler.

He said Mr. Coffman had voted in lock step with Mr. Trump on taxes and financial and environmental regulation. He criticized the congressman for taking contributions from the National Rifle Association and opposing gun control measures — potentially effective lines of attack in a district that remains scarred by a 2012 mass shooting in a movie theater that killed 12.

Liberal immigration activists in Colorado acknowledged that Mr. Coffman had engaged with communities that the Democrats had sometimes ignored. But they said Mr. Coffman still had a conservative record on many immigration issues, including votes to support building a border wall and to punish sanctuary cities.

“For a long time, the community has been giving Coffman credit for showing up,” said Julie Gonzales, a community organizer running for a seat in the Colorado State Senate. “But now the words aren’t enough. Showing up isn’t enough. People want to see the bills.”

Immigrants, of course, are no voting monolith, here or anywhere.

It has been more than 30 years since Nelson Echeverry emigrated from Colombia. As he dropped off his ballot last Monday, immigration was at the front of his mind, but he had a dark view of how his community has changed.

“It’s getting worse,” he said. “I can live with everybody, but the bad elements are moving in. We need to get stronger. It’s moving. Fast.”

He cast his primary ballot for a slate of Republicans and walked out into the sunshine.

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