On Thursday (Feb. 11), the University of Denver (DU) College Republicans wrangled 7 of the 13(?) candidates for the first Republican Senate debate of the cycle.
This first debate was covered by a few media outlets, but the stories largely just focused on the fact that 7 GOP candidates were in the same room together. We think Coloradans deserve better than that, so we sat down and plowed through a grainy YouTube video of the entire debate to produce another of our world-famous “Debate Diaries.” You’re welcome.
The entire debate on Thursday lasted about two-and-a-half hours, so we’re breaking this into two parts. On stage tonight: Tim Neville, Jon Keyser, Peggy Littleton, Darryl Glenn, Ryan Frazier, Charlie Ehler and Robert Blaha.
*NOTE: Normally the most current update in our Debate Diaries appears at the top of the page, but since we aren’t doing this “live,” we’ll just post items in chronological order from the top down. As always, unless it is in direct quotes, consider all statements paraphrased in the interest of time and sanity.
Are you ready for this? You’re not ready for this, but let’s do it anyway. Click after the jump to begin…
Here’s the YouTube video of the Feb. 11th GOP debate, if you want to follow along.
The debate video begins with a very shaky camera trying to capture the Pledge of Allegiance. Either that, or we are watching raw footage from the next “Cloverfield” movie.
The President of the DU College Republicans, Morris Sparkman, kicks things off by saying how excited he is about the 2016 campaign. Apparently he has never met most of these candidates.
We have one word for whomever is responsible for the camerawork tonight: “Tripod.”
Sparkman informs us that tonight’s event is a “Candidate Forum” and not a “Candidate Debate.” Duly noted.
Candidates are being introduced by Sparkman, who appears to be reading short biographies that were provided by each campaign, so they all sound pretty fantastical. We’re not going to recap each introduction here; the intros are basically the same information you would find on each candidate’s respective website.
State Sen. Tim Neville is introduced last. Neville shakes hands with former Rep. Jon Keyser, who makes a stilted, halfhearted attempt at a bro hug. That was spectacularly awkward – we’d challenge anyone to watch that interaction without cringing in their seat.
It’s time for the debateforum to begin. The candidates take their seats on blue-gray padded folding chairs arranged in a kind of half-circle in front of a small end table that looks like it might have been rescued from somebody’s dumpster. Behind the candidates is what appears to be an image of an American flag projected on a giant screen. Is there a reason that the stage isn’t decorated with an actual American flag instead?
Opening statements! Neville is up first, and he does a couple of squats in front of his chair, unsure about whether he should stand in front of the podium or just sit back down. It probably would have been a good idea to briefly rehearse this event before everyone was brought on stage for the first time. Each candidate is wearing a wireless, clip-on microphone that they must turn off when they aren’t speaking; we’d say the odds are about 50-50 that we’re going to end up listening in while one of the candidates goes to the bathroom later.
“The most important thing that we have to face this year, of course, is the philosophical difference between what we see with Michael Bennet and Barack Obama…the hope and change that they promised. And they have delivered on change. They’ve delivered on equal misery for millions of Coloradans and millions of Americans across the country.”
Uh, okay then.
Neville moves on to talking about the need for “limited government” that “allows government to do what it is supposed to do: Protect life, liberty, and property. That’s it.” Neville says that he believes people can make their own decisions about what is right for them (well, except for abortion, and gay rights, and all of those other creepy liberal things).
“I am the candidate who doesn’t only talk the talk – I walk the walk.” Neville points out that he has been pushing legislation in Colorado dealing with gun ownership, abortion, and making government smaller. We could do without the “walk the walk” cliché, but it’s clear what Neville is going to do here – he’s positioning himself as the “real” conservative who champions right-wing social issues even when it is abundantly clear that his proposals have no chance whatsoever of making it through a bipartisan state legislature.
This is exactly why we have said for months in this space that the Republican Primary is Tim Neville’s race to lose; Neville is 100% focused on winning a GOP Primary, with no strategic concern for how his pre-primary statements might be problematic in a potential General Election matchup with Bennet. If Neville doesn’t win this Primary, it won’t be because he was outflanked on the right.
Jon Keyser is up next, and he wisely decides to stand up and take a few steps toward the front of the stage. Keyser is wearing the official Colorado Senate candidate uniform that we’ve all seen for decades: Dark jacket, collared shirt with no tie, and cowboy boots.
Keyser doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands while he talks. He opens with a shy, mumbling attempt at a joke that has something to do with Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Twitter. Keyser awkwardly abandons the joke in mid-sentence and starts giving his bio to the audience: Colorado native, military veteran, Air Force Academy graduate. Keyser is clearly nervous. He’s rushing. His speech is stilted and he’s leaving out important stuff – you know, things like verbs and adjectives.
“Colorado deserves a United States Senator that understands the threats we face…at home and abroad…willing to what is necessary to keep Colorado…safe and secure…prosperous…you know, we live in some pretty dangerous times and my military travels have taken me all around the world…United States…is really a very special place. It is. But unfortunately, under the last seven years of Barack Obama and Michael Bennet…they have made this country…starting to its decline” (?) We’re not paraphrasing here – this is exactly what Keyser is saying. He’s barfing out talking points as fast as he can remember them. It’s a little uncomfortable to watch, frankly.
Keyser then starts talking about Bennet and the “Iran deal” that he says makes this race “personal” to him. “When I say it’s personal to me…it’s very personal, because Iranian-backed insurgents killed my friends when I was deployed in Iraq and then in Afghanistan.” That’s a pretty good line. It was even a complete sentence.
Keyser talks about doing “capture-kill” missions in Afghanistan when he was in the Air Force, then explains to the audience the meaning of “capture-kill.”
[Side note: So, apparently there are no time limits on opening statements. Tim Neville was brief, talking for only about 45 seconds. Keyser has been stammering along for nearly three minutes now.]
Now Keyser is talking about some other piece of legislation involving Bennet. This is brutal.
“We have other challenges, too. Just recently…Michael Bennet voted to…stop common-sense, bipartisan legislation that would have prevented terrorists…from masquerading…as Syrian refugees coming into our country.”
“The only person standing on this stage that’s gone to war and looked these people in the eye…that understands the attitude of the national security threat that we face…is me.” That’s what Keyser just said, word for word.
Good grief – it’s like he’s reading from a teleprompter operated by a squirrel. Slow down!
“And I will also be very relentless…in talking about…Michael Bennet’s failed economic record.”
Fun fact: A segue is not a two-wheeled scooter used by shopping mall security guards (that’s a Segway).
“Under Michael Bennet we’ve had the national debt double in size. That’s amazing.”
Um, you might want to retire this talking point. Michael Bennet was elected to his first full term in the Senate in 2010, the same year that Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in Congress.
“…make sure that we get the regulators out of your pocketbook and off your back…”
“If you think that we, in Colorado, deserve a Senator who is much more than just a…” Keyser pauses and stares at his flapping right hand for inspiration. “Dangerous! And also, weak, United States Senator…”
This is Jon Keyser? The NRSC’s big recruit in Colorado? This guy?
“Together we are going to actually make this work.” He’s talking about his Senate campaign. They should test this with a focus group: Jon Keyser: We Are Going to Actually Make This Work.
“Hit me up on Snapchat.” Exact words. Swear to God.
“…let’s go get ‘em in November. Thanks.”
Annnddd…he’s done. Jon Keyser has stopped talking. Let’s go to the stopwatch now…five minutes and eighteen seconds! That’s actually not as long as it seemed, which is not a compliment.
Keyser clearly has a talking point that he wants to deliver – about being on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan – but he doesn’t have enough material to turn that into more of a “message.” Again, it’s worth drawing a comparison to Neville’s earlier monologue. Neville is not a particularly strong public speaker, but in a fraction of the time that Keyser spoke Neville was able to clearly convey his campaign theme and draw a line in the sand that he cannot be outflanked from the right. The only memorable line from Keyser’s opening statement was something about Snapchat.
El Paso County Commissioner Peggy Littleton hops to her feet for her opening remarks. She’s wearing a blue blazer and red skirt to complement her generously-coiffed blond curls.
Littleton says that everywhere she goes, she hears from people who say they are sick and tired of Michael Bennet’s poor leadership. “I think it is critical that we have a candidate who is a proven leader and who has a track record of success.” We assume she’s talking about Peggy Littleton here.
“I have been elected over three times, by more than 60 percent voter confidence.” Again, that is an exact quote. What does she mean when she says she has been elected “over three times”? Has Littleton been elected 4 times? Less than 4, but more than 3? Was she only mostly elected in a different campaign?
Time for Littleton to play her own “I am the only candidate who…” card.
“I am the only candidate in this race who has served in a congressional district and who has been elected in a congressional district.” Littleton was elected to the State School Board in 2004, and school board seats are divided into districts that mirror congressional districts; presumably, is what she means when she says she has been elected in a congressional district. This might be a relevant fact if Littleton were actually running for Congress, and not a statewide Senate seat.
Says she fought against Common Core.
“I have been elected not once, but twice in a purple district in El Paso County. People think El Paso County is the bastion of conservatism? Not in my area – my area is the City of Colorado Springs.”
Uh, no. A purple district in El Paso County? The last Democratic Presidential candidate to win El Paso County was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. The first Democrat to win election to Congress from El Paso County hasn’t been invented yet. There may well be areas of El Paso County that are less fervently Republican than others, but that’s just a different shade of red – not a completely different color like “purple.”
Littleton says she has already built relationships with the military brass in El Paso County. She likes to call herself a “warrior” for things – like school choice.
“Proven leader.” “Track record of success.” “Not a politician.” It’s starting to sound like everybody was given the same opening remarks to deliver.
“I ask for your vote, and I ask for your prayers,” says Littleton as she signs off. That went on for longer than it seemed – nearly five minutes.
We have another El Paso County Commissioner in the house as Darryl Glenn takes his turn on stage. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 candidates seeking the GOP Senate nomination this year, and Glenn has been in the race longer than anyone. It’s hard to say whether this is an advantage or not.
Glenn is stalking back and forth as he speaks, which gives him an energy that has thus far been lacking on stage. He avoids jumping right into his bio, first trying to wake up the crowd by promising them that Republicans can defeat Michael Bennet in 2016.
Glenn says he is an Air Force Academy graduate…and here comes his “I’m the only candidate who…” moment:
“I am the only one up here that is a retired military officer.”
Ugh. At this rate, we’re less than an hour away from someone proclaiming that they are the only candidate on stage who prefers Italian dressing on their dinner salad.
Glenn says he spent eight years on the Colorado Springs City Council, and is now in his second term on the El Paso Board of County Commissioners. Then he shifts to policy. “If anybody here supports Common Core, they need to just get off this stage right now.” Good line – makes him look like a leader of this group.
Glenn says that there won’t be much difference from any of the Republican candidates on issues such as gun rights and tax cuts, which sounds like a segue into what separates Glenn from the others on stage. Instead, Glenn tosses out generic nonsense like how important it is to be “ready to win.”
“Michael Bennet does not want to stand next to me,” says Glenn, nearing the end of his opening remarks. “He does not want to stand next to a Christian, Constitutional, conservative, pro-life, second amendment person who is going to win this race!” Glenn really had the alliteration going there for a moment, but he ran out of “C-words” before he could close the deal.
Glenn wraps up at right around 5 minutes of total speaking time. Tim Neville may have to go back and ask for extra time.
Ryan Frazier takes the stage. We’ve been down on Frazier in this space for a long time, primarily because his own record of double-digit losses makes it tough to swallow the rest of his political nonsense, but the man is certainly a strong public speaker. Frazier has a loud, authoritative voice married with a conversational tone of speaking that really reflects well in a setting like this. Frazier is the first candidate we’ve seen (thus far) who seems to be speaking to the crowd rather than just trying to recall his entire list of talking points. Frazier definitely has the full attention of the audience – there isn’t the same murmuring sound in the background as there was for the first four candidates — and his jokes get regular laughs at the appropriate moments.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Frazier has decided to go with the “beacon on the hill” speech about American exceptionalism that everybody here has surely heard a dozen times before. Perhaps Frazier’s goal tonight is to stand out as a candidate by standing out as a better speaker. He’s not going to separate himself from the crowd by yelling out, “America rules!”
“This is not time for Triple-A ball,” says Frazier as he wraps up his opening statement. That’s a good thing, because this stage is barely Single-A right now.
Here comes Charlie Ehler, who introduces himself as a “retired Air Force Master Sergeant and computer programmer.” Ehler is wearing Randy Baumgardner’s mustache (if it was dyed white).
Ehler is railing against the federal government in general, and is particularly mad because “we don’t need a 68,000-page tax code.” This is a classic Tea Party approach: Complain about the number of pages or words in a given document, as though we could solve all of America’s problems if we just had a better copy editor. “I want to chop the government down to where it fits inside of the Constitution,” says Ehler. Vote Charlie Ehler for Senate: Smaller Font Sizes for All!
Ehler then pivots from smaller government to bigger government, er, military: “The Navy has the same number of ships as it had in 1916. That’s ridiculous. Army has the same number of troops as in the 1930s – more ridiculous.” That’s crazy talk! Did you know that the United States didn’t even have an Air Force until the 20th Century? Thanks, Obama.
Ehler recognizes that we need to balance our budget at the same time we should be growing the size of our military, but he has a plan. “That’s why I propose working on our prosperity,” he says. Brilliant! Whose idea was it in the first place to force Americans to become less prosperous?
“I own 43 guns. That’s no big deal. I’ve known people that own thousands.”
Wait, what? Thousands of guns? We have a word for people who own thousands of, well, anything. They’re called “hoarders.”
We’d say that Ehler is out of his mind, but then again, the man does own 43 guns.
Morris Sparkman, of the DU College Republicans, jumps in and says that he is “going to have to cut you off.” What? He’s only talked for 6 minutes!
Ehler takes his mustache back to his folding chair, telling the audience to “have a good night.”
We are forty minutes into this debateforum, and we still haven’t heard opening statements from every candidate. Remember, folks, this stage only holds half of the Republican Senate field in 2016. Somewhere, Rick Santorum is waiting for his turn to speak.
Robert Blaha takes the stage in a sweater-and-slacks combo, and starts off by thanking the DU Young Republicans for hosting this debateforum. Mild applause follows.
Blaha points out that his wife, Susan, is in the audience tonight. We’d have to go back and check – which we’re not going to do because this is already taking forever – but Blaha might be the first candidate on stage to acknowledge a significant other in the room.
Blaha says we have a problem with a “permanent political class” in the United States.
It’s the Robert Blaha guarantee! “If I don’t get these things done, folks, you’re not going to have to ask me not to run for re-election…I’ll stand down, because I didn’t get it done.”
The “guarantee” is an interesting – if tired – gimmick for a political candidate. It probably would make more sense if Blaha explained what he wanted to accomplish before he slapped the guarantee label on the package, although the real guarantee would be to announce right now that he won’t run for re-election in 2022. Six years to accomplish a laundry-list of items in the U.S. Senate? That’s a lot of stuff to cram into the typical 20-hour work week established by Congressional Republicans.
“I’m saying, ‘hold me accountable,’” says Blaha. “Please, hold me accountable.”
Now it’s Blaha’s turn to shake his fist at taxes. He wants to get rid of the IRS altogether, naturally. “We need tax reform that works – 4 or 5 pages, maybe, to fill out your taxes.” Blaha wants to reduce the tax rate “for those of us that are in industry” from 35% to 20% “or maybe even 19, 18%.”
Blaha then shifts to immigration, which makes him the first candidate thus far to bring up the subject. He wants to “finish building the wall.” How come no Republican candidate ever proposes creating a moat around this fictional wall? We should definitely have a moat; we could fill it with sharks and alligators and stuff.
“Taxes, borders, deficit,” says Blaha. This is the Blaha platform in a nutshell, apparently.
Blaha is now talking about reducing deficits and debt. We’d tell you more, but our fingers have seized up with boredom.
“God Bless You, and God Bless America!” Blaha is finally done.
We’ve been watching this debateforum for 45 minutes now, and we’ve just finished the opening statements. Remember, only half of the GOP Senate field is in attendance tonight; can you imagine how long this is going to take if the other five or six candidates are included?
Each candidate now has two minutes to answer two questions prepared by the DU College Republicans, and then we will get to audience questions.
Question #1: “With the national debt approaching $19 trillion, what would any of you do in order to curb that and make sure that we have a balanced budget?”
The federal deficit and the federal debt may sound similar, but as economists love to point out, they are not the same thing. But, whatever. Here’s how the candidates answered:
Robert Blaha: Says the federal debt isn’t really $19 trillion, but more like $90 trillion. Come again?
“We’ve got to balance the budget, and there’s no question about that.” Actually, there was a question about that. Blaha says you can find out more about his plan by going to his website. Or, how about you just tell us since you’re standing right here?
Charlie Ehler: Says he proposes a 20% across-the-board budget cut. “When I talk about our prosperity being important to us, that’s where it comes home.” Wait, wait…it gets better. “You can’t buy a car if you don’t have a good job. You can’t fund the government if you don’t have a good job. That’s where I’m coming from. Thank you.”
Ryan Frazier: “When I was on the city council in Aurora, we actually balanced our budget every year. We had a $750 million budget, and we balanced it.”
A $750 million budget for the City of Aurora? That seems pretty high. Frazier’s last full year on the Aurora City Council was in 2010. In 2015, the total budget for Aurora was about $627 million. Maybe Frazier took a $100 million annual salary when he was on city council.
Darryl Glenn: This is one of those questions that get tough for candidates who aren’t the first to answer; Glenn is basically saying the same thing that Blaha, Ehler, and Frazier already said (minus the huge Aurora budget).
Peggy Littleton: Cliché alert! Cliché alert! Littleton is doing the whole song and dance about how Colorado families have to balance the budget at their kitchen table, so why can’t the government, blah, blah, blah.
“You know, tens of thousands of new job-killing, bureaucracy-building regulations, and I know about this as a local county commissioner.” Um, okay. We don’t know what that means.
Here’s Littleton’s big solution: “Cut what we spend, reevaluate how we spend those dollars, and get more income. This is the safest and surest way to balance our budget.” It’s…just…that…easy, ladies and gentlemen!
Jon Keyser: “Now this is a really good question,” he says. Keyser then says that Michael Bennet promised to reduce the federal debt when he was elected, and now it has more than doubled. Is it possible that Keyser doesn’t know that Congress is controlled by Republicans? This is the second time he’s said something like this.
“That’s unexcusable,” says Keyser. “Just unexcusable.” We might have gone with ‘inexcusable’ there, but we’re not running for U.S. Senate.
Keyser then says that people who are about to be college graduates are already going to be stuck with lots of debt, “Can you imagine adding another $55-65,000 onto that debt? That’s how much we owe.” Keyser’s analogy might have broken down somewhere along the way here.
Keyser closes with his ‘solution’ to the debt problem: “The way we are going to fix it is pretty simple, though. Stop spending more money than we take in, and the second thing we are going to do is unleash the disruptive innovators and unleash the entrepreneurs in this country that are going to make this country great and are going to make this country work.” Yes, yes, we see where you’re going with this. We always knew it was a mistake to lock away the innovators and entrepreneurs in this country – Keyser is going to let them out!
Tim Neville: Hey, look, Tim Neville is still here! We haven’t heard Neville speak for about 45 minutes now.
“I concern myself with the budget that means the most to me: It’s your family budget. Let’s take a look at that.” Neville claims that the average Colorado family made about $55,000 in 2009. “This year, that’s going to be $52,500.” According to Neville, that decline in income from 2009 is because we are paying more taxes to the federal and state government. That doesn’t sound right.
Neville says we need a balanced budget amendment for the federal government, but more importantly, he says, we need leaders willing to…balance it?
Question #2: If you are in the Senate, one of you, or possibly any of the other candidates who are running who aren’t here tonight, how would you reform student debt?
Ugh. Get ready to hear the same answers all over again.
Charlie Ehler: “You know, student loan is a problem.” Well said, sir, well said.
“Is it starting to sound like you were sold a bill of goods yet?” asks Ehler. He apparently wants someone in the crowd to respond. “Anybody?” Nobody responds, largely because nobody knows what Ehler is asking.
“I think what we need to do is reform it,” says Ehler. Uh…
“If you’re not in it to get a degree, maybe you shouldn’t get a loan. If you’re here to play around…maybe you shouldn’t get a loan.” In other words, Ehler would start reforming student loans by…not offering student loans? Ehler is now ranting about “those of us” who are stuck paying student loans because others default.
“Maybe the program just isn’t working, and we have to get rid of it.” No loans for you!
“Once again, I’m not one of those people that knows everything,” says Ehler. Nobody disagrees.
It’s quite possible that this is literally the first time Ehler has ever thought about this issue.
Ryan Frazier: “How many folks know that when President Obama and Michael Bennet voted to take over healthcare, with Obamacare, it was the same year that they took over student loans? [It was] 2010.”
Frazier’s basic premise to addressing the student loan problem is to encourage counselors to not direct students into degree programs that won’t pay them a good salary. So…no more teachers?
Darryl Glenn: “The first thing we need to do is take the stigma off of higher education,” says Glenn as an introduction into his belief that we need more kids pursuing a trade instead of a college degree. In short, Glenn also wants to deal with student loans by reducing the number of students.
“We can do it,” says Glenn. “It’s not tough.” Good to know.
Peggy Littleton: She opens by talking about Bernie Sanders’ plan for a free college education, and mocks the idea by saying nobody wants to pay for free massages and pedicures, either, which is somehow related. “You should be offended that Bernie Sanders wants to give you a free education.” Littleton then starts talking about how her children, now in their 30s, didn’t need to take out a bunch of student loans (except for her youngest daughter, who needed a private loan for Chiropractor school).
In short, Bernie Sanders is terrible and people should stop going to college, or something.
Jon Keyser: “As a Republican, I’m kind of bummed out, because Republicans don’t often talk about student loans and student debt. They leave that to the Democrats.” Keyser talks about how both he and his wife had student loan debts that were in the six figures, and how difficult it was to pay off those loans.
“iTunes University.” That’s Keyser’s student loan plan in a nutshell. “You can take M.I.T. classes for free on your phone, and it doesn’t matter where you live.” We don’t need student loans! We have the Internet!
Then, Keyser says this: “If we had a system that allowed people to learn, and then take a test, demonstrate that they have the knowledge and ability to move forward and perform the jobs for which they were trained…I think that’s a great system to have.”
Just…just read that again.
Tim Neville: Says the cost of higher education has gone up – on average – by about 7% each year in recent years, and “we know we haven’t had 7% inflation.”
Say what you will about Neville – and we’ve said plenty in this space – but thus far Neville is the only candidate who sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. Neville always seems to mention a relevant fact or figure that gives the impression that he’s studied up on the issue at hand. To be clear: Neville isn’t providing great answers to these questions, but at least he comes across as someone who isn’t just making things up once he starts talking.
“What is debt? It is another word for slavery.” That’s not a bad line, considering the crowd. Neville closes by talking about an education issue that recently came up in the State Senate. “We have the solutions here in Colorado,” he concludes, but we just need to “get the federal government out of the way.”
Robert Blaha: Opens strong, saying he has seven children who have graduated from college, and mentions that two of them are in the audience tonight. Blaha is pretty good at toning down the policy wonk stuff and personalizing his answers. It makes him memorable.
“What if we treated students with the same respect that we treated homeowners – to try to make them homeowners?” asks Blaha. “It’s a new idea that a few people have mentioned, and I think it’s a great idea.” Blaha says we should be focusing on reducing the amount of time that students spend in college. “Brief is good.”
Our “moderator” takes the stage and announces that we have reached the midway point of tonight’s debateforum. Halftime!