By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
In a campaign that’s had more than its fair share of inflammatory rhetoric, there’s apparently one word neither candidate in the 4th Congressional District is willing to use.
During the first CD 4 debate Oct. 8, moderator Adam Schrager asked Democrat Betsy Markey and Republican Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave if either one thinks her opponent is corrupt.
“No,” Markey said. “No, I don’t think my opponent is corrupt. But I do think the record speaks for itself.”
Markey then noted that Musgrave had received $100,000 in campaign donations from Wall Street financial interests and $160,000 from oil and gas interests.
Nor would Musgrave call Markey outright corrupt — but she did strongly question government contracts Markey’s family business received while Markey was on the staff of Democratic U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar.
“When you work as a government employee, you should not be seeking government contracts. Period,” Musgrave said.
The two campaigns have run attack ads in which they accuse each other of activity that would seem to verge on the corrupt. Markey’s campaign has said Musgrave introduced a bill to give her husband tax breaks on his coin collection. Musgrave’s campaign says Markey improperly listed her business as “woman-owned,” even though it wasn’t when she divested her share while working for Salazar. The campaign went even further this week, suggesting in a TV ad that Markey could face jail time.
Both candidates deny any wrongdoing. Musgrave says she was simply trying to cut taxes across the board, as she says she always does. Markey notes that the Senate Ethics Committee and the General Services Administration have cleared her of any wrongdoing concerning her business interests.
John Straayer, chair of the political science department at Colorado State University, says candidates usually steer clear of accusing their opponents of corruption because voters would think they’d gone too far.
“That’s a step beyond saying someone is ‘straying from the truth,’ ” he said. “I think people shy away from using extremely incendiary language like ‘corrupt.’ There are degrees of difference between that and other words. Candidates are nervous about wandering into that kind of rhetoric.”
The difference between what the campaigns will say, what the candidates themselves will say, and what the candidates will say in front of a given audience, was on clear display in the first two debates between Musgrave and Markey.
The first was held at Colorado State University, and was largely civil. The second, held Oct. 13 at Fort Morgan High School, was more antagonistic.
Beyond Schrager’s question, the first debate offered few allegations of ethical faux pas. Before the neutral Fort Collins crowd, both candidates stressed the need for bipartisanship in Washington D.C. Musgrave also distanced herself from George W. Bush.
“I’ve stood up to my president. I’ve stood up to my party. And I’ve voted for the people of the 4th Congressional District,” she said.
Musgrave barely won re-election in 2006, and has since moved toward the political center and away from earlier far-right causes such as banning gay marriage.
The Denver Post, which endorsed Musgrave’s opponents in her previous three elections, recently gave the improved “version 2.1” Musgrave its surprise endorsement. The endorsement praised Musgrave for working well with Colorado Democrats on local issues.
Despite that, Markey argues that Musgrave’s advances in bipartisanship are counterbalanced by the fact that she still almost always votes with Bush.
During the second debate in Fort Morgan, which focused on agricultural issues, Musgrave dropped the bipartisan theme to strike a populist and more partisan tone.
Fort Morgan is Musgrave’s hometown, and she played to the crowd. She kicked off the debate by taking note that pro-Markey signs had been provided by the “Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund.” The 501(c)4 group has spent more than $1.2 million on advertising attacking Musgrave.
“You can be sure the Defenders of Wildlife Action hate our way of life out in rural Colorado,” Musgrave said. “You can tell a lot about a person by who their friends are.”
Musgrave then ramped up the partisanship by taking a shot at Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a favorite GOP target.
Musgrave worked tales of her constituents’ economic woes into almost all of her responses in both debates. There was, for instance, the woman Musgrave had spoken with who couldn’t get a loan from insurance giant AIG to save her home, even as the government bailed out AIG.
“It indicates that she feels for people, that she feels empathy,” Straayer said. “That fits nicely with the economic climate.”
Markey, however, portrayed Musgrave as being out-of-touch with constituents. She said Musgrave and the Bush administration had divided the country through “wedge social issues.”
“This is exactly what’s wrong with Washington D.C.,” Markey said. “You talk about the ‘radical environmental groups.’ You talk about Speaker Pelosi in a disparaging way.”
But will the first two debates — and a third one scheduled for Oct. 21 in Windsor — make much of a difference? Straayer said they’re not likely to be pivotal unless the race is decided by a very narrow margin.
“I think the debates are generally more important for the challenger, because the challenger is not as well-known,” he said. “On the other hand, last time around, an awful lot of critics were hard on [Musgrave] for being inaccessible. There was the perception she didn’t want to debate.”
“So in this case maybe the debates are important for both,” Straayer said. “For Markey it’s free exposure, while for Marilyn she gets to reframe herself a bit from ’06.”
Attack ads are more likely to make an impact. The Markey campaign reportedly is running low on money for TV ads, however, to the point that Pelosi has asked Democrats to send donations on her behalf.
Fortunately for Markey, however, the Democratic National Campaign Committee still has plenty of money — $54 million in cash at the end of August, according to the Federal Election Commission, compared to only $14.3 million for Republicans — and has begun spate of ads attacking Musgrave.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has responded with $1.2 million in ads attacking Markey. That’s a mark of the importance — and tightness — of the CD 4 race. The NRCC has spent money in only 13 districts across the country — 10 of which they are trying to defend.
Surely national Republicans, with their meager resources, aren’t happy to pour money into yet another effort to defend Musgrave’s seat against strong opposition, especially given that CD 4 is 38 percent Republican, 27 percent Democratic and 35 percent unaffiliated.
Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster, said the negative ads in this race may be less important than the swelling anti-Republican mood that’s showing increasing leads for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and U.S. Senate candidate Mark Udall in Colorado.
And Musgrave was no stranger to negative ads from outside groups during her three previous successful runs for Congress.
“That’s not a unique factor,” Ciruli said of the negative ads. “The unique factor is that it’s a terrible year for Republicans.”