How a does a photo of a child in dirty bath water become a political football?

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Co.)

Ask U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R) of Colorado and his staff, as well as Maria Gunnoe, a West Virginia opponent to mountaintop coal mining in her state.

Here's the skinny: Before her appearance in front of Lamborn's congressional subcommittee last week, Gunnoe submitted a presentation that included professional photographer Katie Falkenberg's image of a 5-year-old girl, head bowed, in brown-orange bathwater, dubbed "The Human Toll: Mountaintop Removal Mining."  The contention was that the putrid bathwater was a result of coal mining. 

Lamborn said his staff told him they considered the photo inappropriate and he demanded it be removed from Gunnoe's presentation, according to the Denver Post. Then, after her presentation, Gunnoe was questioned for 45 minutes by U.S. Capitol Police, who apparently inquired whether Gunnoe was offering up child pornography.

What seems like a minor dustup could actually be a fine media play all the way around. Here's how.

For Gunnoe and photographer Falkenberg, the dispute is bringing plenty of publicity to their anti-mining cause.

Most of Lamborn's constituents, on the other hand, are likely to take his side. The Republican, represents a district centered in Colorado Springs, home of Focus on the Family, commentator Michelle Malkin  and a host of other conservative personalities and causes. The 5th Congressional District is so conservative that there's not even a Democrat running there this year.

But Lamborn is facing a tough primary challenge on June 26 from Robert Blaha, a businessman who's pouring plenty of money into his campaign and criticizing Lamborn as ineffective in Congress. The race is a nasty one, with both sides lobbing accusations against each other.

Publicity that shows Lamborn leading a congressional subcommittee and standing up to "inappropriate" images of naked children (though they were supposed to be looking at the bath water) potentially plays well in the 5th CD. And perhaps it overshadows the news that a special prosecutor was appointed this week to investigate a complaint that one of Lamborn's TV ads inaccurately portrays a bank his opponent co-founded. 

So this kerfuffle may be a win all the way around.

Meanwhile, Lamborn says he has no plans to view the "inappropriate" photo.

It does leave us wondering, however: Has he ever seen that Coppertone girl ad?


Sandra Fish teaches journalism at the University of Colorado and has reported on politics in Iowa, Florida and Colorado. Follow her on Twitter at @fishnette