A dispute about debates between Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and his challenger, state Sen. Morgan Carroll, ramped up this week as both sides charged the other with ducking confrontations, all while framing the controversy in what has become familiar invective in the hotly contested 6th Congressional District race.
As things stand, the two candidates are set to spar in televised debates at least twice in October with a third debate in Spanish planned, pending an agreement on scheduling.
But before those contests were announced this week — the first, sponsored by CBS4 and Colorado Public Television, airs Oct. 14, and the second, sponsored by 9News, is set for Oct. 20 — the candidates’ campaign managers and their respective allies spent days hurling insults and mocking their opponents.
Along the way, the campaigns accused each other of ignoring telephone messages, calling wrong numbers, evading emails and upending standard campaign protocol when it comes to arranging debates.
The fracas spilled into public view last Friday after the Carroll campaign declined an invitation to take part in a debate sponsored by The Denver Post, a development that led the Coffman campaign to argue his opponent was hiding from voters and disrespecting the premier newspaper in the state.
A Carroll spokesman shot back that the Democrat had been clear for months that she planned to participate only in televised debates that would reach wide audiences, and the proposed Post debate didn’t fit the bill.
That’s when the fur started flying.
“You would think a trial lawyer like Morgan Carroll would jump at every opportunity to debate,” said Coffman spokeswoman Cinamon Watson. “On second thought, ‘Marine Corps combat veteran vs. ambulance-chasing trial lawyer’ may not be the match-up she wants.”
“We are eager to debate Mike Coffman this fall and hold him accountable for his record of failing to stand up for the working families of the 6th District: as one of the original ‘birthers’ doubting whether President Obama was American, keynoting anti-Muslim hate groups, to punishing women who get abortions, Mike Coffman has a lot to answer for,” said Carroll spokesman Drew Godinich.
A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee swung hard at Carroll, saying that by skipping the Denver Post debate she “has not only insulted the largest paper in Colorado, but also the 6th District voters that deserve to hear directly from Carroll herself before Election Day.”
“If Carroll is too afraid to defend her extreme record in public,” added NRCC regional press secretary Zach Hunter in a statement, “then she should just admit now that she will not debate and save everyone the trouble of parsing her political doublespeak as she painfully tries to explain away her sudden shyness.”
Ridiculous, Godinich countered, contending that Carroll had committed to three debates and the campaign was simply nailing down the schedule.
What’s more, calling the argument that Carroll is “hiding” from the public “beyond rich,” Godinich pointed out that she has held more than 200 town hall events while serving in the Legislature, “consistently making herself available” to constituents and the press. Coffman, however, hasn’t held a publicly announced town hall in years, he charged.
“What’s clear is that the GOP and their cronies are happy to talk about anything other than Mike Coffman’s atrocious record of failing to stand up for Colorado families,” Godinich told The Colorado Statesman.
Watson also charged on Friday that Carroll had first agreed to debate Coffman at the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry’s annual luncheon in downtown Denver on Oct. 13 but then backed out. She furnished an invitation touting the Carroll-Coffman pairing — “One of the most competitive congressional races in the country!” — sent to CACI members on Aug. 3 and a revised announcement listed Coffman and pollster Floyd Ciruli as the luncheon’s featured speakers.
But the Carroll camp said the candidate never agreed to the CACI appearance and produced an email exchange with a CACI official in late July thanking the business organization for the invitation but declining to participate.
A Democrat briefed on the Carroll campaign’s approach to the debates suggested that CACI’s minimum $150-a-plate — $250 for non-members — charge for the luncheon, combined with a policy against broadcasting the debate, contributed to the campaign’s decision.
A CACI official didn’t respond to email and telephone messages from The Statesman about the matter.
Carroll’s campaign manager, Jennifer Koch Donovan, released a letter she said was delivered to the Coffman campaign last week after Watson and another Coffman campaign official failed to respond to phone messages Donovan said she left in August in hopes of settling on three debates that met a few criteria, including “partnering with media to reach as many voters as possible” and making the debates available via streaming on social media.
Watson denied she’d received any phone calls from Donovan — “maybe they have a wrong number” — and scoffed at the suggestion the two campaigns should confer about which debates to attend, saying that struck her as “weird.”
“I’m not sure why Team Carroll needs my permission to debate,” Watson said. “I wonder if she had to check in with Nancy Pelosi too?”
Watson noted that Coffman had agreed to numerous debates, including ones sponsored by the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, the Highlands Ranch/South Metro Chambers, the Denver Post and CACI.
In addition, she said, Coffman has accepted invitations to appear at numerous candidate forums — as has Carroll, her campaign confirmed.
The Carroll campaign on Wednesday announced that it was participating in three debates, including the CBS4/KBDI debate on Oct. 14 and the 9News debate on Oct. 20, along with a Spanish-language debate on Entravision/Univision, set to tape Oct. 4 and air Oct. 8. (In 2012, Coffman and Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff took part in what was thought to be the first congressional debate conducted entirely in Spanish, also on Univision.)
“We are excited to announce that Morgan Carroll will be taking part in three televised debates this fall,” Godinich said. “We believe that the public deserves an open and honest forum to discuss the challenges facing Colorado and our country. People deserve to know why Mike Coffman and the current Republican-led Congress has failed to address the needs of the people in our community.”
The Coffman campaign concurred that he was planning on the CBS4/KBDI and 9News debates, but Watson told The Aurora Sentinel the congressman had a scheduling conflict for the proposed Entravision debate and was working to find a mutually agreeable date for the taping.
That set off a howl of protest from the Carroll campaign and Democrats backing her.
Characterizing Watson’s comments about scheduling the Entravision appearance as the Coffman campaign “pass[ing]” on the debate, Godinich taunted the Republican campaign for its attempts “to knock Morgan for ‘ducking’ debates” and proceded to pile on.
“It’s unfortunate that Mike Coffman has a ‘scheduling conflict’ and has chosen not to prioritize the Spanish language Entravision debate,” he said. “We believe that all voters deserve the chance to hear from their elected leaders, but given Mike Coffman’s record calling the DREAM Act a nightmare, sponsoring legislation to build the border wall, and calling Tom Tancredo ‘his personal hero,’ I can imagine why he would decide to stay home.”
Tyler Law, regional spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, hammered Coffman, whose district counts about 20 percent Hispanic residents.
“Congressman Coffman paved the way for Donald Trump and now he is acting just like him,” said Law in a statement. “His weak excuse for not participating in the only Spanish-language debate further proves how out-of-touch he is with his diverse constituency.”
It was Watson’s turn to cry foul, telling The Statesman it was a simple conflict that would be resolved soon enough.
“We absolutely will debate her,” she said. “And in Spanish. But ambulance chasers aren’t the only people with schedules.”