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TRAIL MIX | Candidate confrontations coming in CD6? That’s open to debate

Author: Ernest Luning - August 10, 2018 - Updated: August 24, 2018

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The major party candidates in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District: Republican incumbent Mike Coffman, left, and Democratic challenger Jason Crow. (Coffman photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics, Crow photo courtesy Crow)

Gubernatorial nominees Walker Stapleton and Jared Polis aren’t the only Colorado candidates sparring over debates as the general election nears.

As has become customary, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and the Democrat trying to deny the Aurora Republican another term in Congress — this time, it’s attorney and Army veteran Jason Crow — are throwing punches about debates before any have taken place.

What’s more, although Stapleton and Polis have agreed to throw down in front of an audience at a half-dozen events over the next three months — disputing only whether a candidate is somehow insulting half the state by attending one Grand Junction debate but not another — Coffman and Crow haven’t yet agreed to any debates.

The day after Crow won the June primary, his campaign challenged Coffman to join him at a series of town halls, one in each of the 6th Congressional District’s three counties (Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas).

In a press release announcing the invitation, Crow managed to mention just about every one of his campaign’s themes in four sentences, from “a new generation of servant leadership” and “never (shying) away from a tough fight” to holding leaders “accountable to the people of Colorado, not corporate special interests.”

Tyler Sandberg, Coffman’s pugnacious campaign manager, told Colorado Politics the Coffman campaign would pass on Crow’s invite but still planned to face off against the Democrat in the months to come.

“This is mighty rich from the guy who, at the suggestion of Washington power brokers, refused to debate his primary opponent a single time,” Sandberg wrote in an email. “Mike is ready for a healthy schedule of debates this fall, in English and in Spanish. The constituents of this district deserve thoughtful debates and we look forward to them.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that statement.

Crow’s primary opponent, clean energy expert Levi Tillemann, challenged Crow to multiple debates, but Crow — who had the support of powerful national Democratic politicians and organizations through the primary — declined to participate, citing Tillemann’s refusal to sign something put together by the state Democratic Party called the Clean Campaign Promise.

Undeterred, Tillemann staged a debate featuring a cardboard cut-out standing in for Crow. “Unfortunately, just like Coffman, Crow runs away from his constituents and has refused to debate his primary opponent,” Tillemann tweeted. “That’s why we needed a #CardboardCrow.” (The two did appear together at several forums sponsored by political and community groups.)

Coffman has conducted debates in Spanish against his two most recent Democratic challengers — former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and former Senate President Morgan Carroll — and told Colorado Politics he intends to do the same with Crow.

But first the two have to agree to get in front voters at all.

A month after Coffman’s campaign manager rebuffed Crow’s town hall challenge — on Twitter, in an article posted by the Aurora Sentinel and in exchanges between Colorado Politics and the two campaigns — the Crow campaign re-upped the invitation and ramped up the insults.

“Mike Coffman makes himself available to special interest donors like the DeVos family and the NRA when he accepts the cash that fuels his campaign,” said Mitch Schwartz, Crow’s communications director, in a release. “He tells anyone who will listen that he denounces Donald Trump — right before voting for Trump’s agenda. It looks like the only people Coffman doesn’t have time for are the voters.

“We continue to await the Coffman campaign’s response. We look forward to getting these town halls on the calendar.”

Schwartz’s references to the conservative DeVos family, which includes the Trump administration’s secretary of education, and the National Rifle Association kept up the steady attack the Crow campaign has aimed at Coffman’s fundraising.

Sandberg was having none of it, taking to Twitter to tear into Schwartz: “Hey @mhschwartz10 – I know you’re even newer to Colorado than Jason Crow is to the district, but Google works the same everywhere. We responded to your hypocritical and lame political stunt attempt weeks ago.”

The Crow campaign fired back that it hadn’t heard directly from the Coffman crew, so considered the incumbent was dodging the invitation.

Coffman debated Romanoff five times, including in Spanish, which was a first for a major race in Colorado. Carroll and Coffman only debated three times — after much consternation back and forth, with Coffman calling for more debates, while Carroll held the line at just three.

Crow told Colorado Politics this week that he intends to keep up the pressure on Coffman to hold town halls, and believes the congressman is ducking the opportunity to get in front of constituents.

“We need to be accountable to the voters. We need to tell the people where we stand on the issues, and we need to take the tough questions,” Crow said after wrapping up a town hall he held in Aurora with Democratic politicians and gun violence activists.

“He always wants to have the heavily moderated debates with pre-screened questions, on certain issues, with limited attendance. I want this to be more open than that, more accessible to people.”

Asked whether he will agree to the debates the Coffman campaign has said it intends to participate in, Crow nodded and shook his head simultaneously.

“We are focusing on the town halls. I don’t want him to say no to the town halls in lieu of the debates. If he wants to do the town halls and the debates, I’m there,” he said.

At press time, the Crow campaign issued a release claiming Coffman had let six weeks go by without responding to the town hall challenge, and Sandberg tweeted out a reminder that he responded to the invite in June.

It was Schwartz’s turn to reject what his counterpart said.

“(W)e issued a good-faith invitation to let voters ask the candidates questions, without moderators, in an open forum,” he tweeted. “(T)he congressman has responded by deputizing a spokesman to attack Jason on twitter. (I)’ll put you down as a maybe.”

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.