U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and former Gov. John Hickenlooper swung at each other over a number of issues this week during the final debate of their race for the Senate.
The candidates slung frequent barbs back and forth throughout the night as they rehashed many arguments that have become campaign mainstays and also touched on new topics as they sought to make their case for Coloradans’ support.
Gardner, the Republican incumbent, continued his campaign-long questioning of Hickenlooper’s ethics and accused the Democratic candidate of being in politics for himself. Meanwhile, Hickenlooper looked to cast Gardner as a Washington insider and himself as a potential solution to the political logjam in the nation’s capital.
The debate took place Tuesday in Fort Collins, hosted by Colorado State University, The Coloradoan and 9News. The debate moderators pressed the candidates on numerous issues, some new to the debate stage and others discussed in previous weeks.
Direct confrontations between the candidates were common throughout the hourlong debate. Throughout the night, Gardner and Hickenlooper used the questions posed as frequent jumping-off points for attacks on their adversary’s record.
Relief talks lead to early attacksModerators began the debate by asking about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A relief package has been a hot-button issue on the campaign trail as it has been over six months since Congress last passed a relief bill.
The candidates have repeatedly agreed along the campaign trail that the passage of another relief package should be a priority in Congress. That didn’t stop them for using relief and health care as a jumping-off point for several disagreements.
Gardner was asked what needed to happen to improve pandemic response. He said the Senate must pass a relief package. He then described what he hoped to see in a relief bill, including support for small businesses, medical supplies and more, and turned to attack Hickenlooper for not supporting the relief bill pitched by Senate Republicans in September.
“We can’t afford to have somebody who refuses to support the people of Colorado in the Senate,” Gardner said.
Hickenlooper responded by pointing to a previous debate between the candidates in which Gardner and Hickenlooper agreed a relief package should take priority in Congress over seeking to confirm a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
“Cory could just say, ‘I will not vote to support this ... Supreme Court nominee if indeed the relief act doesn’t get passed first,” Hickenlooper said. “His priority would be a strong point toward getting relief.”
Gardner said Hickenlooper failed to build a stockpile of personal protective equipment that could have assisted in the pandemic response.
Hickenlooper called the assertion “ridiculous” and hailed Gov. Jared Polis’ efforts in mitigating the pandemic in Colorado.
Gardner called Hickenlooper’s response a denial of responsibility, saying, “We don’t need somebody in Washington, D.C., who thinks it’s about himself, refuses to take responsibility and won’t do the job for Colorado.”
Hickenlooper, however, said that sending him to Washington would help reignite aid negotiations and help break through partisan disagreements.
“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 …” he said. “This has gone on long enough.”
Candidates pressed on previous issuesThe moderators of Tuesday’s debate pressed Gardner and Hickenlooper on issues that have followed them on the campaign trail.
Gardner was again questioned about his previous votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He spoke about his goals for replacing it with a “patient-centered care system” and went on to say that Hickenlooper was in favor of a government-run health care system that would eliminate insurance offered by employers.
Hickenlooper responded by saying Senate Republicans had failed to give legislators the opportunity to improve the ACA. He has spoken frequently about his disdain for Republican-led efforts to repeal the ACA.
Conversation then turned to a health care bill that Gardner introduced this year. The bill was introduced with the stated goal of guaranteeing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions regardless of what happened to the ACA; Gardner was questioned as to whether the bill would also make it so that insurance companies can’t refuse to offer coverage in the first place to people with pre-existing conditions.
“The bill itself requires coverage for people with pre-existing conditions,” Gardner said. “That’s what the bill does.”
When pressed further on specific provisions that would guarantee availability of coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, Gardner repeated himself. He said his bill would make it so that everyone with pre-existing conditions can get coverage.
Hickenlooper has attacked Gardner’s bill several times, pointing to several fact checks that have suggested language in the bill does not require that insurance companies require coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.
And Hickenlooper found himself faced with questions about ethics violations from his time as governor that have dogged his campaign. He was fined earlier this year for violating the state’s rules on receiving gifts while in office.
Hickenlooper has downplayed the violations during his campaign. On Tuesday, he called them “inadvertent” but also said they were brought to light by a Republican organization looking for attack-ad material.
“I paid the $2,800 fine. I take responsibility for that,” he said.
Gardner has made the ethics violations a focus in his campaigning against Hicknelooper. He says they are evidence that Hickenlooper is in politics for his own gain.
Split on yes or no questionsAt a few points throughout the debate, Hickenlooper and Gardner were presented with questions and asked to answer “yes” or “no” unless they did not have an answer to give. Some of the questions were about the ballot measures being put before Coloradans this election. Others dealt more broadly with issues on the campaign trail, in Colorado and in Washington, D.C.
They gave their opinions on supporting Proposition 115, which would outlaw third-trimester abortions. Gardner said he supports it; Hickenlooper does not. They were asked about the repeal of the Gallagher Amendment; Hickenlooper supports the repeal and Gardner does not. Moderators asked candidates about Proposition 118, which would enact paid family and medical leave. Hickenlooper supports it; Gardner said he was unsure because he had not looked into the potential impact on businesses. They were asked about the proposal for Colorado to join the National Popular Vote Compact. Hickenlooper is in favor, Gardner is not.
Between the policy questions were the two yes-no questions that left people talking throughout Colorado media. First, candidates were asked simply whether they considered their opponent to be “a moral and ethical man.”
Gardner began by saying that he had “grave concerns” about Hickenlooper’s ethics violations and appeared to want to continue before being stopped by the moderator after not giving a yes or no answer. Hickenlooper, when asked the same question about Gardner, paused for a moment and then said “yes.”
The candidates were then asked the same question about President Donald Trump. Hickenlooper said no. Gardner said yes, but continued that he wished Trump “would be more specific in his communications with the American people.”
Trump lost in Colorado by about 5% in 2016 and polls show him trailing Joe Biden this year. Gardner has been needled throughout the campaign for his connections with Trump, although Tuesday’s debate gave him a chance to highlight times he’s broken with Trump and the Republican Party.
Gardner said he has opposed the Republican Party on issues like the legalization of marijuana and immigration policy. He also pointed to his bipartisan work when asked about his number of votes along party lines.
When asked about some of the president’s past comments, Gardner also encouraged Trump to be “crystal clear” about a peaceful transfer of power. He called the peaceful transition of power a “hallmark” of American democracy. Gardner has endorsed Trump for the presidency but also has worked to change the president’s mind on issues like funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Election day is not until Nov. 3; however, in Colorado mail-in voting is well underway. Tuesday’s debate was presumably the last for Gardner and Hickenlooper to face off directly.
John Purcell is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.