John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff met for their first one-on-one debate just as ballots for the U.S. Senate primary filtered out to mailboxes in Colorado.
Instead of speaking from a stage, though, they met 9 News anchor Kyle Clark via video link.
Still, the power dynamic of the race was on full display throughout the half-hour debate. Hickenlooper, the establishment favorite, promised to fix “government dysfunction in Washington” and at times seemed to be debating Sen. Cory Gardner, the incumbent Republican.
Meanwhile, Romanoff staked out a progressive call for “bold structural change” and sharply criticized Hickenlooper throughout the confrontation. He even said Hickenlooper should withdraw from the race after the state’s Independent Ethics Commission’s recent findings against him.
The winner of the June 30 primary will face Gardner in November.
Early in the debate, Clark asked both men whether they would “defund” the police, as some protesters have demanded. Hickenlooper wouldn’t go that far.
“I don’t think we should defund the police, but I do believe we need to reform the police,” Hickenlooper said, mentioning specific policies on strangleholds and body cameras before broadening his point: “We also have to look beyond just police reform and make sure we’re getting equal opportunity in housing and education, equal opportunity in jobs.”
Romanoff immediately moved to portray Hickenlooper as out-of-touch.
“Reform is not enough. We do need to shift resources and demilitarize the police,” he said. “... John fundamentally misunderstands this moment just as he misunderstood what Black Lives Matters means.”
That was a reference to Hickenlooper’s use of the phrase “every life matters” during an earlier forum. The former governor said he’d simply “stepped on my words.” Later in the debate, he talked about reforms he oversaw as mayor of Denver following the police killing of 15-year-old Paul Childs.
On health care, Hickenlooper accused Gardner of reducing funding at the CDC. (Gardner's campaign later said that the senator had supported a recent increase to the Centers' global health and infectious disease programs. Hickenlooper's campaign pointed to Gardner's support of a failed Affordable Care Act repeal package in 2017 that would have cut the CDC budget.)
Hickenlooper said the pandemic underlined the need for universal health care. He is a supporter of a public option that would compete with private health insurance plans.
“We need to build up our public health infrastructure,” he said.
Romanoff accused Hickenlooper of “parroting the talking points of the insurance industry and the Republicans.”
“Your offer of evolution is pretty cold comfort to families in those circumstances,” he added.
Hickenlooper responded that Romanoff wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Their exchange on climate was similar. Hickenlooper laid out a broad, optimistic statement: “We’ve got to go as quickly as we can and recognize that these innovations are going to create jobs.”
Romanoff has aired apocalyptically themed ads about climate change and has called for much tighter restrictions on fossil fuels, including a ban on fracking.
In the debate, he referred to “runway oil and gas development that John Hickenlooper presided over” as governor, and accused Hickenlooper of siding with Gardner against Green New Deal. In 2019, Hickenlooper wrote in an op-ed that he supported the “concept,” but said the government needed to work with private industry and cushion the financial impact.
And the barbs kept coming. Last year, during his presidential campaign, Hickenlooper suggested he “wasn’t cut out to be a senator.” During the debate, Romanoff archly said: “I happen to believe him.”
Clark asked both men about the ethics case against Hickenlooper. Commissioners found last week that the former governor had twice violated a ban on valuable gifts to public officials.
“The truth is, John Hickenlooper represents a threat that we cannot afford,” Romanoff said.
Hickenlooper said the case was driven by a dark-money Republican group that was seeking political ammunition, though he added: “I accept that decision. I accept that responsibility.”
As the debate concluded, Clark thanked both men for persevering through an unfamiliar format. Clark and Hickenlooper participated from home, while Romanoff was at his campaign office.
The two candidates will meet again for a debate at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 16, sponsored by Colorado Public Radio News, Denver 7 and The Denver Post. The 90-minute debate will be broadcast live on CPR stations and streamed at CPR.org.
Editor's note: This article was updated with comment from Gardner's and Hickenlooper's campaigns.