In the first debate between Gov. Jared Polis and his Republican challenger, Heidi Ganahl, the most spirited exchange was about automobiles — and specifically, the ones the candidates drive.
It began as Ganahl attacked Polis’ environmental policies, part of a much broader argument over their visions for Colorado’s future.
“Don't expect a single mom of three working two jobs to buy (an all-electric) Tesla or rely solely on public transportation,” she said of Polis’ plans to decarbonize the state’s economy in the decades ahead. “It’s too far, too fast.”
Polis shot back: “Well, I thought you drive a Tesla, don’t you?”
Ganahl said her family has three cars, including a “Chevy Express conversion van with 120,000 miles on it.”
Polis responded: “Not everybody can afford a Tesla, like my opponent.”
Ganahl said: “Well, you can.”
In fact, they both can. It was an unusual bit of social showmanship from two candidates who are among the wealthiest people in Colorado. Polis has made hundreds of millions of dollars selling tech businesses, while Ganahl sold her own doggy day care franchise for more than $17 million.
The automotive theater continued as the governor proclaimed that, despite his goal of getting 940,000 electric vehicles on the state’s roads by 2030, he drives “an internal combustion engine. I think that’s all you need to know,” a line which drew laughs.
(Polis has a Ford Escape but may have previously owned an EV, according to a campaign spokeswoman, and is driven around for official duties in a Chevy Suburban.)
A minute later, Ganahl revived the topic with an explanation for the Tesla: “I thought, before I ran, ‘I’m gonna get an electric car so I can live it, and feel it, and see what it's like.’”
Her conclusion: Electric vehicles aren’t feasible for low-income families, and Polis, she added, should “walk the talk” by buying an electric car.
The incumbent’s response? “Lend me yours … I’ll just borrow yours.”
The unusual exchange consumed a few minutes of a debate that stretched more than an hour, hosted by the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce at CSU-Pueblo, with sponsorship from Black Hills Energy.
This head-to-head may set the template for the final weeks of the election. Ganahl blamed Polis for high energy costs, bank robberies, rising cocaine and fentanyl use, the auto theft rate and more, and called his COVID-19 response overreaching and underhanded.
She accused Polis of closing schools and churches while “keeping pot shops open.” He contended that Colorado was ahead of many other states in reopening.
“He’s grown the size of government,” Ganahl said. “He's added taxes, fees, new social programs. Small business owners can't keep up with all the programs they're supposed to implement and pay for. There's only so much money in the bucket.”
Ganahl reiterated her campaign promise to eliminate the income tax, which brings in more than $13 billion a year to the state and supplies more than half of the general fund. She also wants to cut the gas tax in half.
Meanwhile, Polis tried to discredit her tax-slashing plans as unrealistic and dangerous. He pointed out that the Colorado State Patrol and other services are currently funded by those taxes.
“Her gas tax plan (will) cut funding in half for the State Patrol,” he said, while touting his own public safety spending law. “Her income tax plan (will) defund Corrections, let criminals out on the street.”
Ganahl dismissed the criticism, saying she would never cut funds to law enforcement. She has said that she would instead cut spending elsewhere: “We’re going to shrink the size of government by 10 percent a year by doing a hiring freeze and addressing vacancy funds,” she said, adding that she would hire a private auditor to find fraud and waste.
“We have a spending problem here in Colorado, not a revenue problem,” she said.
Cutting more than $13 billion from the budget would require finding savings equal to the state's current general fund spending on education, health care, human services and corrections, combined.
Polis said that his administration has saved people money with big new laws on health insurance, full-day kindergarten and limited free preschool. Free early childhood education in particular, he said, saves hundreds of dollars per month for families with young children.
Ganahl said she “fully supports pre-K care,” but said that she’d rather entrust it to private industry, charities and churches. She also would “go all in” on school choice, allowing families to take public funding to the school of their choice.
On criminal justice, Ganahl criticized Polis for reducing the sentence of Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos, the truck driver at fault in a crash that killed four people on I-70, from 110 years to a decade. (Ganahl said the governor at least should have waited before acting, a criticism echoed by the district attorney in the case.)
Ganahl also pointed out, among other criticisms, that on Polis’ watch, state lawmakers abolished the death penalty.
And in some of her harshest attacks of the night, she accused Polis of signing a law that she said killed the daughter of a woman named Mickey she met on the campaign trail. The policy in question made possession of small amounts of some drugs, including fentanyl, a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
“I hope you will give them an answer and give Mickey an answer,” she said. Ganahl didn’t detail the connection between the death of the person’s daughter and the 2019 drug reform law. Polis responded: “Fentanyl has been, is and will be illegal in the state of Colorado, as long as I am your governor.” He pointed to a law passed this year that reinstated felony possession charges for a gram or more of fentanyl, as well as adding funding for treatment.
The candidates also touched on the issue of water. Polis challenged Ganahl to take a stand against a proposal that had aimed to transport water from the San Luis Valley to Douglas County, where Ganahl lives.
“Even Congresswoman (Lauren) Boebert joined me in opposition to this buy-and-dry plan that would destroy the ag economy of the San Luis Valley,” he said.
Ganahl didn’t take up the topic, but said she wants to build more water storage — also a stated priority for Polis — and promised a firm stance on Colorado River negotiations.
“We'll neutralize any negotiations on the Colorado River Compact. We only stand to lose in that, and we'll balance property rights with community rights,” Ganahl said.
And, of course, when it came to energy, they talked about more than just Teslas. Ganahl said Colorado should keep supporting in-state oil drillers, since they’re more efficient than drillers elsewhere.
“The stakes are so high here, and again, we produce the cleanest energy on the planet right here in Colorado. Let's get them back to work,” she said. (Colorado’s drilling rig count has shrunk by more than two-thirds while Polis has been in office. That mirrors the trends seen nationwide, including in conservative states like Texas, amid fluctuating oil prices during the pandemic.)
As the debate closed, Polis tried to pin Ganahl as an extremist, narrowing in on her choice of Danny Moore as her running mate. Moore had questioned the 2020 election results on Facebook, reportedly referring in one post to “the Democrat steal.”
“She chose an election denier,” he said.
Ganahl defended Moore, who is a U.S. Navy veteran and an entrepreneur.
“Danny's made it very clear. He respects Joe Biden and he's his commander in chief, as have I, and Danny's actually an incredible person,” she said.
In her final statement, Ganahl warned of a dark future under Polis. “I will not stand by and watch this beautiful state be destroyed,” she said, accusing Polis of “fighting for his own political career, for his own American Dream to be president and do (to) our country … what he's done to our state.”
Polis closed out by dubbing Ganahal a “MAGA candidate” citing her own primary election literature, and saying she wants to defund public services, among other charges.
“We can choose to solve problems rather than just talk about them,” he said as he made his pitch for a second term.
At the conclusion of the roughly hour-long debate, Polis crossed the stage and they shook hands.
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