Buck’s remark shines national spotlight on U.S. Senate race

By Ernest Luning

Colorado’s two U.S. Senate candidates sparred before a group of business leaders in Denver late last week, but that relatively cordial exchange was soon overshadowed by a firestorm of controversy when Republican Ken Buck compared being gay to alcoholism during a nationally televised debate on Sunday.

Buck’s remarks brought further national attention to a Senate race rated among the closest in the nation, and one that has drawn a flood of outside spending attempting to sway voters recent polls show are split down the middle.

Colorado’s U.S. Senate candidates debate at a forum sponsored by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 15 at the Denver Sheraton. ABC News reporter Jake Tapper, left, and veteran local news anchor Mike Landess posed questions to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Republican Ken Buck.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

On NBC long-running Sunday morning show “Meet the Press,” both Buck and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, the Democrat appointed to the seat when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar resigned to take the cabinet post, faced a grilling from host David Gregory.

While the half-hour debate covered a range of topics, an answer Buck gave to a question about the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy took center stage before the program even aired in Colorado.

Asked whether he thought homosexuality was a choice, Buck responded that he did.

Pressed by Gregory to clarify, Buck said, “Well, I guess you can choose who your partner is.”

“You don’t think it’s something that’s determined at birth?” Gregory asked.

Buck answered: “I think birth has an influence over it, like alcoholism and some other things, but I think that basically you have a choice.”

Gay rights groups immediately denounced Buck’s remarks and called on the candidate to retract them.

A statement issued by the Human Rights Campaign, which bills itself as the nation’s largest gay civil rights organization, said medical experts decades ago “debunked” the notion sexual orientation is a matter of choice.

“Mr. Buck’s ill-informed views are not only factually inaccurate, but they are extremely dangerous,” said HRC President Joe Solmonese in a statement. “In the past six weeks a number of teenagers have taken their own lives after being the victims of anti-gay bullying and harassment. When public figures like Mr. Buck make statements like he did today, kids struggling with their identities question their self-worth and other kids justify bullying. Ken Buck must correct his remarks now.”

After the Sunday show broadcast, Buck told reporters outside the Washington studio he hadn’t meant to imply homosexuality was a disease like alcoholism and pointed out that he wasn’t a biologist, according to Politico and other news reports.

Three polls released this week showed Bennet closing a persistent single-digit gap Buck has held in most public polling since the August primary to within a few percentage points at most, within the surveys’ margins of error.

Political watchers consistently rank the Buck-Bennet race as among the top races in the country. Politico’s David Catanese this week places the Colorado contest as the third closest in the nation among Senate races, behind Illinois and Nevada. Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza places Colorado among the six “key battleground states” determining which party will control the Senate and puts it near the top of a list of the “nastiest races” in the country for any office.

There was plenty of back-and-forth during the “Meet the Press” debate leading up to the comment that got the most attention, though.

Bennet sought to portray himself as a moderate who has broken from the Obama administration but stood by his often-repeated contention that the country has “nothing to show for it” after sinking $13 trillion into debt under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

“We have not even had the decency to maintain the assets that our parents and grandparents built for us,” Bennet said. “Our roads, our bridges, our wastewater systems, our sewer systems,” he went on, adding that it wasn’t “Bolsheviks” or “socialists” who built the country’s infrastructure.

Buck blasted back that Bennet has approved spending $3 trillion since arriving in Washington, but Bennet countered that Buck’s tax proposals would drive the country another $1.3 trillion into debt.

Buck, for his part, defended himself against charges he’s reversed his positions on numerous issues since surviving a grueling primary fight against former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton.

“It is not fair to say that I have backtracked on those issues,” he said, arguing that he’s answered questions hundreds of times and that opposition “trackers” might well find him phrasing things slightly differently over the year and a half he’s been on the campaign trail.

Bennet agreed that wording might change over time but went on to charge that Buck’s “flip flops” were “unbelievable.”

The candidates addressed some of the same issues at a debate Friday sponsored by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce at the downtown Sheraton. ABC News political reporter Jake Tapper and KMGH-TV anchor Mike Landess posed questions to the candidates in front of about 300 business leaders.

Asked by Tapper whether the perception was accurate that Buck’s positions have “evolved” since the primary election — including the observation that shifting positions could be due to “political convenience or ignorance, and we’re not sure which is worse” — Buck maintained that Tapper’s proposition was incorrect.

“I’ve done my very best to answer the questions and deal with the issues,” he said, noting that he hasn’t “ducked the issues” and, contrary to Bennet, has “put plans on the table.”

“The result has been some inconsistency on the issues,” Buck conceded. However, he contended, “I haven’t reversed position but have talked about issues in different ways.”

Bennet was having none of it.

“You’ve said things consistently throughout the primary election you have run away from in the general election,” he said, pointing at Buck. “All over the state, people say this was one campaign in the primary and one campaign in the general.”

Tapper pointed out that massive amounts of campaign cash have been pouring into the state — by one estimate, more outside money has been spent on the Colorado Senate race than on any other race in the country, according to The Washington Post — and most of it has gone toward negative TV ads attacking both candidates.

Buck took the opportunity to lash out at what he says are patently false ads run against him that mischaracterize his positions.

The political climate, Buck said, “doesn’t excuse what my opponent is done. What he has done is run outright lies about my positions on issues.” Visibly shaken, Buck went on: “It is unfortunate a sitting senator has to stoop that low to try to run away from his issues.”

Again, Bennet conceded nothing.

“I have a lot of sympathy for the fact-checkers trying to figure out what your record really is,” he said. “Every time I debate you I don’t know who I’m going to debate.”

Near the end of the “Meet the Press” debate, Gregory lobbed a couple of softballs to the candidates as the debate wound down.

Asked which recent Supreme Court justices the candidates would have voted against, Buck named the two Obama nominees now on the bench, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagen. Bennet said he “probably” would have voted against Justice Clarence Thomas and added he has been “disappointed” with Chief Justice John Roberts.

Gregory then asked the candidates to tell viewers what they hope to accomplish in politics and in their personal lives.

Buck said he wanted to see a balanced budget amendment added to the Constitution and that he wanted to “play more golf and get a decent handicap.”

Bennet said he wanted to pursue policies that “create more opportunity, not less, for our kids and our grandkids.” Continuing the theme, he described his personal goal: “I hope to raise my three little girls to be productive and happy citizens.”

The debates were the fifth and sixth times the candidates have shared a stage since winning their party’s nominations. A final debate is set for Saturday in Denver and will be aired on KCNC-TV.