Hickenlooper plays offense, Gardner defends Trump’s morality in final debate

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DENVER | Republican Sen. Cory Gardner on Tuesday defended his record, alliance with President Donald Trump and the president’s morality in the final debate of the heated Colorado Senate race.

Gardner rescinded his endorsement of Trump in 2016 after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, saying he was ashamed of the then-candidate boasting of sexual assault. But he has endorsed Trump this time around, which has become a central issue in Gardner’s reelection campaign.

At the close of the hourlong debate, Gardner was asked, as a yes or no question, whether he thought Trump was moral and ethical. “Yes,” Gardner said, quickly adding “I wish he could be more specific in his communications with the American people.”

Gardner’s Democratic opponent, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, answered with a simple: “No.”

Gardner is considered one of the most vulnerable Republican senators in the country because Colorado has turned sharply Democratic since Trump’s election. The president lost the former swing state by 5 percentage points in 2016 and Democrats swept all statewide races in 2018, winning the governor’s office by 11 percentage points.

Gardner said his priority is Colorado rather than partisanship. He said he had stood up to his own party by backing legalization for people brought illegally to the United States as children and marijuana legalization, and by convincing Trump to support increased conservation funding.

“I’m sure not every Democrat in the state, including John Hickenlooper, is happy with my record, because Gardner ends in R,” he said in an allusion to the realities of partisan politics.

That sums up Gardner’s dilemma — Democrats have targeted him since he narrowly won his first race in 2014, so he needs solid Republican support to survive. But to keep his party’s voters happy, he’s had to support the president’s top priorities and not criticize him too explicitly,

Gardner did chastise Trump once during the debate over the president’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses in November. “The president should be crystal clear,” Gardner said. “Every single person in this country should be crystal clear. There will be a peaceful transition.”

He also repeatedly criticized the QAnon conspiracy theory that Trump has spoken positively about and white supremacism following Trump’s inability to critique right-wing extremists on the debate stage last month.

Much of the debate covered familiar ground. Gardner slammed Hickenlooper for being found to have twice violated state ethics laws as governor — which led Gardner to not answer yes or no when asked if he viewed the man who spent two terms as a popular governor as an ethical man.

He also criticized Hickenlooper for calling for environmental policies that would put “230,000 Coloradans” in the oil and gas industry out of work and for his support for what Gardner said were excessive gun control measures, like a vow to require a national license to own a firearm.

Hickenlooper went after Gardner on the senator’s support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, his votes to roll back restrictions on the oil and gas industry and donations from corporate political committees. The former governor also refused to say whether he’d support expanding the number of Supreme Court Justices if Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, is confirmed.

Both candidates said the most important way to fight the coronavirus is for Congress to pass another relief bill. Senate Republicans have been deadlocked over the issue for months, even as Trump has ricocheted wildly between calling for no more aid and calling for more money than House Democrats have approved.

Gardner criticized Hickenlooper, who had once said he opposed a Republican proposal for relief that died in the Senate in August for lack of Democratic votes. Hickenlooper responded by proposing Gardner, a key expected vote in Barrett’s confirmation, demand a vote on coronavirus relief before the nominee is seated on the high court.

Hickenlooper was more aggressive than he has been in prior debates. He rose in Colorado politics as an avowedly nonpartisan administrator uninterested in the nuts and bolts of legislating, but in his senate bid he’s often adopted standard Democratic positions. But for a moment Tuesday, Hickenlooper sounded like his old self in critiquing both parties.

“We haven’t seen any willingness on the Republican side or the Democratic side to sit down and roll up their sleeves,” Hickenlooper said. “This is what I’d go to Washington to change.”