COLORADO SPRINGS– GOP U.S. Senate candidates Ken Buck and Jane Norton went head to head Tuesday night here after weeks of heated and sometimes ugly primary campaigning. The event drew roughly 400 conservative and tea party activists. The crowd hooted and hollered throughout the debate, cheering on the anti-Washington anti-government sentiments expressed by the candidates on stage.
Indeed, the candidates overwhelmingly agreed here as elsewhere on the main issues. The debate centered instead on which of them could be counted on to stand by the positions they were articulating and not simply become part of the political class in Washington that so many of these voters would like to throw out of office.
Norton said the budget of the Weld County D.A.’s office had grown substantially under Buck’s leadership there even though he calls himself a fiscal conservative who will work to trim back government.
“Can we trust him in Washington?” she said darkly as the crowd alternately cheered and hissed.
Buck pounced, hitting on a major conservative concern with the Norton candidacy.
“I’m not the [former] lieutenant governor who supported Referendum C,” he said. “It completely undermines TABOR.”
Referendum C, passed by Colorado voters in 2005 and supported by Norton, suspended limits on spending imposed by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, the state’s constitutional amendment revered by conservatives. The millions in tax money raised by Ref C for the state went mostly to bolster education. Supporters called it a much needed “TABOR time out” but fiscal hard liners have called it a “TABOR blowout.”
One of Norton’s favorite refrains since entering the race in September has been that “Obama’s government is out of control” with its spending. Yet her detractors say that when she was in office and push came to shove in Colorado, she landed on the wrong side of the equation: Instead of cutting spending, she chose to raise revenue.
Nevertheless, on stage, Buck and Norton drew applause as they elaborated on the government programs they would work in the Senate to slash.
Norton has said repeatedly that she would look to eliminate the federal Department of Education.
Buck said that he would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities and that he would eliminate subsidies to entities like Amtrack and the United States Post office. He said he would work to “localize” the Department of Education, although how he would do that is unclear and how the move would translate to savings remains hazy.
Norton told the crowd she cut the Colorado Public Health budget by 28 percent when she headed the Public Health and Environment department under Bill Owens.
Observers, including reporters for Fox News KDVR, have pointed out that this claim is supported by fuzzy math. The department budget was trimmed only when one calculates money allotted by the legislature through its general fund. The overall budget for Norton’s department during her tenure increased substantially, from $226.5 million in fiscal year 2000 to a high of $280 million three years later. Norton has admitted to the increase but said it was the doing of the the legislature.
“You can’t take credit for the drop in funding and then blame the spike on the legislature,” Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute analyst Carol Hedges told Fox back in March, when Norton first began citing the numbers. “Ultimately, the director submits a budget and the legislature approves it,” Hedges said.
Buck and Norton agreed they would oppose the confirmation of Obama Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.
Buck said he would look to support strict Constitutionalists who would not look to legislate from the bench. He pointed to the right to bear arms, for example. He asked, given that the right is so clearly stated in the Second Amendment, how could it be that the recent ruling restating that right, McDonald v. Chicago, could only manage to receive five of the court’s nine votes?
Norton said she believed Kagan possesses an “absolute disregard for the military,” referring to the fact that Kagan restricted military recruiter access to Harvard’s law school career center.
Kagan has argued she did that as a compromise that allowed her to honor the school’s non-discrimination policy, which the school believed the military was violating by discriminating against gays with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”policy. She said her compromise also allowed Harvard to follow laws that require schools that receive federal funds to provide access to military recruiters. She has noted that recruitment at the school under her policy remained steady and even increased.
The candidates differed most perhaps on U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
Norton reiterated her recent controversial strong anti-terrorism message, suggesting that the U.S. should renew and deepen its military efforts engagement in Afghanistan.
“ I don’t think the terrorists got the message,” Norton said, “We need to double down in Afghanistan,” she said touting the success of troop-increasing surge strategies over the past years.
Buck said the U.S. needed to exit Afghanistan once the drug trade was diminished and once the region was essentially secure.
“We are foolish if we think we’re going to turn Afghanistan into a western-style democracy,” he said, making reference to the fact that his son, Cody, attends West Point. This is not a mere election topic for him he said. “God bless us if we don’t give our troops an exit strategy to get back home.”