Colorado Springs group skewers Lamborn for “chickening out” of public debate

Only one of the two candidates running to represent Colorado’s 5th Congressional District participated in the only public forum of the general election season, which was held at Penrose Library in Colorado Springs last Thursday. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Irv Halter took to his podium on time, ready to go. But his opponent, incumbent Republican Doug Lamborn, was a no-show.

What went down was a far cry from the awkward and infantile fiasco of last week’s gubernatorial debate in Florida — in which Republican Gov. Rick Scott initially refused to participate because challenger Charlie Crist had a small fan behind his lectern — though it may be just as YouTube-worthy. The podium opposite Halter was occupied by three men in chicken suits representing a newly formed political action committee called “Colorado Springs Chickens for a Congressman Who Won’t Chicken Out.” The group organized the debate and personally delivered invitation letters to the candidates’ campaign headquarters.

Here is the chickens’ video of their special delivery:

Halter, who has nothing to do with the new PAC but who accepted the invitation to debate, took the opportunity to give the amused audience a brief rundown of how his extensive military and business background qualifies him to represent the 5th. Running as a Democrat in a district with nearly twice the number of registered Republicans, Halter has taken a pragmatic approach to winning over voters with a platform — comprising policy positions such as repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, building the Keystone XL pipeline and keeping taxes low — that could very well be palatable to voters who are historically reluctant to check any box with a D next to it.

About the elephant — or chickens — in the room, Halter said he appreciated the humor. “Humor is important to life, but humor often points out more important issues,” he said, “and that is that it is vital that we in this community look beyond normal partisanship and party affiliations and look to send people of character, confidence and, now, courage to Washington, D.C.”

Full video of the short, one-sided debate:

The chickens debuted their act the week prior at a Colorado Springs city council meeting, where they urged the council to pressure Lamborn into showing up at Thursday’s debate. But all their clucking and guitar strumming ruffled the feathers of council president Keith King, who kicked them out of the chambers.

Video of the chickens’ city council shenanigans:

Before the chicken theatrics pushed Lamborn’s refusal to debate Halter onto center stage, the issue had been hovering around the margins of the campaign. As soon as Lamborn squeaked past his most robust primary challenge to date from retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Bentley Rayburn in late June, Halter invited the incumbent congressman to three public debates — one in August, one in September and one in October. That first invitation was ignored, and others that followed were all spurned by the Lamborn campaign.

In primary season, Lamborn faced Rayburn in one of the very few public debates he’s agreed to participate in over the years. It was well attended by the die-hard Republicans who run the show in the 5th. That night, Rayburn slammed Lamborn for being a Washington insider who’s out of touch with voters here in the district. Lamborn mostly spouted the party line — attacks on bogeyman Obama and the Big Government he represents.

Rayburn was in attendance at the public forum on Thursday. He told the Gazette‘s Megan Schrader that because the country is in a “war of ideas” (a motif he relished in during his primary debate with Lamborn), “these debates, these forums, whatever form they may take, are very, very important.”

Not showing up has been somewhat of a theme of campaigns past in the 5th. In the cycle Lamborn was first elected, he declined to attend a forum hosted by the Colorado Springs Black/Latino Leadership Coalition, citing a scheduling conflict as the reason he couldn’t make it. Representatives from the coalition said they felt “snubbed” and “ignored,” given they had invited the congressman two months in advance.

The theme has manifested at other points in this cycle too, most notably in Halter’s hounding of Lamborn over his spotty attendance record at committee meetings in Washington. It’s unacceptable for a congressman from a district with such deeply entrenched military interests who sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee to just not show up, he said. The Lamborn campaign countered by providing the Gazette with a detailed list of explanations for each missed committee meeting, noting that a trusted staffer was always there to take notes when Lamborn couldn’t be there in the flesh.

Video of Halter on a sidewalk talking on the matter (via the Gazette):

But for Lamborn, talking into a microphone on camera has been causing even bigger problems than refusing to do so. In late September, he told a small crowd of conservative voters in a bar-basement in Colorado Springs that “behind the scenes,” he and other congressional Republicans were urging military officials to resign in protest over the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Those comments were captured, reported and widely criticized. Not only did Halter chew him out for disrespecting the chain of command, but even Lamborn’s fellow Coloradan Republicans — like Senate candidate Cory Gardner and Rep. Mike Coffman in the 6th CD — were hasty to disavow what some called treasonous rhetoric.

Keeping his mouth shut may be less risky, but it’s also isolating: Lamborn’s refusal to participate in one of the most basic practices of electoral politics puts him in a category unto his own. “All incumbents in the state running for federal office have participated in at least one debate,” noted Halter’s campaign manager Ethan Susseles. “Debates are a time honored tradition where candidates share a stage, go toe-to-toe and think on their feet,” he continued, “it’s a common sense way for voters to learn about candidates.”

Lamborn’s campaign manager Jarred Rego said the congressman stands by “the decision to not provide Mr. Halter with a platform to spread his deceptive rhetoric and uncivil tone.” And about the chickens? “[Halter] should have immediately disavowed a nonsensical, disrespectful, and empty name-calling stunt like that.”

Susseles said that their team showed up at Penrose Library Thursday “prepared to engage in a debate about policy.” And when Lamborn didn’t show, “we were not surprised, but disappointed that the voters didn’t get a chance to see it happen.”

With ballots already in the hands of voters in the 5th, it’ll soon become clear whether Lamborn’s cynical gamble was worth it.

Composite of still frames from the chickens’ YouTube video by Nat Stein