DENVER | Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and his Democratic challenger, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, sparred over ethics, health care and energy during the initial debate in Colorado’s hard-fought U.S. Senate race.
The two politicians are both veterans of the state’s political scene and known for their sunny public dispositions. But they traded accusations for a heated hour Friday during the in-person face-off at a community college in Pueblo. Both men tested negative for the coronavirus before the event and sat at a modest distance from each other.
Gardner, 46, is the underdog in the race because Colorado has shifted to the left since he narrowly won his first Senate race in 2014. He opened by calling Hickenlooper “the first governor to be convicted of violating the state constitution” for a pair of ethics violations during his eight years in office.
The nonpartisan Ethics Commission this summer found Hickenlooper, a 68-year-old self-made millionaire and brewpub magnate, improperly took a private plane flight and a limousine ride in during a meeting in Rome. Hickenlooper dismissed the violation as “minor reporting errors.”
“I paid the 2,800 bucks, I took responsibility,” Hickenlooper said, and then proceeded to attack Gardner for the senator’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, noting Gardner ran for Congress in 2010 vowing to roll back the law and supported Trump’s effort to end it in 2017.
Gardner has tied to defend his votes by pointing to a 117-page bill he wrote that says it protects pre-existing conditions, but legal experts call a political stunt. He also slammed Hickenlooper for supporting “government-run health care” that he said would devastate Colorado’s rural hospitals.
The state’s urban-rural divide was a subtext to the debate. Gardner, a native of Yuma, noted he’s the only statewide elected official who is not from the Denver area. He slammed Hickenlooper for trying to end coal, noting that such policies kill jobs in places like Craig in the northwest. The Democratic candidate is a former petroleum geologist who wants to expand the renewable energy industry to speed the transition off fossil fuels.
“He wants to put you out of work,” Gardner warned energy workers of Hickenlooper.
The former governor, in contrast, repeatedly brought the conversation back to health care, which Democrats count on helping them recapture the Senate. He warned of the speedy confirmation of President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, who Gardner supports. Hickenlooper said she might be the vote that repeals the Affordable Care Act.
Gardner said there was no way to predict Barrett’s vote and tried to present himself as a bipartisan problem-solver, touting his support of a massive conservation bill and role in creating a national suicide hotline. Throughout the campaign, Gardner has tried to maintain a delicate balance of not bucking Trump and alienating conservative voters, while touting a can-do pro-Colorado attitude.
Gardner won in 2014 by holding himself out as sorely needed new blood and tying the Democratic incumbent at the time, Sen. Mark Udall, to President Barack Obama. Hickenlooper turned the tables Friday night, saying Gardner supported Trump ‘100% of the time” and had been in Washington too long.
“Nothing’s going to change if we don’t send new people to Washington,” Hickenlooper said.