By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
The same day Colorado voters started receiving ballots in the mail, television viewers statewide were treated to a one-two punch as U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and his Democratic primary challenger, Andrew Romanoff, blasted each other for campaign fundraising from special interests and political action committees. The next day, both campaigns stepped up their attacks, each accusing the other of spreading “factually inaccurate” information as the August 10 primary approaches.
The volleys began over the weekend in e-mail blasts from the two campaigns, then escalated onto the airwaves Tuesday, and then wound up with spokesmen for both camps trading charges in a parking lot in southeast Denver on Wednesday as reporters gathered ’round.
“As ballots are starting to hit mailboxes,” said Bennet campaign spokesman Trevor Kincaid at a Romanoff — that’s right, a Romanoff — news conference Wednesday, “I’m glad that Andrew agrees with us, that facts are important.”
The campaigns, however, don’t agree on many of the facts.
In an e-mail to supporters on Sunday, Bennet campaign manager Craig Hughes accused the Romanoff campaign of using “the tried and true negative playbook of a veteran political insider,” and went on to list various attacks he said the Bennet campaign has sustained from Romanoff and his allies.
“Andrew says he is ‘not running to trash anybody,’ but his actions don’t match those words,” Hughes wrote. “His attacks on Michael have been deceptive and irresponsible — and unfortunately, are just more politics as usual.”
The next day, the Romanoff campaign fired back in an e-mail to its supporters, challenging Hughes’ contention the campaign had gone negative and throwing the “politics as usual” sobriquet back at the incumbent.
“Yesterday, Sen. Bennet’s campaign manager sent out a fundraising plea calling Andrew Romanoff deceptive, irresponsible and disingenuous,” wrote Romanoff’s deputy campaign manager Berrick Abramson. “And those were just the nicest words in an appeal to end ‘negative campaigning.’”
Pointing to what he said were policy differences on health care, financial reform, energy and the environment, Abramson suggested the Bennet campaign was wrong to charge the Romanoff campaign with spreading negative campaign literature that, he said, doesn’t exist.
“These tactics are nothing new,” he wrote. “It’s an old political game: If you’re embarrassed by the votes you cast or the money you take, you attack the messenger and attempt to distract the audience.”
The audience was rapt the next morning when a new Romanoff attack ad first began airing on televisions across the state.
Calling Bennet “a top recipient of campaign money from big banks,” the ad accuses him of voting “to protect their profits.” What’s more, the Romanoff ad proclaims, after “taking more campaign cash from Big Oil, Bennet votes to let them keep billions in tax breaks.”
Over pictures of Bennet and corporate logos, the ad’s announcer intones, “Bennet takes nearly a million dollars from Washington special interests. Andrew Romanoff doesn’t take a dime.”
As the ad nears its conclusion, Romanoff appears on screen and he tells viewers, “I don’t take money from special interests, because they have enough politicians on their payroll.”
It’s the signature theme of Romanoff’s campaign, one he has repeated for months in front of voters at house parties and town halls. But it was the first time he had struck so forcefully at his fellow Democrat before so large an audience.
The Bennet campaign responded immediately with a nine-page “Romanoff Attack Fact Check,” challenging nearly every word in the Romanoff ad.
The Romanoff ad mischaracterizes Bennet’s votes on amendments in the Senate, the Bennet document charges. The vote Romanoff says protects the profits of big banks didn’t have anything to do with profits, the Bennet response says. What’s more, the Bennet campaign argues, the vote on energy tax breaks — dubbed “loopholes” in an earlier Romanoff attack, that time issued from the stump — was poorly worded and would have harmed small, independent natural gas producers in Colorado.
The Bennet campaign also rolled out figures showing how much money other Democrats in Colorado’s congressional delegation have raised from PACs, placing Bennet near the bottom of the list. With 18 percent of his funds coming from PACs, Bennet trails all the other Democrats except Rep. Jared Polis, the 2nd District freshman who largely self-funded his campaign in 2008.
But the sharpest rebuttal showed up on TV screens later Tuesday in a 30-second ad the Bennet campaign said was produced and delivered to stations that day after Romanoff’s ad began airing.
“Have you seen Andrew Romanoff’s ads about PAC money?” the ad begins. “Take a listen.” The ad inserts an excerpt from another ad Romanoff aired earlier this month, showing Romanoff saying, “I don’t take a dime of their money.”
“Oh really?” the Bennet ad’s announcer asks. “Career politician Romanoff’s been taking PAC money for almost 10 years, from big banks, insurance companies, oil companies.” A list of companies, including many of the same industry giants who have donated to Bennet, scrolls under the announcer’s skeptical tones. “He’s even run his own PAC while campaigning for the Senate.”
It’s a line of attack — or push-back, depending on your perspective — the Bennet campaign first unveiled at a debate between the two Democrats in Denver last winter.
“I know that you collected a lot of PAC money while you were speaker of the House,” Bennet said to Romanoff at the February debate. “I know you had your own PAC — I didn’t even know you could have your own PAC,” Bennet said with a look of dismay. “And lots of other PACs contributed to that PAC.”
Romanoff’s PAC, the Romanoff Leadership Fund, was formed in the fall of 2004 to “support Democratic candidates to the General Assembly,” and remained in existence until January, state records show, though it was dormant for several years.
The Bennet ad closes by repeating the clip from Romanoff’s commercial — “I don’t take a dime of their money” — and the announcer sternly adds, “Sorry, Andrew. Now we know the truth.”
Within minutes of the ad first airing Tuesday evening, the main number to Romanoff campaign headquarters was busy, and it stayed busy through the night. Campaign aides said the Bennet ad was misleading because it implied Romanoff was still taking PAC money when he hadn’t accepted a contribution from special interests for years.
In front of his headquarters Wednesday afternoon at a hastily assembled press conference, a visibly angry Romanoff slammed Bennet for airing the attack ad and repeated his own attack ad’s charges in more detail.
“Sen. Bennet is welcome to defend those votes,” Romanoff said. “What he is not welcome to do is to replace fact with fiction.”
Romanoff said Bennet’s attacks exemplified politicians eager to “distract the audience by attacking the messenger. That’s the way Washington works: ignore, distract, attack. I will not respond in kind,” Romanoff said.
In the next breath, Romanoff proceeded to attack Bennet for trying to “mislead the citizens he seeks to represent. That is what Sen. Bennet has done with an advertisement he released yesterday. His ad is misleading and defamatory, from start to finish. The only line he got right was the first one: ‘I’m Michael Bennet, and I approve this message.’”
“The suggestion that I am taking money from special-interest groups is wholly false, and Sen. Bennet knows it,” Romanoff said. He cast the stakes of the primary election as “fundamental,” saying Colorado voters “get to decide whether to perpetuate a pay-to-play political culture that sells Senate seats to the highest bidder or to restore the role of people as the legitimate source of power in a democracy.”
At one point during the news conference, Romanoff called on Bennet to support the Fair Elections Now Act, a piece of legislation that would establish a form of public financing for federal elections.
Bennet signed on to the bill as a co-sponsor sometime Wednesday, an aide with his Senate office said, adding that “he’s been pushing to reform campaign finance for some time now.”
After Romanoff finished answering questions, Bennet’s campaign spokesman corralled reporters in the parking lot outside Romanoff headquarters. “Our ad is 100 percent based on the facts, and we just think there are questions that demand answers,” Kincaid said. He termed Romanoff’s arguments “a character attack” and said, “it’s what people don’t want in this race.”
After Kincaid finished, Abramson offered a further response from the Romanoff campaign, calling the Bennet attack “a rewriting of history, a misstatement of the facts, and a twisting of things.”
Does the Bennet campaign plan to hit back at Romanoff in the weeks before ballots are due?
“We’ll have to see what they do,” Kincaid said. “See if they keep going negative.”
And the Romanoff campaign?
“We’re just getting started,” Abramson said with a wink.