Under the backdrop of rising political tensions in Colorado and nationally, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and his Democratic challenger, former Gov. John Hickenlooper held their fourth and final debate on Oct. 13 at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. This closely watched race could play a big role in determining which party controls the Senate.
Denver’s 9News and a number of other media organizations aired the debate across Colorado, giving voters their final chance to see the candidates unfiltered. The hour included similar topics from earlier debates, from the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy to the country’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But it also covered some new ground and provided a few new insights.
Colorado Senate Race 2020
Gardner and Hickenlooper, who worked well together when the Democratic challenger was still governor, were asked about each other’s character, and if they thought their opponent was ethical and moral. Hickenlooper responded, “Yes.” Gardner declined to answer the yes or no question and pivoted to talking about Hickenlooper’s ethics charges — which has been a major point in his campaign — until a moderator cut him off.
It was followed up with whether they believe President Donald Trump is a moral and ethical man. Hickenlooper answered “No.” Gardner said, “Yes” before continuing, “I wish he would be more specific in his communications to the American people.”
Trump came up at other points too. Gardner was asked if he is comfortable with endorsing the president, or any candidate, who won’t commit to accepting the results of the election and a peaceful transition of power.
“The president should be crystal clear,” Gardner said. “Every single person in this country should be crystal clear. There will be a peaceful transition of power. There's no doubt about that.”
He also diverged from the president over the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, which has developed in the dark corners of the internet but is gaining more prominence. Unlike Trump, who has expressed support for those who back the conspiracy, Gardner strongly denounced it and said he shared the FBI's view that QAnon is a domestic terror threat, “Well, I don't believe in QAnon and yes, I believe they're a threat.”
Gardner had to address the timing of his late February rally with Trump in Colorado Springs, not long before the coronavirus pandemic began to shut down the country. “We now know, thanks to the journalist, Bob Woodward, what the president actually thought of COVID-19 — at that point that it was ‘tremendously serious,’ ‘way worse than the flu’, ‘airborne,’ so forth. Did President Trump tell you before you stood next to him in that crowd, that he knew all those things?” asked 9News moderator Kyle Clarke. “Did you have that knowledge?”
“No, I did not,” said Gardner. “But we knew this was something that we had to deal with. We knew that we had something from China that we didn't understand. China was lying to us at the time. China was lying to the world saying it couldn't be transmitted the way that we now know that it can.”
Hickenlooper faced tough questions of his own, such as whether Democrats are the ones holding up a COVID relief package in Congress by loading up the economic package with “goodies."
“Yes. Certainly, if I was in Washington, I would do everything I can to make sure that there was an efficient process to get a lean bill to put forward,” said Hickenlooper. Democrats, including Hickenlooper, have criticized the Republican “skinny” bill for failing to provide enough money to help state and local governments and people who are unemployed.
“What's been to me most frustrating is we haven't seen any willingness on the Republican or the Democratic side to sit down and actually roll up their sleeves and find, where do we agree? Where do we disagree and begin looking at it,” Hickenlooper said.
In their previous debate, Hickenlooper and Gardner both said Congress should prioritize passing a COVID-19 relief package over addressing the vacancy to the Supreme Court. On Tuesday, Hickenlooper pushed the point, saying Gardner should refuse to vote to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett until a relief package passes. Gardner did not agree to the challenge. For his part, Hickenlooper again declined to say if he would consider adding more justices to the nation’s highest court, also known as court packing, dismissing the idea as "hypothetical."
“It's worked for 150 years,” said Gardner of the current size of the Supreme Court. “It's too bad that Gov. Hickenlooper can't admit that.”
Climate change and the candidate’s environmental records have been another ongoing theme in the Senate race, and one that came up again in the debate.
While governor, Hickenlooper angered environmentalists at times, especially when he claimed he had safely sipped fracking fluid, and sided with the oil and gas industry to oppose initiatives pushed by anti-fracking groups. Asked about that record, Hickenlooper countered that he’s been focused on the threat of climate change since his early days studying for a master's in geology. As governor, he said he worked with the industry to strengthen environmental protections.
“We were the first state to hold the oil and gas industry accountable and to create methane regulations,” Hickenlooper noted.
In response, Gardner argued that Hickenlooper was not supportive enough of the oil and gas industry while in office, and as a senator would try to eliminate energy jobs in rural communities like Craig, where the impending closure of a coal-fired power plant and the mine that supplies it will put many in the small city out of work.
“I continued to fight for those jobs in Colorado that John Hickenlooper wants to destroy,” said Gardner. “I've fought against my party on immigration because I believe we need an immigration policy that works. I fought against my party on marijuana legalization because I believe state's rights matter and the state of Colorado is leading the way. I fought against my party when it comes to conservation. It's why we convinced the president to change his mind on permanent funding of the land and water conservation fund.”
Gardner’s remarks highlight the different strategies both campaigns have followed throughout this expensive and heated race. As the incumbent, Gardner continues to tout his bipartisan record in Congress and the individual bills he’s passed. At the same time, his challenger, Hickenlooper, emphasizes a need for change in Washington, D.C., and ties Gardner as much as possible to President Trump, who is not expected to win in Colorado this November.