[dropcap]I[/dropcap]T is August and electoral campaigns are settling into what they hope will be their most winning lines of attack. Congressman Mike Coffman, the 6th-District Republican in a neck-and-neck race with former state Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, has adopted a risky “consider the source” strategy, calling Romanoff a “sleazy” candidate whose criticisms of Coffman’s record should be met with skepticism.
“The Denver Post called your campaign attacks in 2010 sleazy,” he told Romanoff in a debate last Friday. He added: “I went to the United States Army and the United States Marine Corps. You went to Harvard and Yale. I don’t know what they taught you about honor and integrity there.”
The “sleaze” attack may have seemed to come out of the blue to many in the audience — and as many people oohed as applauded when he launched it — but Coffman is clearly seeking to make it a main storyline in the narrative of the race.
The Coffman camp bolsters the charge with reference to the failed Democratic primary campaign Romanoff ran against now-U.S. Senator Michael Bennet in 2010. It was a heated race that sharply divided Colorado Democrats.
Romanoff at the time was a top state Democratic political figure who was coming off a successful two-term stint as Speaker. But he was the underdog in the primary.
Bennet, who had been superintendent of Denver Public Schools, had been appointed to the Senate in 2009 by then-Governor Bill Ritter when Senator Ken Salazar stepped down to join the Obama administration as secretary of the interior. It was less than a year later that Bennet had to campaign to keep the seat and he had never run for office before. But Bennet had incumbency and money on his side. He won the support of state and national Democratic organizations and he also enjoyed access to big donors through his previous job as a top deal-maker and a director at billionaire financier Phil Anschutz’s investment company.
Romanoff made his campaign against Bennet a campaign against money. He swore off the kind of major donations that come from special-interest political action committees and asked Bennet to do the same. It was an understandable play, not just because Bennet stood to benefit more from PAC money, but also because Americans were beginning to clue in to the many ways the U.S. campaign finance system was spinning out of control. Wall Street, aided by lawmakers in thrall to its lobbyists, had just tanked the global economy and left taxpayers on the hook for the bill.
As the 2010 primary campaign intensified, Romanoff attempted more directly to paint Bennet as a creature of high finance — one of the corporate-raider Wall Street suits making millions from paper deals that undercut manufacturing and the middle class. The line of attack culminated in a campaign ad titled “Greed” that centered on a deal Bennet and Anschutz made to restructure movie theater companies that were already bankrupt or sinking into bankruptcy. The ad was roundly criticized as unfair and singled out by The Denver Post editorial board as an “over the top” example of “cynical politics at its worst.”
The Coffman campaign, which did not respond to requests for comment on this story, repeatedly in recent weeks has cited The Post editorial, suggesting that the paper called Romanoff and/or the Romanoff ad “sleazy.”
The Post ardently disapproved of the ad and blasted Romanoff for signing off on it. But, to be be clear, the paper called neither Romanoff nor the ad sleazy, although the word appears twice in the editorial.
“Romanoff’s ad suggests Bennet and ‘right-wing billionaire’ Anschutz were involved in a sleazy scheme,” The Post wrote.
And: “Romanoff’s ad likens Bennet’s role in the restructuring to the plot of the movie ‘Wall Street,’ minus the ‘redemptive ending,’ quoting a sleazy story in a paper called the Cherry Creek News.”
This year on the campaign trail, Romanoff has indirectly conceded the ad was a mistake.
“If you’re holding out for a candidate that has never made a mistake or never acknowledged one, you’re probably not going to be voting very often,” he says and asks to be measured not by his 2010 bid for the senate, but by the campaign he is running this year against Coffman and by his stands on the issues and his record as a lawmaker.
He also says the public is turned off by the politics of personal attacks, that voters see their prevalence today as a large part of a political culture that has gridlocked Capitol Hill and made Washington so exasperating to voters. He publicly vows not to practice that kind of politics and says he’ll fire any of his staffers who do.
“We need spirited debate. We don’t need personal attacks,” he said in Friday’s debate. “The problem in Washington is that too often, instead of confining disagreements to the issues, candidates challenge their opponents’ integrity.”
Romanoff’s high-minded or holier-than-thou stand, depending on whom you ask, clearly got under Coffman’s skin at the debate. At one point, the congressman pushed out his chair and raised his voice.
“Your oath of integrity wasn’t honored in your last campaign. I want you to honor it in this campaign because what you did to Michael Bennet was fundamentally wrong and dishonest,” Coffman charged.
Romanoff responded by shaking his head and restating his respect for Coffman as a person and as a public servant. But his campaign also sees the Coffman attacks as an opportunity and has been fundraising off of them.
A recent email blast to supporters:
“Sleazy.” “Despicable.” “Elitist.” “Spineless.” The Coffman campaign appears to be in no danger of running out of epithets. (Three more and they’ll have a full set of dwarfs.) Over the last 16 months, the congressman and his team have taken swipes at my character, my education, even my family. At least they know better than to go after my dog.
The Coffman campaign is walking a thin line in adopting the “sleaze” attack line. Mainstream general election voters who have bestowed the current combative Congress with the lowest approval ratings in history may be turned off. They might well see any reference to a primary race now four years in the past as deflection from the issues of today — charged topics in Coffman’s district such as gun control, immigration and military base closings.
There’s also the fact that Coffman is skirting very close to doing the thing today he is criticizing Romanoff for doing in the past. He’s calling Romanoff sleazy for, in effect, calling Bennet sleazy.
[ Photo of U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman by House GOP. ]