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Coffman, Crow spar over immigration, Trump in 6th CD debate

Author: Ernest Luning - October 24, 2018 - Updated: October 24, 2018

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Sixth Congressional District candidates Democrat Jason Crow, left, and U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, right, a five-term Republican, debate on 9News in Denver on Oct. 23. (Via Facebook)

Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and Democratic challenger Jason Crow on Tuesday night accused each other of dishonesty and failing to stand up to their party’s leaders during the final televised debate in what could be the hardest-fought — and most expensive — congressional race in the country.

The candidates clashed over immigration policy, health care reform and how best to deal with President Donald Trump, a political hot potato in the evenly divided 6th Congressional District.

> RELATED: 9NEWS TRUTH TEST | Coffman and Crow in the 6th Congressional District debate

In the last general election, voters in the suburban swing district wrapped around the east side of the Denver metro area sent Coffman back to Congress for a fifth term, but picked Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump by a 9 percentage point margin. It’s one of two-dozen districts nationwide to split its vote like that last cycle — guaranteeing the contest a spot at the center of the battle for control of the House.

Tuesday’s brisk, half-hour exchange was streamed online from the 9News studios and aired later on KTVD-Channel 20. (Watch the full debate by clicking here.)

The faceoff  capped an 18-month donnybrook that’s landed Coffman, an Army and Marine Corps veteran, in a fight for his political life.

First elected to the legislature 30 years ago, the Republican has since won an unbroken string of races — including for state treasurer and secretary of state — but recent polling has shown Crow leading by between 9 and 11 percentage points.

Crow, an attorney, decorated Army Ranger veteran and first-time candidate, last week reported raising $2.2 million for the most recent quarter, outpacing the $850,000 Coffman hauled in — though outside spending in the race dwarfs that of both candidates, routinely landing the race atop lists of the hottest House contests by that measure.

The debate, moderated by 9News anchor Kyle Clark and political reporter Marshall Zelinger, kicked off with a question about a truckload of 60,000 undelivered mail ballots in Adams County — both candidates said they were concerned voters will have enough time to vote — and then dove into hot-button topics, including health insurance and border security.

Coffman said he opposes a Trump administration plan to let states ease requirements so insurance companies wouldn’t have to offer medical coverage for pre-existing health conditions. Coffman called the protection “a right that people ought to have” and noted that he pursued an ultimately unsuccessful legislative fix to secure the protection.

“In America, nobody should go bankrupt or die because they have a pre-existing condition,” Crow said. “My opponent has a long history of working to gut the Affordable Care Act,” he added, saying he doesn’t have confidence Coffman would preserve elements of the controversial legislation that the Republican has voted to repeal outright more than a dozen times.

Crow said he supports moving the country toward universal health care coverage but said he doesn’t support the Medicare for All plan backed by leading Democrats — including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, Colorado’s Democratic nominee for governor — “because people want more options, not less.”

Instead, Crow said he backs a public option that would allow Americans under 65 to buy into the Medicare program.

Coffman said he wouldn’t welcome the Central American immigrants — some claiming refugee status, others saying they’re seeking economic opportunity — who are part of a caravan making its way through Mexico.

“We are a nation of laws, and we need to fix our broken immigration system, but we do need to recognize the laws we have,” Coffman said. He added that he supports “secure borders” and claimed Crow supports a policy of “open borders.”

Crow brushed off the attack and said he would welcome those who “meet the legal standard” as refugees.

Asked if he would vote to impeach Trump based on what’s currently known, Crow said he wouldn’t.

“I’m a rule-of-law person. I believe we’re in a very sensitive time in our nation’s history right now. We need to be supporting due process and the rule of law,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s appropriate right now to mix what is a political process with an ongoing law enforcement investigation.” He added that Congress should prioritize protecting the special prosecutor’s investigation.

Coffman, who called on Trump to withdraw from the presidential race two years ago at the height of the “Access Hollywood” scandal, said he would make some points about immigration if he had the chance for a face-to-face talk with the president.

“Let’s get immigration reform done, let’s have a path to citizenship for the Dreamers, let’s have a path to citizenship for those with temporary protected status like the El Salvadorans that are here,” Coffman said.

He demurred, however, when Zelinger asked if he would encourage Trump to moderate his approach.

“The president is not going to change,” Coffman said. “I think he’s made that very clear to the American people. I don’t like his tone. I wish it were different, but the president is not going to change.”

As the debate sped toward its conclusion, the elbows started flying.

Coffman laid into Crow over his contention the Democrat has been pulling a fast one with his pledge not to take any corporate PAC money, since he’s accepted vast sums from other political committees that do take corporate cash.

“He demonizes these political action committees — a cornerstone of his campaign — and yet he takes the money through leadership PACs,” Coffman scolded.

“There is only one person at this table who has taken any corporate money,” Crow shot back, glancing sharply at Coffman, who has raked in millions of dollars from corporate donors during his decade running for Congress. “I don’t have any control over the money other people take.”

Coffman also scolded Crow for updating the biographical page displayed by his law firm, removing references to defending companies and executives accused of breaking the rules or violating the law — “corporate criminals who had stolen from worker’s pension funds, who had embezzled from health care plans and who had defrauded a VA hospital,” Coffman nearly spat out.

Encouraged by Clark to respond, Crow said: “I honor Mike Coffman’s service. I’ve been very disappointed that he hasn’t honored mine, but that’s his decision to make. I’m going to continue to honor his. His claims about my background and the attacks that he’s leveled against me in this campaign have been repeatedly called false, dishonest and even shameful by local media.”

Crow added that thinks Coffman “has failed to keep his promise” — first made in a TV ad that gained national attention — to stand up Trump.

“Mike Coffman has been an independent voice, standing with the president when he agrees with him, standing up to the president when he doesn’t,” Coffman said, citing a newspaper endorsement. “Jason Crow was picked by the Democratic establishment in Washington, D.C., because he’s never stood up to them.”

Crow shook his head.

“I’m not a career politician,” he said. “I’ve never run for anything before in my life. We need people who have run businesses, raised families, served their country, who have done things outside of politics, who can go to Washington and fix this mess.”

In the last month, two major Republican campaign groups announced they were cancelling millions of dollars in TV advertising in the 6th District as GOP groups make what they term “ruthless decisions” on a shrinking battlefield in an attempt to save the House majority.

Coffman’s supporters contend he’s made inroads into the district’s large immigrant communities, winning support from voters who typically back Democrats and are difficult to poll.

Still, nearly all the national election forecasters and rating sites are giving Crow the edge with just two weeks until Election Day.

The Cook Political Report says the race “leans Democratic,” Roll Call says it “tilts D,” and the FiveThirtyEight political blog rates the seat as “likely D,” giving Crow a 6-in-7 chance of winning.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.