DENVER– U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and his Democratic primary rival Andrew Romanoff met for a debate in Denver last night. There wasn’t much debate. The main area of disagreement came when Romanoff challenged Bennet to decline to accept Political Action Committee, or special interest, campaign money. The challenge was expected. Romanoff, who has lagged seriously behind Bennet in fundraising for half a year, announced in January that he was eschewing PAC money. The campaign had returned PAC money it received in the fall. Bennet dismissed the challenge on stage and he dismissed it more fully in comments he made to the Colorado Independent after the debate ended. He characterized the challenge as not fully considered and opportunistic. He also said it was unrealistic, given the price tag of a political race where Republican rivals were unlikely to voluntarily limit their fundraising abilities.
“I think it would be exceptionally difficult for any state-wide candidate to win a race, that is a targeted race, without raising the money that is needed to hold a seat like this, especially after the recent Supreme Court case,” Bennet told the Colorado Independent, referring to the controversial Citizens United decision that rolled back limits on corporate spending on political advertising.
“I think [the Court decision] is absolutely outrageous, and I am an original cosponsor of a bill to make sure that we can do everything we can do to make certain that all of campaign contributions are as transparent as they can possibly be, including the the contributions I have received in this race,” he said.
The bill Bennet is referring to is a Congressional Democratic Party response to the Citizens United ruling. It mainly would require all major funders of advertising to identify themselves as such at the end of ads. It’s a start say, analysts. Others, like big-thinking anti-corruption legal scholar Lawrence Lessig’s Fix Congress First organization, say the bill doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Romanoff told the Colorado Independent he was disappointed in Bennet’s response to his anti-PAC proposal. He said that the approach appears to be winning over voters. He cited a Rasmussen poll that had him 7 points up on Bennet and 7 points down to GOP frontrunner Jane Norton.
Norton, who has been pulling down impressive amounts of cash from major corporate lobbyists for months, told a Colorado Springs talk radio host two weeks ago that she expected the race would cost each candidate roughly $10 million.
During the debate, sponsored by the Denver Young Democrats, Bennet reminded the audience that Romanoff had accepted PAC money during his tenure as a state legislator and said that, in any case, PAC money wasn’t really the problem. He said attention should be trained on the political campaign front groups, the vague so-called 527 issue groups.
“The PAC, unlike other contributors, is actually regulated. PACs are reported. Their contributions and membership is transparent. This other money is not. And if it is not transparent, people can’t make a judgment on who to vote on.”
Throughout the debate, Romanoff attacked campaign finance structure and the Senate in general.
“Like a lot of good people, [Bennet] is trapped in a dysfunctional system that is desperately in need of reform… I bring the courage to fix it,” he said as part of his opening statement. He highlighted legislation he passed in Colorado that sought to fight corruption. He fought against insurance companies who refused to honor claims, he said. He also said he oversaw the election in Colorado of a Democratic majority and led the fight to “pass the most significant investment in school construction in Colorado.”
Bennet said he was working at the federal level to regulate Wall Street and to press a public option to hold down prices and seriously expand health insurance coverage. He also said he believed it was important not to leave our children with a future of debt.
“We are $21 trillion in debt… The idea that we are willing to make our kids pay this back because we are not willing to make the tough choices is in my view completely immoral.”
Bennet said he had voted for a committee that would have looked at making “hard decisions” to cut spending, a bill killed by both Republicans and Democrats.
Asked by the moderator Aaron Harbor to define their differences, Romanoff said that he would have taken more principled stances.
“Last year, I would not have voted to for backroom deals that allowed some states to receive benefits at the exclusion of others.” He said he would work to make the U.S. Senate more like the Colorado Senate by working to institute rules that would remove the ability to pass hidden legislation and earmarks, end the filibuster, and bring about an open doors act that would bring more transparency.
Bennet answered the barbs by simply stating that he agreed with Romanoff’s concerns.
“I would say to that that I have a hard time hearing the distinction. I share in Andrew’s concerns.”
He added that he railed on the floor of the Senate against the deals being made behind closed doors during the health care debate. He said that it was his statements that led the Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska to write a letter asking for the withdrawal of the infamous amendment that granted Nebraskans a special deal.
“I don’t feel the need to defend the Senate as an Institution here tonight,” said Bennet. “I am going to defend my record.” He said he voted for the Senate Health Care bill because he felt that it was the groundwork from which to continue to build. He went on to say that he supports and has always supported a pubic option.
“I would not, it is true, vote to kill health care reform. I think we need an architecture from which to work. Had I voted the other way we would not have passed a bill.”
Romanoff called Bennet’s decision a false choice. He said that the Senate and the Democrats should have started with a single payer plan knowing that it would be whittled down.
“They split the difference before the debate even started,” he said.
Despite a few pointed barbs thrown by Romanoff, the debate itself was largely characterized by Bennet’s agreement with Romanoff’s policy statements.
“I agree with you. I like you. I just wish that you would find someone to run a primary against that was a problem in the Senate,” Bennet said at one point.
“This was obviously the tactic somebody told him to use coming into the debate,” Romanoff told reporters.
Asked directly by a reporter whether he saw a difference in the candidates, Bennet was utterly deadpan. “Not really,” he said.
Romanoff, the challenger, unsurprisingly disagreed. “You have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”
Edit note: The original version of this post reported Romanoff saying the Rasmussen poll listed him up 7 points on Jane Norton. In fact it reported him down 7 points, which is what Romanoff said.