Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic former Gov. John Hickenlooper faced off Friday night in the first widely televised debate in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race. The stakes are high — the outcome of this contest could determine which party controls the Senate.
During the 90-minute debate, hosted by CPR, The Denver Post and Denver7, the men disagreed on the country’s handling of the pandemic, the Supreme Court, how to address climate change and their own records.
As in their first debate, hosted by the Pueblo Chieftain, Gardner was on the offensive. Throughout the evening he repeatedly tossed off the line, “it’s not about you” at Hickenlooper, casting the former governor as more interested in his political career than serving the interests of Colorado.
For his part, Hickenlooper rebuffed that characterization and called out Gardner for his ties to President Donald Trump. He noted Gardner has voted for 210 of the president’s 214 judicial nominees and supports confirming judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. He also said Gardner should be doing more to counter the president’s attacks on all-mail voting states. Gardner said he had talked to the president about Colorado’s system, and on Friday the president tweeted to urge Coloradans to return their mail ballots.
The two longtime Colorado politicians are locked in a closely watched race. Their current attacks on each other stand at odds with the reputations both men have cultivated for trying to work across the aisle to get things done.
Gardner and Hickenlooper did manage to find some points of agreement. In response to yes-or-no questions, they both said they support marijuana legalization at the federal level; they believe same-sex marriage equality is the settled law of the land; and that climate change is primarily due to human activity. Both also said they support a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants.
The candidates said they have faith in Colorado’s voting system, believe other states can successfully expand mail-in voting, and agreed they will accept the results of this fall’s election.
Big differences on how to handle coronavirus
The country’s response to the pandemic is an issue that’s top of mind for many voters, and it was a focal point of the debate. The candidates were asked whether they would support another shutdown if the rate of COVID-19 infections in Colorado goes above 5 percent, a critical threshold identified by health experts.
“No. We can't afford to shut down this country,” Gardner said. Hickenlooper responded “yes” as long as medical professionals recommended it.
Hickenlooper and Gardner are united in their opposition to a national mask mandate. And both agreed that Congress should prioritize passing a COVID-19 relief package to help Americans recover from the pandemic over addressing the vacancy to the U.S Supreme Court.
“The primary response has to be dealing with COVID-19,” Hickenlooper said, “to make sure that we're dealing with the economy in a constructive way. And especially for those small businesses are at risk of not being able to reopen.”
Gardner also said more coronavirus aid should be a priority, and criticized Hickenlooper for opposing the aid package Senate Republicans put forward in early September. The bill was widely panned by Democrats who said it did not go far enough. It failed on a procedural vote.
“We can't leave people behind. I don't understand why he is trying to do that,” Gardner said of the measure, which would have extended unemployment benefits, although at less than the original $600 a week, and allowed businesses a second loan. “You said no, because not everything was in that bill that we needed. I agree, but isn't something better than nothing?”
Hickenlooper said the bill didn’t do enough to provide money for schools and state budgets that have been decimated by economic shutdowns.
“The incessant, distortions and misstatement of facts, the bottom line is that Cory Gardner can't defend his record,” Hickenlooper said.
Contrasts and continuity with President Trump
Gardner offered a forceful rebuke of white supremacy — a notable break from Trump’s rhetoric.
“We must make sure we stop the injustice that we've seen in our communities because of discrimination and hate,” Gardner said. “There is no room for white supremacy. There is no room for intolerance. There is no room for people who believe that they are better than somebody else because of the color of their skin.”
The other area where Gardner showed daylight with the president was on the issue of Trump’s low tax payments in past years. Gardner said he believes Trump should publicly release his income tax returns, something the president has adamantly refused to do. Yet Gardner did not speak directly to whether it was fair that Trump paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, according to an investigation from The New York Times.
Gardner also didn’t directly comment when asked whether he was proud of his own support of the President. “I'm proud of the work that we have done together. I'm proud of the work that we have done for Colorado, to bring a Space Command to Colorado Springs, to open up the Bureau of Land Management headquarters here.”
For his part, Hickenlooper called Trump’s response to the pandemic negligent and said Gardner was not willing to stand up to him. “[Trump’s] complete incompetence and that of his team in responding once they finally recognized the threat is a disgrace, and it's hurt this country as much as any natural disaster in our lifetime. Cory Gardner didn't speak out against that. When President Trump tried to get foreign governments to intercede on his behalf in our elections, Cory Gardner didn’t speak out.”
At times both candidates declined to answer the moderator’s questions. Hickenlooper wouldn't say if he would back an expansion of the number of justices allowed to sit on the nation’s highest court.
“I think that the first task you have to do is you have to go and make sure you get, you know, new senators in place, new people,” Hickenlooper said. “And I think that will change the institution more than immediately changing the rules.”
Gardner did not answer whether he feels William Perry Pendley should remain in a leadership role at the Bureau of Land Management. The White House pulled Pendley’s nomination to be director in September, an acknowledgement that he was not likely to be confirmed by the Senate. And a federal judge recently ruled that Pendley could not lead the agency on a temporary basis, as he has done for over a year. But he continues to serve as the number two at the BLM, which lacks a director.
From working shoulder-to-shoulder to debating toe-to-toe
While each man leaned into a few lines of attack, Friday’s debate was generally civil and focused on policy. The two had a good working relationship when Hickenlooper was governor for eight years and Gardner was a member of Congress. Both also have a ‘nice guy’ image to maintain. Despite millions of dollars spent on attack ads, they each stress their histories of bipartisanship.
On the campaign trail, Gardner has continually brought up the fact that during his presidential run, Hickenlooper insisted multiple times he wasn’t interested in becoming a Senator, before jumping into the race. Asked about those comments at the debate, Hickenlooper said his views changed after talking to other former governors who moved on to the Senate; he said they told him he could make a difference there.
“Are we going to address climate change, head-on, and protect our environment?" Hickenlooper asked in his closing statement. "Are we going to continue to roll back clean air and clean water protections? Are we going to give more trillion-dollar giveaways to the wealthiest corporations and individuals, or are we going to rebuild our economy so it's more fair to everyone? Are we going to have a Senator who stands with Donald Trump 100 percent of the time or one who stands up for Colorado?”
In is final thoughts, Gardner highlighted his bipartisanship and rural roots, noting that he was born and still lives in Yuma on the Eastern Plains. He painted the picture of an uplifting future should he win reelection.
“We have to fight for opportunity for every single position and every single corner [of Colorado]. And that's exactly what I have done over the last six years. And I'd be honored to earn your vote because that's exactly what I will do the next six years to make sure that we create more opportunity, not less, to make sure that we have a cleaner environment, not worse, to make sure that we have that optimism to climb that next peak, to reach that next horizon, because that's who we are.” He added, “When it comes to Colorado, you ain't seen nothing yet. The best is still to come from us.”
Gardner and Hickenlooper have one last chance to sell themselves directly to voters; the two meet for their final debate, hosted by 9News and a coalition of other stations and publications, on Oct. 13. They are running out of time to make their case to voters, as ballots were mailed the same day of the debate and will start to arrive in mailboxes shortly.