Dem Senate candidates ramp up invective as primary nears

Charges fly as attack ads flood airwaves

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

At a raucous press conference, on the airwaves and in a phone call featuring the president, the two Democrats locked in a tight race for the U.S. Senate nomination moved within shouting distance of Tuesday’s primary election in the last full week before ballots are counted.

The day before a Denver Post/KUSA-TV poll showed former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff with a 3-point lead over U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet — within the survey’s margin of error, but erasing a 17-point deficit recorded in June by the same polling firm — Bennet enlisted Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien to lambaste a blistering Romanoff attack that began airing days earlier.

Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff, right, listens as Sen. Michael Bennet makes a point during a debate on the 9News YourShow program July 31 at KUSA-TV studios in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Sen. Michael Bennet addresses supporters. Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien, second from right, applauds.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Romanoff supporters wave signs and chant slogans at the Bennet press event at Denver’s Civic Center Park to criticize a television ad the Romanoff campaign is running.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Denver Post columnist Mike Littwin, right, talks to an Andrew Romanoff supporter carrying a sign that urges readers to cancel Post subscriptions before the start of a press conference by Sen. Michael Bennet on July 31.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

A crowd of Bennet supporters gathered in front of the state Capitol on the afternoon of July 31 to hear Bennet and O’Brien call on Romanoff to take down a television ad that claims Bennet “looted” $1 billion from the country’s largest chain of movie theaters when he helped manage investments for billionaire Phil Anschutz a decade ago.

Surrounded by a larger crowd of sign-waving — and occasionally heckling — Romanoff supporters, O’Brien scolded Romanoff for a campaign she said was “about slander and lying.” The Denver Democrat, who worked with Romanoff in the Capitol during the last two years he ran the state House, called on him to stop running the ad.

“I am hurt that my friend Andrew has stooped as low as we’ve seen Republicans in Washington stoop,” O’Brien said over shouts from Romanoff supporters and the honking of passing cars.

Asking for “the chance to set the record straight,” Bennet praised Romanoff for the job he did in the statehouse but then said, “The attack in this ad is completely false. On no planet is anything in it true.”

A senior Romanoff aide, who attended the Bennet press conference, declined the invitation to take down Romanoff’s ad. Deputy campaign manager Berrick Abramson said the pressure would only increase on Bennet until the last vote was cast.

“Honestly, what we’re seeing from the Bennet campaign for the last two weeks — since they went up by 17 points to being in a statistical dead heat — what we’re hearing and seeing is the sound of a Bennet campaign in free-fall,” Abramson said. “Their campaign is imploding, they’re grasping for straws, they know they’re getting hurt because people are finding out just who Sen. Bennet is.”

The Post/9News poll released Sunday morning showed Romanoff leading Bennet 48-45 percent among likely Democratic primary voters, within the SurveyUSA poll’s 4-point margin of error. The next day, the Bennet campaign countered with its own internal poll conducted by Boulder-based Harstad Strategic Research. It had the lead flipped, with Bennet ahead 41-37 percent among primary voters, still within that poll’s same 4-percent margin of error.

A couple hours after Bennet’s press conference, the Democrats sat for their third debate of the campaign season at KUSA-TV studios in Denver. The half-hour program aired Sunday morning on the 9News YourShow program and is available for viewing online.

In response to a question posed by moderator Adam Schrager, both candidates dug in over the recent negative advertising. Romanoff insisted his advertising highlights important differences between the candidates, but Bennet called Romanoff’s ads — including earlier ones blasting Bennet for taking contributions from financial and energy interests — “shameful” and said voters instead wanted to hear about jobs and the economy.

“There is clearly a connection between the millions of Americans who are losing their jobs, their homes and their savings,” Romanoff shot back, “and the Wall Street banks that stand in the way of financial reform, the oil companies that stand in the way of climate change legislation, and the insurance and drug companies that cut deals to protect their profits at our expense.”

“I actually don’t disagree with that,” Bennet responded. “What there’s not a connection between is that and my vote.”

When Bennet asked Romanoff whether he thought Colorado’s other senator, Democrat Mark Udall, was “a bag man for corporate interests” because he cast the same vote as one Romanoff highlighted in an attack ad, Schrager called off the heated exchange, warning that it was “gravitating toward a channel up the dial on a cable network.”

The Bennet campaign launched a counterattack on Monday with a television ad highlighting lines from Denver Post editorials and columns that harshly criticized Romanoff’s ad. In the Bennet ad, the words “sleazy,” “misleading” and “below the belt” appear next to a picture of Romanoff, a practitioner, the ad claims, of “cynical politics at its worst.”

Bennet helped fuel the advertising — appearing on television sets statewide along with an ad featuring praise from President Barack Obama and another starring his three daughters — with a $300,000 personal loan to his campaign over the weekend. The loan counters a similar sum Romanoff pumped into his own campaign a week earlier after he sold his Washington Park house and drained personal savings accounts.

Even though Bennet has out-raised Romanoff nearly 4-to-1 this campaign season, posting $7.7 million in contributions through July 21, a spokesman said the Bennet campaign hadn’t budgeted for as much advertising as he said it would take to rebut Romanoff’s attacks.

Amid rumors the Romanoff campaign plans to bring former President Bill Clinton to Colorado for a last-minute push, Bennet brought out his most prominent backer for a conference call heard across the state. President Obama, who appeared at a rally and fundraiser for Bennet in February, spent about five minutes talking to an estimated 21,000 voters in the middle of a half-hour Bennet campaign “tele-town hall” Tuesday evening.

Calling Bennet “a breath of fresh air in a town with a lot of hot air,” Obama heaped praise on the incumbent he endorsed the day after Romanoff entered the race last fall.

“So Michael has been as good of a senator as I expected him to be when I first met him and he was still head of the public schools out in Denver,” Obama said. “And I know there have been a lot of negative ads running against Michael in the last few weeks, which is sort of politics as usual. But when he came to Washington, he came to get things done and not just play the usual political games.”

As mail ballots continued to pour in, both campaigns announced statewide tours to chase down votes.

Romanoff kicked off a “seven-day sprint” on Tuesday with a fundraiser in southeast Denver featuring Olympic athlete and former NFL player Jeremy Bloom, followed by appearances up and down the Front Range over the following week. Bennet plans a “whirlwind” 24-hour tour starting Friday afternoon with stops in Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Denver, Watkins, Hugo, Limon, Fort Morgan, Fort Collins, Greeley and Boulder.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com