The five candidates vying to win the June 28 Republican primary for U.S. Senate got together Tuesday night for another battle over immigration, Obamacare and tax reform.
But first, Donald Trump.
Tuesday night’s debate, hosted by 9News and the Lincoln Club of Colorado, was the eighth of 12 scheduled forums. The debate was also the first time that all five candidates have been on the same stage since the end of numerous court battles that would determine just who would be on the ballot.
Moderators Kyle Clark and Brandon Rittiman of KUSA led off the hour-long discussion with the topic of the day: whether Donald Trump is a racist for suggesting that Indiana-born Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is of Mexican descent, could not make a fair ruling in a lawsuit against Trump University because Trump has advocated for building a wall between the United States and Mexico.
The question: Is it racist to suggest someone cannot do their job well because of their ethnicity?
Former CSU athletic director and businessman Jack Graham was the most direct, and the first to say that the remarks had caused him to stop supporting the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
“It’s absolutely a racist statement,” Graham said. Trump “has lost my support…he must own this and apologize.” Graham added that Trump could earn back Graham’s support if he did so.
Former state Rep. Jon Keyser didn’t go with the “yes or no” answer that the moderators sought until the third time he was asked. “I don’t think someone’s ethnicity has any bearing on whether they will be biased,” Keyser said. He then wandered off-topic to the subject of judges recusing themselves — which Trump has suggested he would ask Curiel to do with the Trump University case — and later into an attack on President Barack Obama, whom he said had made race relations the most sour in U.S. history.
Have Trump’s comments about Curiel cost Trump any support? While Colorado Springs businessman Darryl Glenn said Trump’s remarks “appear to be racist,” he noted that Trump is still the party’s nominee and any alternative – i.e. former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – is unacceptable.
“I expect better,” said Ryan Frazier, a former city councilman from Aurora. Trump’s remarks don’t reflect the values of the Republican Party, Frazier added.
Colorado Springs businessman Robert Blaha agreed that the remark was racist but said he would continue to support the party’s presidential nominee. “You have to look at the overall record,” Blaha said. Either “we pursue the path of Trump” or follow Clinton. “We have a 35-year history with this woman. We know exactly what we will get,” Blaha said, citing Clinton’s handling of the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya and the Rose Law Firm controversy from 1996.
Graham went a bit further, stating that, as moral leaders of the Republican Party and their communities, the candidates have an obligation to speak against Trump’s remarks. The Republican Party is the party of inclusion, Graham said, citing both the diversity of candidates in the early stages of the GOP presidential race and the U.S. Senate nominees in Colorado.
Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the country also generated heated discussion at Tuesday’s debate. Would the candidates back that position?
“I don’t think it’s a religious issue,” said Blaha. “It’s a safety issue,” related to the nation’s ability to properly vet those entering the country.
Frazier said that while he believes border security is a top priority, he would not support the ban, citing the diversity of his community, Aurora.
“Trump can propose what he wants,” responded Glenn. But the U.S. Senate has the responsibility to look at such a policy proposal, and either push back against it or improve upon it. The nation should be cautious about anyone who enters, regardless of religious affiliation, he said.
Common sense doesn’t require that the federal government analyze people’s someone’s religion before allowing them into the country, added Graham, who also opposes ban based solely on religion. He did advocate for secure borders and enforcing the immigration laws that are already in place.
Keyser said threats of terrorism are real, and come from a variety of races and religions. He supports a three-pronged approach for keeping the country safe: securing the border, modernizing the immigration system and making sure employers don’t hire “illegal aliens.”
The moderators also asked questions targeted at specific candidates.
Glenn was questioned about his ability, or lack thereof, to fundraise, and whether Republicans should take a chance on someone who hasn’t demonstrated an ability to raise the kinds of dollars needed to match up against incumbent Democratic Senator Michael Bennet of Denver.
“If you think money will win this election, we’d be talking about Jeb Bush,” Glenn shot back.
Blaha’s promise to cut illegal immigration by half, as his campaign has advertised on TV in recent weeks, drew a question on just how he would be accountable and what numbers he would use to meet his guarantee, given that the most recent immigration statistics are about four years old. Blaha insisted that his statistics came from the government. “You can either give excuses when you come back [to the state from Washington, D.C.] or you can give a guarantee,” he added. “People have had enough of shallow promises.”
Graham was asked about an evaluation from his days as athletic director at Colorado State University. The moderator pointed out that, according to the evaluation, colleagues rated Graham poorly. “Why not take [those concerns] seriously?” he was asked.
Graham responded by saying that when he was hired, he faced an “entrenched bureaucracy mired in mediocrity,” with student athletes exhibiting behavioral and drug problems. He insisted that student athletes demonstrate strong character and succeed academically. “I wouldn’t change a thing I did,” he added.
Keyser was asked to defend his TV ads that claim Bennet favored giving nuclear weapons to Iran, a claim Politifact rated as “pants on fire” false. Keyser said that the deal struck by between the United States and its allies with Iran started a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and gave Iran $150 billion with which it could purchase conventional weapons.
“I stand by my statements” on Bennet’s support for the Iran deal, Keyser said. “Either you want Iran to have nuclear weapons or you don’t…When we released the sanctions, we gave them a clear path to get nuclear weapons. I will hold Bennet accountable for the terrible decision to support the Iran deal.”
The candidates also expressed support for lowering the current corporate tax rate to stimulate the economy and for repealing Obamacare and allowing the states to come up with a plan to replace it. And in contrast to some of the earlier debates, the candidates focused their attacks on Bennet and Clinton and not on each other.
Following the debate, Glenn told The Colorado Independent his military service and business experience sets him apart from his Republican opponents. He also discussed his campaign approach, which has been to meet Republicans in virtually every county in the state.
“People are frustrated. Their elected officials and wannabes aren’t coming to talk to them.” Instead of 30-second sound bites, he said Coloradans want candidates who will listen to their stories and translate those stories into action, he said.
Frazier said he thought he had a solid performance, but would have liked to discuss tax reform proposals and the need for more training for middle-skills jobs in greater depth “We have to close the middle-skills jobs gap,” he said, explaining that 50 percent of future jobs are middle-skills jobs but that only 42 percent of those coming into the workforce will have that training. That’s a gap that has to be addressed, he said.
Ballots for the June 28 primary election went out on Monday to voters affiliated with the two major parties.
Photo credit: 9News/Chris Hansen