FORT COLLINS — There was no clear winner. No knock-out punch or defining moment. In fact, it was a surprisingly cordial affair for two campaigns that have been in attack mode for weeks.
The gloves were never off long during the first debate between Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave and Democratic challenger Betsy Markey on the campus of Colorado State University Thursday night, as the two spent an hour showing voters their softer sides while carefully jabbing the other’s character. It was a political waltz of delicate measure.
Taking advantage of rules that didn’t mandate timed responses, both women shared personal stories of struggle and worked hard to illustrate their understanding of the challenges facing constituents. Neither offered many specifics or explained how they plan to fix a Washington, D.C., culture they called broken.
The debate, moderated by 9News anchor Adam Schrager and co-sponsored by The Fort Collins Coloradoan and CSU, was the first of three scheduled exchanges in the 4th, Colorado’s second largest congressional district encompassing most of the Eastern Plains and the north Front Range.
“I don’t think there was a clear winner,” said CSU political science professor John Straayer, an expert on the 4th CD who attended the debate. “Stylistically, I think they both did a fine job.”
The relatively cordial affair was not without some fireworks, though.
The temperature rose when both candidates were asked if they thought the other was corrupt. Markey answered first and said “No, I don’t feel my opponent is corrupt but I do feel her record speaks for itself” before listing hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations Musgrave has accepted from special interests while serving in Congress.
Not surprisingly, Musgrave hit back by pointing to ongoing questions her campaign has raised about government contracts Markey’s family business, Syscom Systems, received while Markey was employed as a Senate staffer in Sen. Ken Salazar’s office between 2005 and 2007. Despite the allegations, Musgrave has not provided evidence to verify her claims and a report by The Fort Collins Coloradoan said the Government Services Agency indicated no wrongdoing on Markey’s behalf.
That didn’t stop Musgrave.
“You said you didn’t advertise as woman-owned business on Sept. 16, … but on the very same day Syscom’s own Web site said (it) was a small, woman-owned business,” Musgrave said to Markey before quoting a Senate ethics manual about ethical government contracting. “I feel she has made contradictory statements and we should get to the bottom of that because when you work as a government employee you should not be seeking government contracts.”
At other points both candidates showed emotion, especially when asked about misconceptions of their character that have been promoted through negative advertising. Markey said the attacks on her business and questions surrounding her ethics while serving under Salazar have stung the most.
“The allegations are totally false,” Markey said. “But you know, some days I come home and I am feeling bad … and my 17-year-old son will come up to me and put his arm around me and say, ‘It’s OK, Mom, I still think you’re the best.’ I am just not the kind of person that you see in those ads.”
Musgrave said the assertion by independent groups that she doesn’t support America’s troops — one of which is her son — have been challenging.
“The thing that has bothered me the very most is the allegation that I don’t support our soldiers,” Musgrave said before choking up as she described the funeral service of her late brother who was veteran. “I have been a supporter of our veterans.”
The negative tone of the race has ramped up in recent weeks after outside polling showed Markey ahead of Musgrave with a 50-43 margin. Both campaigns hit overdrive, and voters have since been saturated with advertising from both sides. Although Musgrave’s campaign went negative first, the three-term incumbent has already more than $1 million of outside money used against her, including a $665,000 media buy last week by the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, a nonprofit 501c(4) that has poured more than $1 million into the race. The ad buy last week is the single largest expenditure by an independent group in any House race this election cycle.
“I think the race is very tight. I would say that it is pretty even, that is my best guess,” Musgrave said to reporters after the debate.
When asked why the race was so tight Musgrave quickly answered: “Because of 527s and 501c4s that have thrown $10 million of garbage against me. I have to break through that when I run again and do the best I can to present my case to the citizens of the 4th District.”
Markey, who said early in the race she was hopeful she could keep her campaign clean, seemed frustrated by the negative turn the race has taken.
“You know people are getting tired — I’m getting tired of talking about negative campaigning. I want to switch tracks and be a little more positive,” Markey said after the debate. “We are running an aggressive campaign, and I am running a positive campaign, but I will tell you what, if I am attacked, I am a fighter and I am going to fight right back. You let a lie lay out there long enough and people start to believe it, and you can’t let that happen.”
The next debate between Musgrave and Markey will take place Monday in Fort Morgan and will have an agricultural focus.