Partisan politics takes the stage in Colorado
GRAND JUNCTION — Partisan politics took center stage in Grand Junction Saturday night at the Club 20 debates, the long-standing Western Slope tradition that kicks off election season in Colorado.
The big office candidates — gubernatorial, U.S. Senate and U.S. House districts 2 and 3 — squared off in a series of four evening debates. Rep. Jared Polis (D), the U.S. House District 2 incumbent, was the only main party candidate to decline his invitation for the debates. Club 20 typically invites candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties, leaving out independents and third party candidates.
The first debate of the night was between Gov. John Hickenlooper and Republican challenger Bob Beauprez.
Tones of Hostility
Party ideologies were at the center of much of their arguments, which often took on tones of hostility. Beauprez kicked off his opening remarks by delivering blows to Hickenlooper’s performance on health care, the economy, education and missed opportunities in the state’s oil and gas industry.
Hickenlooper focused on Beauprez’s track record as a former Congressman, accusing him of distorting facts in the typical “Washington way.”
By the time the men were asked their first question of the debate — about the future of Colorado’s water — the divisions between not only these candidates, but also between the parties this 2014 election season, were clear. Heckling from the audience happened often, from both sides.
Beauprez criticized regulations in Colorado for getting in the way of effective water storage projects, to which Hickenlooper fired back that Beauprez supported Referendum A, the 2003 ballot measure that Hickenlooper called the “last big water grab from the Front Range.”
Beauprez defended the measure as a water storage project, which is why he supported it.
Hickenlooper went on to tout his record with the state budget — a billion dollar deficit when he came into office to a balanced budget under his leadership. He admitted that in the current age of technology, there should be more ways to cut costs.
It was the perfect segue for Beauprez to point to an April Denver Post analysis that Hickenlooper’s leadership has led to $21 million in additional state employee costs.
The bashing went on for the duration of the hour-long debate, with Beauprez accusing Hickenlooper of chasing energy resources out of the state through too much regulation, and Hickenlooper defending oil and gas losses in the state due to decreasing natural gas prices.
‘The Front Range Way’
Hickenlooper focused heavily on Beauprez’s Washington experience, while saying that as governor he has always tried to “find the Colorado way.”
But that “Colorado way” often means “the Front Range way,” Beauprez said, pointing out that people across the state have told him that Hickenlooper doesn’t realize he’s no longer the mayor of Denver.
But agriculture exports under Hickenlooper have doubled and cabinet members from the Western Slope have quadrupled, the governor noted.
When the conversation switched to Western states trying to assume control of federal lands, Hickenlooper said that Colorado should make sure the federal government does a better job in taking care of public lands rather than take over control, citing the costs for doing so. Beauprez said the feds do such a bad job managing the public lands in the state that leases would be canceled if those lands were private.
In the cross-examination portion of the debate, where candidates were allowed to ask each other the questions, they squabbled about the economy, party politics, the Keystone Pipeline and Nathan Dunlap, the convicted murderer for whom Hicklenlooper has suggested granting clemency. Hickenlooper maintained his position on Dunlap when Beauprez asked.
When Sen. Mark Udall and Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner, who currently represents Colorado’s 4th district in the U.S. House of Representatives, began their debate, it made the gubernatorial debate seem like a casual chat among friends. These guys are divided, to put it lightly.
Gardner said his run for Senate is to get more Colorado in Washington, not the other way around.
The first gasp from the Republican side came when Udall talked about getting to know coal miners in Somerset. The Colorado GOP has criticized Udall for his praise of the EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas emissions rule for power plants. The regulations put thousands of coal mining jobs at risk in Colorado, according to the GOP.
The Democrats cringed when Gardner focused on the failures of Obamacare and his continued accusations of Udall’s desire to raise taxes across the board.
‘A Broken System’
“We had a broken system and insurance companies were in charge,” Udall said. “The Republican party had many years to respond to a health system out of control. I took a leadership role.”
Udall criticized Gardner for having a role in the government shutdown last year in order to make a statement about Obamacare during a time when Colorado faced historic flooding in and around Boulder. But Gardner accused Udall of the old “Washington two-step.”
“Udall said he opposed government-sponsored health care, but then he voted for it,” Gardner said.
When the panel asked about social security, Gardner criticized Udall for voting to cut money out of Medicare in order to pay for Obamacare. Udall criticized Gardner for voting to privatize Medicare, which he said would put Americans at the mercy of insurance companies again.
On oil and gas, Udall pointed toward the effort to sit down with various stakeholders to talk about cutting edge energy solutions, but Gardner focused on Udall’s votes for carbon taxes and regulations that make it more different for the country to develop its natural resources.
The tension continued to rise as the candidates argued about issue after issue.
“I’m curious what problem facing our nation I haven’t caused,” Udall said jokingly to Gardner.
“Me too,” Gardner replied.
When the panel asked about the threat of terrorism, Gardner came down on American foreign policy while Udall defended his statement that the terrorist group ISIL doesn’t pose an imminent threat to the United States. He said if the United States doesn’t respond, they will be a threat, however.
Udall fired back with an attack on Gardner’s pro-life stance, asking Gardner how families could trust him when he votes against women’s rights time and time again. Gardner replied by accusing Udall of running a campaign based solely on social issues.
With Polis absent, Republican challenger George Leing, of Niwot, took the stage alone to answer the panel’s questions.
When asked about state water issues, he recited some based water history — and not even accurately — and then said there needs to be more common sense in water laws.
When asked about Interstate 70 congestion, he said there needs to be action and that government can do better, but failed to give specific examples other than the long-standing median express lane idea for peak periods.
He didn’t take the opportunity to criticize Polis until his closing remarks, when he said the job is to be a representative of the people and that Polis has too many personal agenda items.
“Why is he not here tonight?” Leing said. “My desire is to be a representative of all the people of the district.”
By the time Rep. Scott Tipton and Democratic challenger Abel Tapia took the stage, at least 75 percent of the crowd had left the room, with a few returning for the final showdown of the night. Their debate was significantly more respectful than the gubernatorial and Senate debates.
Tapia focused on inactivity in Congress and said he can’t sit back and watch the inaction. But Tipton lauded several of his own bills that have passed through the House during his tenure, specifically bills relating to healthy forest management, energy and water rights. The bills are waiting for Senate action, however.
Tipton looked and acted like a politician, while Tapia, a former Colorado legislator, was more personable and less dramatic. When it came down to the issues, though, the debate just never heated up much. The candidates gave obvious party-line type answers on issues such as energy, social security, government spending and immigration.
Tipton was the aggressor during the cross-examination portion of the debate, catching Tapia unprepared and stumbling a few times when asked about his Colorado voting record on suspending homestead exemptions and energy industry regulations.
Tipton’s demeanor and tone treated the debate more like a formality against a candidate he isn’t all that concerned about.