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U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, left, speaks with CBS4's Shaun Boyd, center, and Walker Stapleton before the television news station's debate, in partnership with The Colorado Sun, on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The differences between Republican Walker Stapleton and Democrat Jared Polis are crystal clear after Colorado’s first televised debate in the governor’s race.

The two candidates presented competing visions for the state at Friday evening’s debate — sponsored by CBS4, Colorado Public Television, KOA RadioNews and The Colorado Sun — setting the stage for the final push to the Nov. 6 election.

The contrast began at the top on the issue of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Polis said he opposed the nomination; Stapleton said he supported it.

The two went on to elaborate differences on abortion, health care, guns and the death penalty.

As much as the issues, the back-and-forth squabbling between the candidates defined portions of the hour-long debate.

Stapleton attacked Polis repeatedly, calling him “radical and extreme” at least seven times by The Sun’s count. He took the offensive over Polis’ policies and how much they would cost the state.

“He is the most radical and extreme candidate who will ever be Colorado’s governor — if elected,” Stapleton said.

Polis retorted that Stapleton was only focusing on his opponent and not policies to improve the state.

“Noun, verb, Jared Polis,” Polis, a Boulder Congressman, said in mocking Stapleton. “Noun, verb, Jared Polis.”

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Who won the debate?

Former Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams said Stapleton did what he needed to do.

“I’m not going to say he won. But Walker had to do something tonight to get back in the game because seven points is seven points — that’s a significant margin,” Wadhams said, referring to a recent poll showing Polis with a healthy lead.

MORE: Democrat Jared Polis holds solid lead in new governor’s race poll

“I think he put some meat on defining his agenda, and I think he did a good job contrasting that with Polis tonight,” Wadhams said. “Now is it enough to dramatically change the numbers overnight? No. But listen, we have five weeks to go in this election, that’s a long time.”

Mike Dino, a Democratic strategist, said Polis also did what he needed to do — essentially making the debate a draw.

“I think Jared accomplished what he wanted to,” Dino said. “He stayed calm and collected and he looked gubernatorial — and that’s what he wanted to come across as, and I think he did. So he can certainly take away some thing that he can feel good about.”

Here’s what we learned in the first debate

On Brett Kavanaugh

Polis said he would never have supported the nomination of Kavanaugh, even before allegations of sexual misconduct against him were brought in recent weeks by three women.

“I opposed his fundamental judicial philosophy,” Polis said, specifically saying he is troubled by Kavanaugh’s views on abortion.

Stapleton, on the other hand, said he feels Kavanaugh should be confirmed.

“Washington has made an absolute circus out of this,” Stapleton said, “and now the Senate needs to vote.”

On their run-ins with the law

Polis addressed for the first time a police report showing that roughly two decades ago he was accused of pushing a female employee and hanging up her 911 calls as she attempted to steal documents from his business. Polis called the police, but Polis was never charged in the incident.

The woman, Patricia Hughes, later pleaded guilty to charges relating to the theft.

“I don’t think it’s right to drag it up,” Polis said. “The person who served her time has since deceased.”

Hughes received a deferred sentence and was ordered not to have contact with Polis.

Stapleton also addressed his own run-ins with law enforcement. He was arrested and pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in a 1999 case from San Francisco.

“I made a mistake. I learned from my mistake,” Stapleton said. “I’ve moved on in life.”

Both candidates treaded carefully in discussing the incidents and did not use them to criticize each other, saying it’s a matter for voters to consider.

On abortion

Stapleton vowed to be a “pro-life governor” and accused Polis of wanting “a woman to be able to abort a baby a minute before that baby would be delivered by the mother. To me that is unconscionable as a parent.”

Polis didn’t deny the charge, and didn’t list any restrictions on abortion he would support. Colorado is one of only seven states without any restrictions on abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks the issue.

Polis said he never wants women to find themselves in a situation when they might need an abortion, but “what I want even less is Walker Stapleton deciding for Colorado” on the issue.

With the Roe v. Wade decision potentially at risk if Kavanaugh is confirmed to the court, it’s more important than ever to have a governor who supports a woman’s right to choose.

Polis would not say if he supported state dollars paying for abortions and Stapleton would not say if he would sign legislation restricting abortion.

On guns

Stapleton said he does not support legislation that would have given judges the ability to seize firearms from people they found to be a threat to themselves or others. The bipartisan measure died in the Republican state Senate earlier this year.

He said the so-called “red flag” bill was “was ill conceived and it was rushed.”

Stapleton also attacked Polis for not supporting the Second Amendment.

Polis said, “I think we can honor our Second Amendment rights” while also taking steps to prevent gun violence.

For instance, he said he backs the “red flag” legislation and wants better security for gun stores to prevent their merchandise from being stolen. He also said he supports efforts to reinstate gun rights for people who have been convicted of low-level felony offenses.

On Proposition 112

Both candidates say they oppose a question on the ballot in November asking voters if Colorado should increase the setback distance for oil and gas drilling from developed land to 2,5000 feet.

But Stapleton hit Polis over his support of a potential 2014 ballot measure seeking to increase the setback distance to 2,000 feet from its current 500 feet from homes. 

Stapleton said if this year’s measure passes, he would “pursue every redress possible for that job-killing measure,” including calling a special legislative session.

Polis would not support such an action.

“When the people have spoken, the will of the people needs to be honored,” Polis said.

MORE: Proposition 112: Everything you need to know about the Colorado ballot question

On Nathan Dunlap

Both candidates were asked how they would handle the case of Nathan Dunlap, who was sentenced to death by a jury for committing a mass shooting at an Aurora  Chuck E. Cheese’s but whose execution was indefinitely halted by current Gov. John Hickenlooper.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate, in a political context, to comment on somebody’s life — literally,” Polis said. “I would consult with the victims. I would read the case and make an informed decision to enforce our laws.”

Stapleton pointed to the fact his rival sidestepped the question but then walked a fine line in his own response.

“That to me sounds like a non-answer,” Stapleton said. “I don’t think it’s the job of the governor to adjudicate a decision that’s already gone through the legal process.”

Stapleton said he wouldn’t lift the stay of execution immediately and would have a review process over a period of time to “make sure that what a judge and jury decided was not changed or adjudicated by a sitting governor.”

Dunlap’s case remains in limbo as Hickenlooper hasn’t said what he will do before he leaves office in January.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, left, talked with CBS4 reporter Shaun Boyd, center, and Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton before Friday night’s debate. It was the first televised debate in the 2018 race for Colorado governor. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

On Kombucha

Yes, the candidates even had a few minutes to talk about Kombucha on Friday night.

The fermented drink might be one of the only things the pair can agree on.

“I would love to have a Kombucha together when this is all over,” Polis told Stapleton during the one light-hearted moment at the debate’s end.

The final question asked to say something something positive about their opponent:

Stapleton on Polis: “I think Congressman Polis is a creative guy with bold ideas. He and I firmly support the future of Kombucha. … We’re both fans of cooking. I’m just concerned his ideas are writing checks Coloradans can’t cash.”

Polis on Stapleton: “I would look to work with you in my administration as somebody who might be able to provide some creative financing solutions. I think we need all the creativity we can (get).”


John Frank

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...