HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. – Several hundred onlookers packed into a small hotel ballroom Thursday morning for the first debate between GOP Rep. Mike Coffman and Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff, for what was an at times feisty exchange between two men battling in what may be the country’s most competitive congressional race.
Mirroring the race broadly to this point, the 90-minute debate focused largely on immigration issues, an issue of interest to the district’s large and growing Hispanic population, and both candidates played to their strengths.
Coffman, a combat veteran, emphasized his work on veterans' issues and foreign policy expertise, while Romanoff eagerly positioned himself as a problem-solving progressive ready to take on the dysfunction in Washington.
"If we elect the same crowd to Congress, nothing is going to change and nothing is going to get done," Romanoff, the former statehouse Speaker, said in his closing remarks at the end of a nearly two-hour long debate sponsored by the South Metro Chamber of Commerce.
"That's unacceptable to me."
Coffman, who highlighted his military experience, small business experience and new-found willingness to work across the aisle, offered himself up as a workhorse.
The incumbent who is seeking a fourth term in Congress turned down Romanoff's direct challenge to stop accepting campaign contributions from special interest groups.
"Join me right now on this stage and reject money from special interest groups and from lobbyists," Romanoff said to Coffman. "We could make history."
Coffman responded by arguing that the donations he takes are from people who have decided to support him and that financial contributions don't buy his votes.
"You're going to follow," Coffman said to Romanoff. "I lead."
The debate began with a discussion of immigration, an issue of great significance in a race that could be decided by Latino voters.
Coffman, who noted that he’s learning Spanish, called for a “step by step” approach to immigration reform that starts with securing the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We’ve got to secure our border and enforce our laws,” Coffman said. “But I think we also need to be compassionate in keeping families together.”
Coffman drew a clear line between himself and Romanoff in stating that he does not believe in a "special" path to full citizenship for “adults who knowingly broke the law.
"I do not support that," said Coffman, noting his sponsorship of the ENLIST Act, which would allow young DREAMers a path to citizenship through military service.
Romanoff criticized Coffman for stating that he supports a comprehensive approach to the issue while opposing the comprehensive immigration reform package that passed the Senate.
“The congressman has mentioned a step by step approach. That would be fine if Congress were willing to take a single step," said Romanoff, noting that the GOP-led House failed to act on the comprehensive immigration reform package that passed the Senate in 2013 with strong bipartisan support.
Romanoff broadly criticized Congress at several points throughout the debate, including for failing to address the humanitarian crisis on the border with the influx of thousands of Central American migrants.
“Congress does nothing and then gives itself a five-week vacation,” Romanoff said. “They should have stayed in Washington until the job is done.”
Coffman responded by pointing out the House’s passage last week of a modest spending bill to address the border crisis – a bill that also changed the law but had no serious chance of being considered by the Senate.
“I don’t know how it works in Washington, but in Colorado where I served in the legislature, it takes two chambers to pass a bill,” Romanoff shot back.
Coffman, a combat veteran, pressed his strength as the debate turned to veterans’ issues and foreign policy, emphasizing his service and his sponsorship of legislation recently signed by President Obama to reform the VA and enable veterans to use federal dollars to seek care outside the system if wait times are too long.
He also characterized the Iraq War as a mistake but said he enlisted and served in that conflict because he believed the country had an obligation to complete the mission it started and bring the war to a just conclusion.
Coffman characterized U.S. foreign policy broadly as being "too idealistic.
"We look at the world and we think that everybody's just like us and if given the opportunity, they'll be just like us," he continued. "I think there's an element of cultural imperialism there and we need a much more realistic foreign policy."
On that issue, Romanoff agreed with Coffman, thanked him and other veterans for their military service, and went as far as to criticize elements of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, including the president’s failure to take action against Syria after the country crossed the proverbial “red line” he drew.
Both candidates pledged their support to Buckley Air Force Base, the top employer in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, and their commitment to military and veterans issues.
During a discussion of economic issues, Romanoff blamed Congress for legislative dysfunction that creates uncertainty in the markets, while Coffman called for changes to the country’s tax code.
“I agree with the congressman on this, but unfortunately his rhetoric doesn’t match his record,” Romanoff responded. “He’s voted time and time again to protect tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.”
Coffman also put Romanoff on the spot, noting his TV ad promising to balance the budget and asked the Democrat to offer details about his plan to actually do so.
"Since you criticized me for the cuts in the very budgets I've voted for and you've put forward no plan for a balanced budget, my question to you is when will you put forward a budget plan because I think you owe that to the people of this district," Coffman said.
Before Romanoff could answer, Coffman was asked by moderator Aaron Harber if he could name a large cut he would make.
"Repeal and replace Obamacare," Coffman responded, drawing a raucous ovation from his supporters in the room.
Romanoff, who referred to his work as Speaker when he had to work with Republicans to pass balanced budgets every year, suggested eliminating redundant programs, which he applauded Coffman for working on currently.
"The best way to balance the budget is to grow the economy," said Romanoff, who said the Dept. of Health and Human Services should also be given broader flexibility to negotiate lower prescription drug prices and that reforming immigration laws and enforcing the tax code to ensure that tax cheats pay up would also produce revenue and help reduce the deficit.
Coffman stumbled momentarily near the end of the debate when asked about his stance on women's reproductive health issues.
"I'm pro-life. I'm proud of that. I do not support personhood, but I support a woman's access to..." Coffman said, before trailing off as he appeared to lose his train of thought. "Certainly, this Hobby Lobby decision to get, uh, birth control."
Tyler Sandberg, Coffman's campaign manager, explained after the debate that Coffman supports the Supreme Court's ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, which allows religious corporations exemptions on subsidies that cover their employees' birth control under the Affordable Care Act; and, Sandberg said, Coffman also supports access to birth control.
"I don't support the Hobby Lobby decision, I've never supported personhood and I believe a woman's right to choose should be protected," Romanoff said.
But the incumbent regained his footing after Romanoff offered a non-answer on the question of the Keystone XL pipeline, saying that he is still considering the issue and didn't want to politicize the matter by taking a position.
"That's exactly what's wrong with Washington," Coffman retorted. "People aren't willing to take positions on tough issues."
The two candidates are scheduled to debate again Friday morning in Aurora.