The two men vying to represent Colorado in the Senate kicked off a string of in-person debates Friday night in Pueblo.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic former Gov. John Hickenlooper sparred on everything from the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic to health care reform, their own records on the economy and environment, and the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
While the exchanges were testy at times, the Senate matchup marked a stark contrast to the first debate earlier in the week between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Gardner and Hickenlooper generally gave each other time to speak without much interruption; the hour-plus discussion was reasonably civil and focused on policy differences.
Gardner was more often on the offensive, posing direct questions to Hickenlooper multiple times. He hammered on ethics complaints against the former governor and attacked Hickenlooper’s character. Meanwhile, Hickenlooper referred to Gardner as a "liar" more than once, and argued he is aligned too closely with Trump rather than Coloradans, especially when it comes to his votes in support of repealing Obamacare.
At its peak about 4,500 people tuned into the livestream of the debate, which was hosted by the Pueblo Chieftain at the Pueblo Community College.
Several participants in the online chat said it was unfortunate more people wouldn’t get to see the exchange in this closely-watched race that could determine which party controls the Senate.
"I'm surprised this is not on prime time TV. This is an important seat," chatted one member of the public during the debate. The three remaining Hickenlooper and Gardner debates will be televised.
On the pandemic
The debate came less than 24 hours after the revelation of the president's positive COVID-19 diagnosis. The candidates both took COVID tests on Friday that came back negative and the Pueblo Chieftain took extra precautions to limit the number of people attending the debate in person.
“We’re in a crisis and the stakes couldn’t be higher,” said Hickenlooper, who began his comments by wishing the President and First Lady a speedy recovery. “We have a pandemic that continues to rage. We still don’t have sufficient testing capacity [and] protective equipment. The economic destruction has been beyond anyone’s conception at the beginning of this pandemic. Indeed the President, and I say this with all due respect, he ignored the risk. And I think he was negligent and even as it became clear it was a serious risk, the team around him in the White House, their response was incompetent.”
Hickenlooper said he did not trust Trump to manage the careful and fair distribution of an eventual vaccine, “without any bias towards political purposes.”
Gardner highlighted his own efforts to work with Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and others to secure more tests and protective equipment for Colorado. He said he convened the first health meeting about COVID on Capitol Hill on Jan. 24.
“I know we both took COVID test today, to be here today. They are probably the tests that I helped secure from South Korea. That's the work that we've done. When Gov. Hickenlooper was in office, he had a chance to prepare the state of Colorado. He didn't do it. He didn't create the stockpile that we needed.”
On health care
Gardner and Hickenlooper have vastly different views on how the country should move forward to improve access to access to care and lower costs for Americans.
Hickenlooper attacked Gardner for his past votes to repeal Obamacare, while Gardner said Hickenlooper’s support of a public option would eventually lead to government-run health care.
“Let's protect people with preexisting conditions. Let's have a patient-centered health care system that actually takes care of people that work with their doctors. Instead of having a government bureaucrat, make their decision for them,” Gardner said.
The senator touted a bill he recently introduced requiring insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions, and several times urged Hickenlooper to read it. His opponent dismissed the legislation as a meaningless gesture.
“The problem is that Cory Gardner is not just lying to all of you watching this debate. He's lying to 2.4 million Coloradans. That bill has 117 words in it. It does nothing to say that insurance companies have to take people with preexisting conditions,” Hickenlooper said. “It's almost like Swiss cheese.”
The most contentious moments in the debate came when the candidates took aim at each other’s decision-making abilities, leadership styles, and character.
Their attacks echoed some of the themes Coloradans may have already seen in online and television ads, about Gardner being too closely tied to Trump and Hickenlooper being fined by the Independent Ethics Commission.
“It’s clear that John Hickenlooper thinks this state is about him,” said Gardner in reference to the ethics violation. “When you think it’s all about you, Governor, and you go to Washington, D.C, and have a government-run health care system and raise our taxes and destroy our energy industry, then it’s not about the people of Colorado.”
Hickenlooper dismissed the ethics violations as minor reporting errors. “They were inadvertent. The Denver Post referred to them as an honest mistake, relatively minor. I paid the $2,800 bucks. I took responsibility.”
And Hickenlooper laid out his reasoning for why, in his view, Gardner is the one who has failed to put the state first, calling the senator “slick and polished.”
“Cory Gardner hasn't done what he said, he'd do. He said he'd be an independent voice for Colorado. He would never sacrifice the interest of the state because of loyalty to his party. And yet he's supported Donald Trump a hundred percent of the time. Let me say the Coloradans don't support Donald Trump a hundred percent of the time,” Hickenlooper said.
They also briefly squabbled about whether Gardner, who is from Yuma, likes the Denver metro area. “Cory Gardner hates metro Denver, I understand that,” said Hickenlooper, who is a former Denver mayor, after Gardner had repeatedly emphasized that there is more to Colorado than its capital city. “I love metro Denver,” Gardner interjected.
On the Supreme Court
There were no real surprises here on their stances: Gardner supports a swift confirmation of Barrett, Hickenlooper said the decision should wait until on the results of the presidential election.
Each man accused the other of hypocrisy on this topic. Hickenlooper noted that Gardner opposed then-President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland during his final year in office.
“Four years ago, Cory Gardner said that eight months wasn't enough time and that the stakes were too high, that we needed to let the voice of the American people be heard and that they should be heard through the election of the next president,” said Hickenlooper. "Now suddenly, with only 44 days to go before the end of the term, there's all the time in the world, they're going to rush this through."
Gardner noted that Hickenlooper himself appointed a state Supreme Court justice in his final year as governor and accused the Democrat of doing an about-face after backing Garland’s nomination.
“I support filling this seat because it's important that we have this seat. We're following precedents, the same precedent that's been around since the late 1800s,” Gardner said.
On the environment
Gardner’s record on the environment has been at the center of much of his campaign’s advertising; earlier this year his bill to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and provide money for National Parks was signed into law.
Hickenlooper noted that despite Gardner’s sponsorship of the Great American Outdoors Act, no established environmental groups are publicly supporting him.
“That's the point that I think people should take away, is you push yourself out as this big environmentalist, but in the end, there's no, there there. One bill does not an environmentalist make.”
Gardner shot back that the GAOA was the most significant conservation bill in over 50 years and noted other policies he’s supported, including increased funding for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the construction of the Arkansas Valley Conduit to supply clean drinking water to southeastern Colorado.
Hickenlooper said too many people in Washington, D.C., spend their time pointing fingers at each other and not getting things done. He said when he was the Denver mayor, he worked with other metro municipalities to cut per capita water consumption by 20 percent.
“I went around to all the suburban mayors who had been at war with the City of County of Denver and I made the commitment to make sure there was more water,” he said, “not just for the suburbs, but for our farmers and ranchers, we made the commitment to not poach the tax base from those communities.”
The Senate rivals will next meet on Tuesday, Oct. 6 at 4 p.m. for a debate on Telemundo in English and Spanish. On Friday, Oct. 9 at 5 p.m., CPR News will co-host a debate with the Denver Post and Denver7. And the final debate of the race will be at 6 p.m. Oct. 13, hosted by seven news organizations, including 9News.