The two remaining Democratic candidates in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race came face to face virtually on Thursday night in a Zoom forum. It was the first time former Gov. John Hickenlooper and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff have participated in an event together since officially making the June 30 primary ballot.
Among the questions fielded: What did each man expect the GOP to use against him, should he become the Democratic nominee?
Hickenlooper alluded to an ethics complaint that alleges he accepted free flights and other travel expenses during his time as governor in violation of the state’s gift ban. The complaint was lodged by a group founded by a former Republican state lawmaker.
“They're gonna attack, was I, you know, helping, shovel money one way or another,” Hickenlooper said. “They're going to accuse me as being a socialist. I started 20 businesses.”
The former brewpub owner and Denver mayor is the more moderate of the two Democratic candidates. Romanoff has done well with the party’s activist base, securing 86 percent of the delegates at the state assembly.
Romanoff previously led the nonprofit Mental Health Colorado and has unsuccessfully run for Congress twice before. He said he expects to be attacked for his support for the Green New Deal, and Medicare For All.
“The truth is we have programs in place to protect Americans... like Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security programs, like public education and police and fire protection infrastructure like roads and bridges,” Romanoff said. “If Republicans want to call those plans socialism and attack them and wage a war against institutions that have made this the richest nation on the face of the Earth, I welcome that attack. I'm not going to give an inch.”
Contenders for a 'must-win' seat for Democrats
The progressive group IndivisibleNOCO hosted the event and organizers said more than 800 people signed up to watch, with more viewing it via Facebook Live.
The candidates received a list of questions ahead of time on a range of topics, including economic recovery after the pandemic, universal health care, income inequality, immigration and the Green New Deal. They also fielded live audience questions.
A lot of money has already come into the Senate race. Hickenlooper had more than $4.9 million available at the end of the last fundraising quarter. Romanoff had $806,000. The man they both hope to unseat, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner has $9.6 million cash on hand for his reelection bid.
The amounts will likely pale in comparison to the outside money expected to flow into the race. As Republicans and Democrats battle for control of the Senate, Colorado will be a key contest.
Hickenlooper is the perceived front runner and Republican groups in the state swiftly seized on his most awkward moment of the evening, tweeting out clips of him taking a long, confused-seeming pause before answering a question.
In a statement after the forum, the Colorado spokesman for the Republican National Committee, Kyle Kohli, ignored Romanoff completely.
“John Hickenlooper told Coloradans for months he wasn’t cut out to be a Senator, and it turns out he wasn’t kidding. While Joe Biden and John Hickenlooper struggle to execute a simple Zoom call, President Trump and Sen. Gardner will continue their bipartisan efforts to overcome this pandemic and get Coloradans back to work,” Kohli said.
Trying to reach beyond their base
During the forum, both Democratic candidates talked about how they would broaden their base of support. Romanoff highlighted his legislative experience working across the aisle when he served in the statehouse.
“I found a way to bring warring factions at the Capitol together to get things done. I teamed up with a Republican governor to provide the only relief we've seen from TABOR in 28 years,” he said. “We got things done.”
Hickenlooper was asked how he would bring progressive Democrats into the fold who are still “bitter about your oil and gas policies.” Hickenlooper opposed efforts to increase oil and gas drilling setback distances and ban hydraulic fracturing. In response, Hickenlooper turned to his record.
“We expanded the health care coverage in Colorado more than any other governor in the history of the state. We were able to go out and close coal-fired electrical generation plants, replace them with wind, solar and batteries. We were the first state to get methane regulations,” Hickenlooper said.
The forum caps off a tumultuous period of legal disputes as other Democrats tried unsuccessfully to get on the primary ballot, arguing that the extraordinary challenge of COVID-19 disrupted their campaigns.
The lingering confusion was evident even among some who tuned in for Thursday’s forum. The first question submitted on the online Zoom chat, “What happened to Lorena Garcia?”