GOP Senate candidates hit hard, but pledge unity after August primary

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

COLORADO SPRINGS — Jane Norton has been on Ken Buck’s Christmas card list for a decade and will still get a card this year whoever wins the Republican primary for Colorado’s U.S. Senate seat. But that didn’t stop either of them from questioning the other’s integrity and trustworthiness at a high-stakes debate Tuesday night before a rambunctious crowd at the Stargazers Theatre and Event Center.

In a rousing 90-minute exchange in front of a crowd of about 350, the two Republicans agreed about most topics — from the need for a constitutional balanced budget amendment to the dangers of leaving a potentially nuclear Iran unchecked — but deviated over how to conduct the war in Afghanistan and which candidate was more of an insider. And underlying it all were competing charges that both candidates were marred by past blemishes that should disqualify them from winning the trust of voters.

Republican candidate Ken Buck listens as rival Jane Norton tries to make a point during the debate.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Buck, the Weld County district attorney, and Norton, who served as lieutenant governor in the Owens administration, preached a conservative gospel to an enthusiastic crowd. Both warned the country was on a dangerous course, and both called for deep cuts in federal spending.

Buck said he would introduce legislation to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and its counterpart that funds the humanities, plus push an end to federal subsidies to Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service. Still, he said, wholesale elimination of departments — including the Department of Education — would take longer than some of his supporters wanted to hear.

“To flip the switch on any department in the United States, I think, is irresponsible,” he said when pressed by a questioner to name departments he would seek to eliminate right after taking office.

Norton called for a 20 percent cut in discretionary spending, an end to the estate tax and cuts to capital gains and corporate taxes. Later, she said it was time to discuss means-testing benefits for Medicare recipients. Noting that Democrats have tried to scare Republicans away from such talk for years, she emphasized that such a move would have to happen gradually and vowed to leave benefits untouched for Americans 55 and older.

Questioned whether they would vote to confirm Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, whose hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee dominated the news the day of the debate, both candidates said they would vote against her.

“I will not vote for anyone I do not believe is a strict constructionist,” Buck said, “anyone who chooses to legislate from the bench.” He traced the high court’s problems to a scheme by President Franklin Roosevelt to pack the court and said subsequent decisions have distorted the law “to the point our founding fathers would not recognize it.”

Buck said he would introduce legislation to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and its counterpart that funds the humanities, plus push an end to federal subsidies to Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Buck also said he would like to see term limits — perhaps 25 years — imposed on Supreme Court justices, in addition to shorter term limits for federal legislators.

Charging that Kagan has “an absolute disregard for the U.S. military,” based on her actions barring recruiters when she was dean of Harvard Law School, Norton agreed with Buck that the Obama administration nominee should be rejected.

“If I were a United States senator,” Norton said, “I would be a no vote in terms of her confirmation.”

It was the first debate between Buck and Norton since the August primary ballot was finalized last month, although the two appeared together frequently at candidate forums earlier this year when the field was more crowded. The rivals were set to meet for another debate Wednesday night in Douglas County, after press time.

This round of debates falls roughly three weeks before county clerks deliver mail ballots to primary voters in most Colorado counties in late July, a development new to the state this year that could have an unpredictable effect on turnout.

On the Democratic side, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff is challenging incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet, who was appointed to the seat last January when Ken Salazar took over at the Department of Interior.

Buck was nominated onto the primary ballot at the Republican state assembly May 22 in Loveland, where he won the support of 77 percent of delegates. Norton, who narrowly trailed Buck in a straw poll taken at precinct caucuses, skipped the assembly process and petitioned her way onto the ballot.

Competing polls released in the last two weeks show both candidates leading — depending on whether voter turnout is consistent with previous years or substantially higher — but also point to a large pool of undecided voters.

Jane Norton and El Paso County Republican Cheri Ofner mingle with attendees at the Colorado Springs venue.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The sharpest disagreement between the candidates emerged early in the debate and continued through subsequent exchanges.

“Folks, we are in a war on terror, on two fronts,” Norton said. She pointed to statements Buck made in a newspaper interview published last week and said Buck was wrong to suggest America needs to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

“I have exactly the opposite reaction,” she said. “We need to double down in Afghanistan, and we need to do it now.”

The surge, she said, worked in Iraq and it can work in Afghanistan, but only if the military isn’t hampered by timetables.

“We need to be committed to victory,” she said.

Buck shot back that Norton was mischaracterizing his position.

“What I said was, we should withdraw from Afghanistan when we have accomplished certain goals,” he said, including making sure the country doesn’t harbor terrorists and is no longer a center of the drug trade. He said he disagrees with President Obama’s time limit on the surge but otherwise supports current strategy in the country, where American troops have been fighting for nearly a decade.

“This is a personal issue,” Buck said and then pointed to his son Cody, a cadet at West Point, who sat in the audience.

“It’s great to sit at a debate and talk about how tough you are,” he said, but he didn’t want to see his son’s life wasted for a flawed strategy.

“We need to be there, we need to get the job done,” Buck said, “but God bless us if we don’t give our kids an exit strategy to come home.”

Both candidates conceded they would be unable to deliver right away on one of the promises central to their campaigns: repealing health care reform legislation, dubbed “Obamacare” by both candidates.

“Obamacare is the single largest encroachment by the federal government in the history of our country,” Norton told the crowd to cheers of agreement.

Norton called for a 20 percent cut in discretionary spending, an end to the estate tax and cuts to capital gains and corporate taxes.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Calling repeal of this year’s health care legislation her “No. 1 priority” — she pledged more than once to “rip it out by the roots” — Norton nonetheless later acknowledged that a Democratic president’s veto power precludes immediate action.

“I do not believe we’re going to do it in 2010,” she said, “but you do not give up the mission, and that is to take out the whole thing.”

Buck made the same point.

“Repealing Obamacare is not realistic,” he said. “What we can do is make sure we balance the budget and we don’t fund the huge growth in Health and Human Services it’ll take to implement Obamacare.”

In addition to crippling the legislation, Buck promised the crowd opponents could kill it soon enough.

“If we work real hard, we will get a conservative — I didn’t say Republican — in the White House,” he said to cheers. “When that happens, then we can repeal Obamacare.”

A panel of five Pikes Peak-area conservatives fired questions at the candidates at the debate, which was sponsored by the monthly Constitutionalist Today newspaper and the local 1460-AM KZNT conservative talk radio station. The same organizations sponsored a debate between Republican gubernatorial candidates Dan Maes and Scott McInnis a week earlier, but only Maes showed up.

At Tuesday’s debate, one of the night’s loudest rounds of applause went to Maes when moderator Sean Paige, a Colorado Springs city councilman, asked him to stand and wave from the audience.

But it wasn’t all cheers and applause during the debate.

At one point, Buck boasted that he has been instrumental in a 50 percent drop in the crime rate in his jurisdiction, but Norton shot back that his office’s budget has mushroomed since he was elected.

“This election is about integrity — can you trust who you send back to Washington,” Norton said. “Ken, you want to be on the budget committee, but your budget as Weld County D.A. has grown by 40 percent.”

Like other occasions when Norton went on the attack against Buck, this was greeted with a round of booing from the rowdy crowd. But Norton pressed on: “When we can’t trust you in Greeley, why can we trust you in Washington?”

Buck was having none of it.

“I’m not the lieutenant governor who supported Referendum C,” he shot back.

The crowd greeted his rejoinder with hoots and hollers, highlighting a rift among Colorado Republicans dating back to the 2005 ballot measure, which suspended revenue limits imposed by the TABOR amendment to the state constitution.

At another point in the debate, Buck blamed lack of Republican resolve on Referendum C for a slew of fee increases and reversals on longtime tax breaks approved by courts and the Legislature.

“The Democrats saw the weakness and the division inside the Republican Party because some advocated higher taxes to the tune of $3.7 billion,” he said, pointing at Norton. She defended her support for the measure, saying it was in the spirit of TABOR because voters had a say, and, besides, the state hasn’t wound up spending the money the way backers promised.

In the sharpest exchange of the night, Norton hit Buck with charges her campaign has been airing in radio ads this week. The ad points to a letter of reprimand handed to Buck in 2002, near the end of his tenure working as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office.

Campaign Manager Josh Penry and Deputy Campaign Manager Cinamon Watson were on hand to watch the candidates.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The letter, released by Buck along with voluminous personnel files to The Denver Post last week, said he committed an ethical breach when he disclosed information about a pending prosecution to defendants. Buck was required to take ethics classes before he decamped for a job working for construction giant Hensel Phelps and later ran for district attorney.

Near the end of the debate, Norton said the stakes of the Senate primary were high.

“It’s about character, it’s about integrity, it’s about, do you stand up to the big spenders in both parties,” she began. “It’s about, do you need an ethics class to tell you what’s the right thing to do?”

The crowd drowned Norton with boos and hisses. Undeterred, she continued: “Folks, that’s the record,” she said with a stern look to the crowd.

“And you know what, we have got to tell the truth. It’s a fair thing to talk about. This is an issue about integrity. Are we going to trust the people we send to Washington, or is talk cheap?”

Buck fired back when it was his turn to speak.

Buck also said he would like to see term limits — perhaps 25 years — imposed on Supreme Court justices, in addition to shorter term limits for federal legislators.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“There’s a lot of nonsense out there in terms of negative commercials,” he said, shaking his head like a disappointed parent. He described the decade-old prosecution of Aurora pawnbrokers for illegal gun sales, which he said had been ginned up by a U.S. attorney intent on running a second time for the Senate.

“It was the wrong thing to do, and I stood up,” he said. “Folks, we can’t stand for prosecutions that are not right. And I stood up. I stood up because I took an oath to the Constitution of the United States.”

As for whether the candidates plan to bury the hatchet the day after the primary, they sounded nearly identical notes.

Pointing out that his opponent’s husband, former U.S. Attorney Mike Norton, hired him to work as a federal prosecutor in Colorado nearly two decades ago, Buck said the negative attacks have been hardest on the candidates’ families.

“We are friends,” he said, “and when this is over we will be friends. And I will stand shoulder to shoulder with Jane regardless of what happens, and we will kick Michael Bennet’s butt.”

That’s when he told the crowd he and his wife had been sending the Nortons Christmas cards for some time, a gesture Norton admitted she and her husband hadn’t returned. Still, she assured the crowd the rancorous primary would be over once the votes were counted.

“Ken and I were friends before this race,” Norton said, “and we’ll be friends after this race.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com