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Democratic candidate Jared Polis, left, participates in a debate with Republican candidate Walker Stapleton, right, on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, at the Lory Students Center on Colorado State University's campus in Fort Collins, Colo. (Photo provided by Timothy Hurst/The Coloradoan)

Bernie Sanders will campaign in Colorado this week for Jared Polis, a political union that is amplifying Republican critics who suggest the Democratic candidate’s policies are too extreme.

Polis, a five-term Boulder congressman, agrees with the Vermont senator on major issues, such as the need for a government-run health care system, and he struggled in a recent debate to identify policy differences with Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist.

His Republican opponent, Walker Stapleton, pounced on Polis for campaigning with Sanders and suggested his Democratic rival is a socialist, pointing to his policies for more government ownership of social programs. (More on this term below.)

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In the debate, “Polis couldn’t come up with one, single difference — one iota of difference — between himself and Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist. I don’t think the state of Colorado wants to elect a socialist as their next governor,” Stapleton told The Colorado Sun in an interview Friday.

“We’re getting close to Halloween. He’s not going to have to dress up as Bernie Sanders — because it turns out, he is Bernie Sanders,” Stapleton added.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. (Handout)

Polis would not answer questions Friday and walked away from a Sun reporter after a campaign event. Asked in the 9News debate last week to identify how he is different from Sanders, Polis said he is a capitalist. But so is Sanders.

In response to Stapleton’s remarks, a Polis spokeswoman said in a statement that Polis “has a strong pro-business voting record in Congress and great ideas on how to grow our economy here in Colorado.”

So what are the difference between Polis and Sanders? Not much on big policy topics.

The Sun took a look at where Sanders stood on major issues during the Democratic presidential primary in 2016 and compared them to Polis’ positions. In many cases, the similarities merely reflect broad Democrat support for these policies. But in some areas, the two men are both loud champions for these causes.

Here are some areas where they agree and disagree:

Where Polis and Sanders agree

  • Single-payer health care: Polis and Sanders support the creation of a government-run, single-payer health care plan — but they are sponsoring different federal legislation to achieve the goal. The bill Polis supports calls for a handful of tax increases, including a personal income tax on the top 5 percent of earners, to pay for it. (9News has a breakdown here.) Sanders has not detailed how he would pay for his plan, the cost of which is disputed.
  • Trump tax bill. Both lawmakers are vocal critics of the Republican tax bill. Sanders led a “Repeal the Trump Tax” tour in early 2018, and in May, Polis filed legislation to repeal it.
  • Bank regulations. Sanders and Polis voted against a bill to roll back bank regulations. The legislation overhauled the Dodd-Frank regulations.
  • Citizens United. Both advocate for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that gave corporations and unions the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections.
Jared Polis, the Democrat running for Colorado governor, speaks at the Pro15 candidate debates in Weld County on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. (Jacob Paul, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Carbon tax. In a recent debate, Polis said he supports taxing carbon pollution to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sanders agrees and calls climate change “the greatest environmental threat facing the planet.”
  • Minimum wage. Polis sponsored legislation to increase the federal minimum wage to $15. Sanders backs increasing it from $7.25 to $10.10 but suggested a $15 rate was “reasonable.”
  • Gun regulations. Both have mixed records on guns. Polis expressed concern about banning assault-style weapons after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, but more recently flipped his position. Sanders early in his career voted against tougher gun regulations, but did support an assault weapons ban after Sandy Hook.
  • Net neutrality. Both men are strong supporters of protections to ensure equal access to the internet. Polis sponsored a resolution to override the Federal Communications Commission’s decision.
  • Death penalty. Both Polis and Sanders want to end the death penalty.
  • Legalization of marijuana. Polis is a prominent backer of the marijuana industry, and Sanders is becoming one, too. In 2016, he sponsored legislation to decriminalize pot.
  • GMO labeling. Sanders endorsed a law in his home state to require the disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients on food labels. Polis supports the same in Colorado.
  • Education. Polis is making free preschool and full-day kindergarten a key platform of his campaign. Sanders supports free preschool for all 4 year olds.

Where Polis and Sanders disagree

  • Fracking. Sanders embraces a national ban on the extraction of natural gas and oil through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Polis does not want to ban it — but he does support increasing the setbacks from drilling operations. The current distance is 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools, but Polis supports increasing it to 2,000 feet unless an agreement between the landowners allows it closer. The industry opposes the 2,000-foot setback, suggesting it would serve as a de facto ban.
  • Trans-Pacific Partnership. Sanders was a prominent critic of the TPP trade agreement. Polis didn’t take a position on the measure, but voted to give President Barack Obama fast-track authority to approve such deals.
  • Free college tuition. Sanders made free tuition at public colleges and universities a centerpiece of his campaign. Polis backs efforts to make a college education cheaper, but has stopped short of pushing free tuition in Colorado.

MORE: A preview of Colorado’s 2018 ballot: Taxes, roads and an existential crisis for oil and gas

The “socialist” label is a four-letter word Republicans often blast on Democrats. Sanders is specific about how he uses the term (which Vox has a good explainer about here). The main point is that Sanders’ vision is a good bit liberalism, rather than pure socialism, which is defined by its collective mindset and more state control.

Polis supports more government involvement in key components of society, such as single-payer health care and broader programs for education. These are more Democratic principles than socialist ideas in modern politics. (Again, here’s another Vox explainer if you want to know more.)

Sanders will kick off his day in Colorado  with a speech at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Farrand Field at 1 p.m. Wednesday. He will then head to Fort Collins, where he will appear at Colorado State University’s Lory Student Center at 5 p.m. Finally, Sanders is set to appear at Denver’s Zeppelin Station at 7:30 p.m.

Updated, 11 a.m. Oct. 22, 2018: This story was updated to add more information about political ideology surrounding socialism.

    Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....

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