Nastiest campaign in America: Colorado Dem unloads to Salon on his GOP foe

Welcome to a Colorado House race where "sleazy," "deceitful" and "nasty" are just some of the epithets going around

Published September 12, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Mike Coffman, Andrew Romanoff      (AP/Ed Andrieski/Brennan Linsley)
Mike Coffman, Andrew Romanoff (AP/Ed Andrieski/Brennan Linsley)

If you're not a Coloradan (or a Coloradoan, depending) you probably don't know this, but the race to represent Colorado's 6th Congressional District — which pits incumbent GOP Rep. Mike Coffman against former state Speaker of the Colorado House and Democrat Andrew Romanoff — is turning out to be one of the most compelling and competitive match-ups of the entire 2014 election.

In part, this is due to the many ways in which CO-6 bucks expectations. Like many other races, a recent gerrymandering looms large and sets the context for the entire campaign. But unlike most other 2014 contests, it's Democrats rather than Republicans who did the rejiggering and are reaping its benefits, turning the once safely Republican (and very white) district into a toss-up (with a sizable Latino population). Case in point: In 2008, the district was conservative enough to have formerly been the domain of the far-right ultra-xenophobe Tom Tancredo, while in 2012 it went for President Obama, who nabbed 52 percent of the vote.

What's more, despite most of the debates this year being held on Republicans' terms, due largely to the president's unpopularity and the GOP's structural midterm advantage, one of the distinguishing features of the race for CO-6 is the way Coffman has struggled to walk back his previously very conservative views, especially on abortion. While Coffman and Romanoff have certainly quarreled over Obamacare, the debt and immigration, Romanoff has had success in forcing Coffman to those former stances most likely to anger women in the district and compel them to come out and vote.

Hoping to discuss this unique race as well as campaign finance reform, comprehensive  immigration and reproductive rights, Salon recently called up Romanoff while he took a break (relatively speaking) from the campaign trail. Our conversation is below, and has been edited for clarity and length.

To start, I wanted to ask you about your recent ad on Rep. Coffman's prior support for the Personhood Amendment. The congressman says he no longer supports the amendment and that your bringing it up at all is out-of-bounds. 

The congressman has reversed himself without really much explanation on the Personhood Amendment, having supported it every time it’s been on the ballot, until now. But the ad also talks about his efforts over the last 25 years to take away a woman’s right to choose. And until recently — actually, until I got into this race — he opposed abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

Does Coffman's lack of explanation for his change of heart lead you to suspect this conversion is less than entirely sincere?

Actually, I wish he would [explain why he changed his mind], because I can’t guess, I can’t look into his heart. That’s not my job. And he hasn’t offered any explanation, not just to me, but to any of his constituents. He has indicated that the Personhood Amendment is too broad, although that was apparent from the very first time it reached the ballot, and he has offered no explanation for his apparent reversal on abortion in the cases of rape and incest.

He issued a statement, which got no coverage. He’s held no town hall meetings, to our knowledge, in the last three years. He skipped the last debate we had. At the debate in which this issue came up and ... he forgot the words “birth control,” and afterwards his spokesman said that he supports access to birth control, but every single vote he’s taken on the subject has taken the opposite effect.

For me, [support for reproductive rights] is a fundamental question. It’s a matter of freedom, of basic freedom. And it’s not the kind of thing you forget.

Speaking of your debates — they've gotten pretty heated with words like "sleazy," "deceitful" and "nasty."Are you disappointed at all with the tenor of the race thus far, or do you think a certain level of friction is inevitable when you've got such a tight district and such a disagreement on many issues?

I’m deeply disappointed by the tone that the congressman and his campaign have taken, not just in recent weeks, but from the very beginning. And I want to be very clear here, because there’s a temptation on the part of some folks in the press to posit a false equivalence, to suggest that all candidates are equally guilty of these kind of personal attacks.

If you followed every single statement we’ve released, everything I’ve said, everything we’ve done, every ad we put on the air over the last 19 months, and every Web video we’ve produced, what you’ll see is a clear delineation of the differences between Congressman Coffman and me on the issues. We’re not at all shy about pointing out where we disagree on matters of public policy.

But what you won’t see is any attempt on my part or that of my staff to disparage the congressman’s character or his commitment to our country. That’s off-limits as far as I’m concerned. And that pledge is something I take very seriously, because I think one of the reasons so many Americans have soured on politics is because they see too many candidates engaging in personal attacks. So we’re not doing that. Not on my watch.

The congressman’s campaign has done very little else. They suggested in our second debate that I lacked honor and integrity. The congressman and his team have unleashed a whole stream of personal epithets to describe me. Every time we point out a difference on the issues, whether we criticize the congressman’s position on immigration reform, on reproductive rights, on the minimum wage, on access to higher education, equal pay — all the priorities that we’re putting forward on this campaign — what you get in return is very little attempt to defend the congressman’s record, and a great deal of effort on their part to disparage me personally.

I signed up for this campaign; I’m not complaining; it’s just that I think that the voters deserve better. And, to me, it’s telling: If the congressman were proud of his positions on these issues, he would say so instead of simply attacking me. It’s pretty plain that he has come to the conclusion that he can’t win on his record — and he’s right about that. He can’t and he won’t.

To go back to your point about false equivalence and the media's weakness to engage in it, do you think Coffman and his team, aware of that dynamic, are purposefully making the race more combative than they might in the hopes of getting voters so disgusted that they tune out?

That’s a good question, although it’s a question better put to Congressman Coffman.

I don’t know what’s going on in their strategy sessions. I have an inkling. I suspect the congressman has paid a lot money for polls and consultants and advisers, and they have said you can’t win this race on the platform you’ve built. You voted to cut financial aid for college students, you voted against the minimum wage, you voted against equal pay, you voted to privatize Social Security, you voted to dismantle Medicare and force seniors to pay thousands of dollars more in out-of-pocket healthcare costs, you called the Dream Act a nightmare, you voted against immigration reform; you can’t win on those positions.

So the only way you win a race like this and with a record like that is by disguising your positions or distorting your opponent’s. And that is a think a pretty plain explanation of their strategy. It’s clever, it’s cynical. And it could work if we don’t do our job and point out the facts.

Concerning possible distortions of your record, one of your stances that has gotten a lot of attention is your refusal to accept money from PACs — but the congressman has said you only do this because it's a promise you made in a previous campaign and therefore can't abandon now. 

No, look, I think the question for every candidate, and frankly for every American, is, do you want to be part of the solution or do you want to be part of the problem? And Congressman Coffman is part of the problem. So I want to be part of the solution. To me, that means standing up to the special interest groups that are bankrolling both parties.

And I should tell you, this was not a popular decision, even within my own party. The national party leadership said it’s idiotic and suicidal to turn down PAC money. (Those were just the polite words that I could share, because I know you’ve got a delicate readership ...) They’d never seen a candidate win a competitive race by running a grass-roots campaign without PAC money.

Lo and behold, 19 months later, we have out-raised Congressman Coffman ... So it turns out you can compete and you can win if you find enough people to chip in ... And the principle behind it ... is, when I get to Congress, I don’t want to ever have to worry or choose between doing what’s right for my constituents or what might be profitable for my corporate contributors. That’s a dilemma I’ll never face because I don’t have any corporate contributors. So I’ll owe my seat to the people I represent.

Does the fact that you're succeeding despite rejecting PAC funding mean that we actually don't need campaign finance reform, as many people believe? Are you the proof that progressives can win, regardless?

No. That’s an interesting point, but no, for a couple reasons.

One, because we still have to win this race. We’ve had success so far, but the election’s still a few months off [and] we still need to win to be able to prove this point. The second thing I’d say is, the series of Supreme Court decisions, including Citizens United, have unleashed super PACs and other outside interest groups to pour millions of dollars into our race beyond our control. In fact, the outside spending may end up dwarfing what Congressman Coffman and I spend out of our campaigns.

Do you support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United?

Yes, yes. I feel very strongly on this subject, because it’s really just the root of a lot of problems we see in Washington.

As I'm sure you know, Congress is back in session, and while most people don't think Republicans will stage another government shutdown so near the midterm election, there is concern that we could come closer to it than many expect or that it could happen after the election, especially if the GOP succeeds in winning control of the Senate. Are you personally worried about another government shutdown? Is it an issue voters have mentioned to you during your campaign?

Yes and yes. When Congressman Coffman and his colleagues in the House voted to shut down the government a year ago, that inflicted real damage on Colorado, and I suspect on every other state — and people remember.

To give you some examples: If you were doing medical research at the campus here in Aurora, it’s called the Anschutz Medical Campus, and you can’t get a grant continued and you have to turn patients away because of the government shutdown, you remember. If you’re an employee at the local Air Force base, also here in Aurora, and you don’t know whether you’re going to have a job in the morning because your own congressman shut down the government, you remember. If you’re a senior who doesn’t know whether your Social Security check is going to arrive because your congressman shut down the government, you remember that pretty clearly.

I actually just had this conversation, literally the question you’re asking me, at ... one of the doors I was knocking on over the weekend in our district. And a woman asked me, she said, “Why are we paying you guys?” Meaning Congress. “If I don’t do my job,” she said, “I don’t get paid. And I certainly don’t get a vacation or a raise.” And it’s a really basic question. It’s an excellent point, I thought. If Congress operated on a pay-for-performance level, they’d be broke.

So it’s very hard for me to understand, and very hard for my neighbors here to understand, why we’re paying a guy who can’t even keep the government functioning, much less advance the priorities that we happen to share ... I’d be thrilled if Congress voted to increase the minimum wage, addressed the student loan crisis; it’d be terrific if Congress took action to close the pay gap between men and women, and certainly it would be a great success if Congress took action on immigration reform.

I’d settle for action on any of those fronts, but in all likelihood we’re going to get none. And it’s not like Congress is going to forfeit their paychecks or their perks or privileges. They’ll still get paid. They’ll still get pensions. They’ll be fine ... I have to tell you, when you knock on as many doors as I have, and talked to as many people [as I have], there’s a tremendous sense — and I feel it too — of frustration at Congress, whose own livelihood seems completely divorced from the reality of most of their constituents. Times are tough here, just not in Washington.

Speaking of immigration, did you support the president's choice to delay action on deportations until after the election? Did you buy his argument that he needed more time to talk to the public about it and lay the groundwork vis-à-vis public opinion; or do you feel like it was a mistake?

I’m very disappointed that politics have derailed or at least delayed this decision. There’s a great deal of frustration in my community, which includes a very large number of immigrants, about the continued inaction in Washington. And certainly there’s a lot of frustration directed at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. I would say most folks I’ve met understand that the president cannot solve this problem on his own. No president can. No executive order can substitute for what we need, which is comprehensive immigration reform like the package that the Senate passed more than a year ago.

So it’s hard to understand how you can take a position, as Congressman Coffman has done, in opposition to the Senate bill, in opposition to the House bill, in opposition to the Dream Act, in opposition to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and still claim to represent a district like ours. We’ve got, in just Aurora alone, which is the heart of our district, we’ve got 130 different countries represented. People here speak 120 different languages. It’s the kind of district that deserves a representative who will celebrate our diversity and support comprehensive immigration reform.

We don’t have a representative like that now. But we will in January.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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