DENVER — It started with a show of hands. And then it was clear: Donald Trump’s domination of American politics had once again taken center stage, this time in a down-ballot race inside a Denver TV studio during the first live debate among eight Republicans running for U.S. Senate in Colorado.
The first question: Who among them would support Trump if he becomes the party’s nominee? They all raised their hands.
On the debate stage in an eight-seat semicircle sat Colorado Springs businessman Robert Blaha, former Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, El Paso County Commissioners Darryl Glenn and Peggy Littleton, ex-lawmaker Jon Keyser, former Rams quarterback Jack Graham, businessman Jerry Natividad, and state Sen. Tim Neville.
These were the top eight Republican candidates who made the cut out of 11 who have filed federal paperwork for a chance to run against incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet in the fall.
Kicking off the hour-long debate moderated by 9News Denver TV anchors Kyle Clark and Brandon Rittiman, the candidates were forced to confront Trump’s policy proposals and rhetoric on issue after issue, ranging from whether American soldiers should kill the family members of suspected terrorists to whether women should be punished for having abortions.
Crystalizing just how far Trump has dragged Republican candidates in down-ballot state races into his orbit, moderators asked Graham to explain his evolution over the past 15 months from being a registered Democrat to a Republican candidate who says he would support Donald Trump for president.
As part of his answer, Graham, who seeded his campaign with $1 million and hired a former Colorado GOP chairman to helm his bid, said while he’ll support the billionaire businessman if he’s his party’s nominee, he’s not been happy with Trump’s demeanor.
“I expect better and I expect different behavior than we’ve seen,” Graham said.
For Keyser, a 34-year-old white shoe corporate lawyer who’s running hard on his military record as a combat veteran, it was Trump’s bloodthirsty remarks about sending U.S. troops to slaughter the wives and children of suspected terrorists that moderators put to him.
“I believe strongly that we need to abide as the military by the laws that are out out there, and no I don’t believe in torture and violating orders that are lawful,” Keyser said, awkwardly and quickly spinning his answer into his focus on beating Bennet in November.
Keyser later said that he believes water boarding is torture.
In the past, Frazier has indicated he’s no big fan of Trump and that The Donald isn’t right for the Republican Party. So the moderators wanted to know why he’d fall in line behind him. Frazier dodged, saying he’d rather talk about what he thinks is important rather than what Trump thinks.
But he also was asked, as a former councilman in Aurora — a city with a large Muslim population — whether he would want to see police patrolling the neighborhoods where Muslims live as Trump’s main rival Ted Cruz has advocated. He said he would not, adding that Republicans embrace diversity.
“We do need to respect our communities,” he said. “I think it’s incumbent upon our community to be vigilant, but I do not think that requires the government to monitor our Muslim neighbors and friends.”
Trump’s comments that women should be punished for having abortions drew a particularly illuminating response from Littleton, the only woman in the race. She said that while she’s a pro-life conservative herself she believes a woman has the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, and that she’d act as a pro-choice U.S. Senator. She disagreed with Trump’s comments, saying “I am pro-life but I would never impose my beliefs on anyone else.”
Blaha, who’s running as a non-politician outsider in the year of Trump, said he wasn’t worried about a negative tailwind from the potential top of the ticket or any guilt-by-association he might draw from it.
“Donald Trump is a big guy. He can stand on his own two feet,” Blaha said. “My positions are what they are.”
Glenn, a Cruz supporter who often talks about his Christian faith and leading with high moral values, drew a question about whether he believes Trump has “high moral and Christian values.” Glenn said one thing his faith has taught him is to treat everyone with respect and dignity.
“He’s a patriot,” Glenn said of Trump. “It’s important for everybody to get involved in this country.”
If there was one candidate on stage who was able to evade getting slathered too heavily with the Trump brush, it was Neville, who’s running on his conservative record in the Senate and his backing from Colorado gun-rights groups. (He’d recently fired bullet holes into a copy of a negative editorial about him in his hometown newspaper.) Asked whether he trusts the frontrunner of his party who has in the past been softer on the Second Amendment than he has, Neville said, “I trust the Constitution.”
Of course it came as no surprise that in a debate that included one Hispanic candidate, Natividad, it would be he who was asked to respond to Trump’s remarks about Mexican immigrants being rapists and murderers.
His response: “Well, first of all, let me say that even though I would support Donald Trump if he were our nominee, I do that simply because on the Democrat side that’s horrific. The truth of the matter is I’m not pleased with Donald Trump. And I actually don’t support Donald Trump. He’s divisive. He’s absolutely shallow. He brings absolutely no substance to this race, and I don’t think that he would be a great president, to be honest with you.”
So, would Natividad really back Trump in the end?
In a debate marked by fairly simple answers, Natividad tied up the evening’s theme in a nice, tidy bow.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “if he is the nominee I will support him.”
[Photo credit: Chris Hansen/9NEWS]
*Correction: An earlier version of this story transposed a Trump position with one of Ted Cruz.