GREENWOOD VILLAGE, Colo.—Republican Rep. Mike Coffman couldn’t get to the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at a town-hall event Tuesday evening before his constituents made it clear he was in for a rough night.
President Donald Trump, deeply unpopular with Democrats and independents, presents challenges for the Colorado congressman in this competitive district. But it was Mr. Coffman’s own views on gun laws, not the GOP president or his policies, that provoked the ire of many constituents who showed up.
Inside the fine arts auditorium at Cherry Creek High School, Mr. Coffman suffered jeers, boos and at least one audible F-bomb. When the congressman’s staff asked for a moment of silence for the victims of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., there was no silence.
“Let’s do something for them,” one person shouted out.
“We’re done with thoughts and prayers,” yelled another.
Since 1998, there have been more than a dozen shootings at kindergarten, elementary, middle and high schools that resulted in multiple deaths. These are some of the victims.
The event illustrated the plight faced in the coming midterm elections by Republican representatives in swing districts. Mr. Coffman’s, in suburban Denver, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and he won re-election to his fifth term that year with 51% of the vote. Now, with Republicans already in a tough fight to retain their House majority, he is trying to find a message on hot-button issues like guns and immigration that could appeal to both his party’s base and his many suburban and Hispanic voters.
For this year’s elections, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the seat a tossup, giving either party a good chance to win it. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign arm, has identified Mr. Coffman as one of its more vulnerable members.
“It’s a perennially interesting race,” said Jack Pandol, spokesman for the NRCC. “But Mike has always found a way to do it,” he said, citing the congressman’s outreach to communities like the district’s Ethiopian population.
Mr. Coffman’s constituents lived through the 2012 mass shooting at a cinema in Aurora, which is in his district. The shooting at the Florida high school last week evoked painful memories and prompted supporters of stricter gun laws to bring up the issue to Mr. Coffman, said Kristin Mallory Westerberg, a lawyer who lives about 2 miles from the theater where a gunman stormed a viewing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” killing 12 and injuring dozens.
In the face of his constituents’ grilling, Mr. Coffman declined to say he would return contributions from the National Rifle Association. He also stopped short of saying he would support a ban on assault-style weapons but suggested he would be open to boosting the minimum age for buying a firearm. He also told reporters before the town hall that he supported bolstering the background-check system.
Immigration was another big issue at the event, with dozens holding bright orange signs backing legislation that would extend eventual citizenship to the hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants, known widely as Dreamers, brought to the U.S. as children. Mr. Coffman supports protections for the Dreamers, and he has criticized Mr. Trump’s demand that any immigration bill also include curbs to family-based migration and an end to the diversity visa lottery. But pressure from the most conservative House Republicans has narrowed the path for any immigration legislation to pass the chamber.
“The president’s got to realize he’s going to have to negotiate on some of this,” Mr. Coffman said in a recent interview. “To me, right now, it’s border security” and protections for Dreamers, he said.
Democrats’ top candidate to try to unseat Mr. Coffman appears to be Jason Crow, an Army veteran who outraised the incumbent in the fourth quarter of 2017, even as Mr. Coffman leads in overall fundraising. Mr. Crow, who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said gun policy would be a cornerstone of his campaign.
“I know something about firearms,” Mr. Crow said in an interview. “I’ve used them in combat. I’ve had them used against me. But I also know we have a gun violence problem in this community.”
A constituent held up a protest sign at Mr. Coffman’s town-hall meeting Tuesday. Photo: David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Rick Ridder, a Democratic political consultant based in Denver, said Mr. Coffman’s future in the House will also depend on whether Democrats are able to tie him to the president.
“We all know there’s a Democratic surge of some sort coming,” Mr. Ridder added. “Depending on how big that surge is, you could be the most independent congressman in the history of the world and it may not matter.”
The congressman said his identity as a political centrist would continue to well-represent his split district in Congress.
“This is one of the most diverse districts in America,” he said. “Maybe it’s not here tonight.”
—Kristina Peterson contributed to this article.
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