Rocky Mountain Lows

Abramoff Link Takes Some Sheen Off Schaffer Bid

Posted June 17, 2008 at 6:34pm

Even with a national political headwind blowing smack into Colorado Senate candidate Bob Schaffer’s (R) face, polling has shown him in a competitive race with Rep. Mark Udall (D) and has given the Congressman hope that he can win.

But can Schaffer overcome a challenge from disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff?

Schaffer, who has little room for error in his bid to replace retiring Sen. Wayne Allard (R), has had to suffer through six weeks of news stories about his connections to Abramoff in Colorado’s two largest newspapers: the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. A Nexis search of the two newspapers found 18 articles published between April 8 and June 10 that mentioned both Abramoff and Schaffer.

One Washington, D.C.-based Republican operative who is following the race acknowledged that Schaffer took a political hit after the first story ran on the Post’s front page in April. But this operative said the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee “unloaded” everything it had on Schaffer regarding Abramoff, and predicted that the issue would not influence the campaign by the time early voting starts in October.

Floyd Ciruli, and independent pollster based in Denver, questioned the Abramoff narrative’s potency as well. Ciruli said the small lead Udall had opened up recently against Schaffer in some polls may or may not be a result of the stories about Abramoff.

“[Abramoff] was a big issue in 2006, but whether it’s big issue in 2008, it’s hard to say,” Ciruli said. “The story the Post published was pretty dramatic, but the story itself is old.” The Denver Post first examined Schaffer’s ties to Abramoff after the former Congressman in an interview raised the issue indirectly by discussing the Northern Mariana Islands, a former Abramoff client. Schaffer went on a Congressional delegation trip sponsored by Abramoff and was accused of supporting a bill that helped an Abramoff client — although Schaffer’s campaign maintains that he never met the former lobbyist.

Schaffer faced additional bad publicity when it surfaced that a former associate of his was convicted of misusing federal funds obtained through an earmark. That story was first reported by Roll Call in late May.

Both Democrats and Republicans have been critical of some of Schaffer’s early campaign missteps beyond the Abramoff flap — missteps Schaffer can ill afford given the precarious state of the GOP brand nationally and the fact that he could be outspent by as much as 3-1 when money from outside advocacy groups is accounted for.

Ironically, raising money has been something Schaffer has done right, despite being a historically poor fundraiser. Still, Udall led Schaffer, $4.2 million to $2.2 million in cash on hand to close the first quarter of the year.

On a lighter note, but an incident that nevertheless created another round of bad press for Schaffer, his campaign mistakenly used an image of Alaska’s Mount McKinley in a biography-styled television spot instead of Colorado’s Pikes Peak.

The ad was quickly corrected, but it nonetheless caused a stir, as Schaffer was on camera, recollecting when he proposed marriage to his wife on top of Pikes Peak as a way to emphasize his Colorado roots.

“Bob Schaffer has been on his heels,” said one Republican strategist based in Colorado. “That’s not a good way to start an election cycle, which will begin in earnest in August.”

But Dick Wadhams, who along with serving as Schaffer’s chief campaign strategist is also chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, said Schaffer was well positioned to beat “Boulder liberal” Udall, and dismissed the publicity over Schaffer’s connection to Abramoff as much ado about nothing.

Wadhams also notes that it’s Udall, not Schaffer, who accepted campaign contributions from two firms that Abramoff was working for at the time of the donations. The Udall campaign said the Democrat did nothing wrong and the two small contributions did not include any money that originated from Abramoff.

However, the money was donated to a charity that aids individuals who were victims of human trafficking in the Northern Mariana Islands to avoid any appearance of impropriety, Udall campaign spokeswoman Taylor West said.

“If this campaign becomes engaged on Jack Abramoff, ‘Boulder liberal’ Udall is going to have to defend himself,” Wadhams said, during a 10-minute telephone interview in which he used the phrase “Boulder liberal” about 10 times.

“What has been interesting to me,” Wadhams continued, in discussing the Abramoff flap, “is that the character assassination by the Denver Post has not been picked up by any other media entities” in Colorado.

Schaffer’s strategy is to highlight Udall’s liberal House voting record. Schaffer served three terms in the Republican-leaning 4th district before retiring in 2002 to honor a self-imposed term limits pledge. He ran for Senate in 2004, but lost in the GOP primary to beer magnate Pete Coors, who went on to lose to now-Sen. Ken Salazar (D).

Udall has represented the solidly Democratic 2nd district for 10 years, and Wadhams intends to define Udall as a “Boulder liberal” in the same way he successfully identified 2002 Democratic Senate nominee Tom Strickland as “lawyer-lobbyist Strickland” as he guided Allard to re-election.

In 2006, Udall earned an 85 percent rating from the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action and a 91 percent rating from the ACLU, while picking up a 16 percent rating, respectively, from the conservative groups National Taxpayers Union and American Conservative Union.

But West, Udall’s chief campaign spokeswoman, described Udall as a moderate. She said the challenge for the Congressman is making both himself and his record of working across the aisle to get things done known outside of the 2nd district.

When asked if Udall is a liberal, West’s answer was a simple, “no.”

“In fact, his record is very Western. That is to say, he’s been an independent voice,” she said. “When it comes to national security issues and his work on the [House] Armed Services Committee, I don’t think people can credibly look at that and call it liberal.”

Udall is currently up with his third statewide television spot. Two of them have centered on national security, including Udall’s support for veterans and his commitment to fighting terrorism and securing Afghanistan.

Both the Udall campaign and the DSCC expect the issues and the presidential race to benefit Udall in the final stretch of this campaign. And the Democrats expect Abramoff to continue to dog Schaffer. Wadhams and Republicans disagree.

They contend that Udall’s voting record on taxes and his environmental record at a time when gas costs $4 per gallon will hurt him in November. Republicans also believe the Abramoff issue surfaced early enough to disappear by the fall campaign.

But DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller said Schaffer’s ties to Abramoff remind voters of everything they don’t like about Republicans in a political environment that is already toxic for them — and of why they voted them into the minority on Capitol Hill in 2006.

Miller said the Abramoff connection is a particular problem for Schaffer because he is trying to run as a reformer who left Congress before the House Republican Conference became synonymous with scandal.

“He said he was a different kind of Republican. He said he was a reformer and that Washington broke after he left,” Miller said. “This shows he was right in the thick of the corruption with Jack Abramoff.”