‹‹ Colorado Matters

Bennet, Hickenlooper Earn Some Moments But Don’t Move The Needle In 1st Primary Debate

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9min 12sec
Election 2020 Debate
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Democratic presidential candidates, author Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., former Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, and Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., raise their hands when asked if they would provide healthcare for undocumented immigrants, during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami.

John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet hoped to separate themselves from the pack on the Democratic primary debate stage in Miami. But even for many watchers back home, the Colorado candidates weren’t the main attraction.

“I’m sorry, I don’t and haven’t supported either of them,” Scott Dupree of Denver said shortly after the conclusion of Thursday’s two-hour debate. “I loved Hickenlooper as mayor of Denver — couldn’t stand him as Governor. And Bennet, I’ve never seen him act on progressive ideas for Colorado.”

Dupree came out for a watch party held at the Irish Snug pub on Colfax Avenue in Denver. The evening was organized by the Denver branch of the New Leadership Council, which calls itself a “hub for progressive Millennial thought leadership.” But the 60 or so attendees definitely skewed older.

The youngest watcher may have been 13-year-old David England of Denver; midway through the proceedings he offered “I really don’t have any opinions, but it’s really good other people do and this is causing a lot of discussions.”

Between handfuls of M&M’s (the Red, White & Blue mix) and marking off their Dem Debate Bingo cards (‘Someone wags their finger’; ‘Celebration of women candidates’), the Denver crowd gave the bar’s TVs a number of ovations during the night. The first came when California Sen. Kamala Harris took the measure of the raucousness on stage and exclaimed that “America doesn’t want a food fight — they want to know how they will put food on their tables.”

The California senator could likely have been considered the crowd favorite by evening’s end, with South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg a close second.

In the run-up to the debate, both Hickenlooper and Bennet said they wanted to use the night as a way of introducing themselves to America — and Hickenlooper did at least attract some celebrity attention. At one point, comedienne Sarah Silverman tweeted that she agreed with Hickenlooper that President Donald Trump was “kidnapping” children from their families at the Southern border. However, his remarks on climate change earned a scathing tweet from actor Mark Ruffalo, criticizing the former governor for his support of oil and gas development in Colorado: “You are part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

But back in Colorado, for one night in one bar on Colfax, both struggled to make an impression with the Mile High crowd.

“I think it’s hard, because I think you tend to walk away more impressed by the people you don’t know as much about,” said David England’s mother, Ann. “So Kirsten Gillibrand, who I knew nothing about, seemed pretty impressive, and Buttigieg, who I had a negative impression of because of the shooting there (In which an African American man was killed by police) was really nice in talking about it, and my friends and I decided that maybe a mayor stepping up to become president is a really interesting idea.”

She concluded, “Sen. Bennet did much better than I thought he would. I really liked Gov. Hickenlooper coming in, but sadly, he just didn’t shine this evening.”

Several political strategists in Colorado say Hickenlooper and Bennet generally did OK They didn’t make major mistakes or have awkward moments. Hickenlooper did get a cheer from the crowd for criticizing border family separations and Bennet got a chance to argue against the creation of a single-payer health care system.

Political watchers also say the men likely didn’t do anything to move the needle in a significant way on their low poll numbers.

“I don’t think there’s any room in the Democratic party for John Hickenlooper’s call to reject socialism,” said former state GOP Chair Dick Wadhams, who sees the Democratic field moving farther to the left than Hickenlooper’s more moderate stances. “And Bennet continues to engage in contrived righteous indignation. He’s never behaved that way as a senator until recently. In this debate tonight he raises his voice and pounds the podium. This is not the Michael Bennet Colorado has known.”

But for others, Bennet’s performance worked and showed his increasing frustration with the overall political system.

“Bennet got in a few good moments,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver. “He definitely got across his points on some of his political reforms. He got in some pretty solid critiques of President Trump and those seemed to get some support from the audience.”

Masket felt Hickenlooper struggled on the debate stage to cast himself as an outsider and unconventional politician, especially while standing between self-help healer Marianne Williamson and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who are both unconventional by definition.

“He was kind of neither inside nor outside, and I think had a harder time connecting.”

According to trends from Google, Hickenlooper and Bennet were the least searched candidates during the second Democratic presidential primary debate. Near the end of the night, one New York Times reporter quipped “Only so much room for two Wesleyan grads from Colorado.”