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Democrat Andrew Romanoff, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Colorado, attended the climate strike protest in Denver on Sept. 20, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Ashleigh Knapp embodies just how much climate change has become a motivating issue in Colorado politics. 

Standing under a tree outside the state Capitol during the climate strike march on Friday with her young daughter and mother, the Democrat from Loveland said saving the environment is among her top issues in Colorado’s 2020 U.S. Senate race.

“I, myself, work for oil and gas companies a lot and I despise it,” she said. “But it’s like a gravity problem: I can’t find another job in another industry and I’d like to work for solar and that kind of stuff.”

She’s exactly the kind of voter the Democrats vying to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner want to attract. Ask the contenders what issue rises to the top of their list and many say climate change. And that’s why several of those candidates were drawn to the protest.

“Look at the thousands of people who are here today,” Alice Madden, the former Colorado House majority leader and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, said as she marched toward the Capitol from Union Station. “They are primary voters. Whether they’re Democrats or independents, they are going to be voting in this primary. So who is here today, who is marching, is going to mean something to them.”

The climate strike protest marched to the Colorado Capitol in Denver Sept. 20, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Andrew Romanoff, the former state House speaker, and other candidates attended, but former Gov. John Hickenlooper missed the event, citing a schedule conflict.

Americans increasingly view climate change as a crisis and want more to be done to tackle it, according to a recent poll conducted by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation. In Colorado, polling earlier this year by Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project shows that 62% of the state’s voters think that climate change is an extremely or very serious problem.

Climate change has gone from an issue that didn’t traditionally drive voter choice to one that clearly impacts how people vote, said Democratic pollster and strategist Andrew Baumann of Global Strategy Group in Denver.

“The change in the salience of climate as an electoral issue, even over just the last year or two, is pretty remarkable,” said Baumann, who is based in Colorado. “Every poll of Democratic primary voters that you look at, climate is right at the top in terms of voters’ most important issues, along with health care and guns. 

“But it’s not just Democratic primary voters,” he continued. “In post-election polling we did here in Colorado last year, energy and the environment was the No. 1 issue with unaffiliated voters. And poll after poll from across the country this year is showing that climate has the power to move votes, particularly with suburban women.”

MORE: Here’s who’s running in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate — and who’s ruling out a campaign

Climate moves to forefront in contests U.S. Senate race

To capitalize on the increased interest, a flood of money is expected to pour into next year’s Senate race from groups like the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and Conservation Colorado.

“There is no doubt that climate is on the minds of Coloradans,” said Jessica Goad, Conservation Colorado’s deputy executive director. “A real tipping point that we saw was the United Nations putting out their report saying that we only have 12 years to address this problem. We are seeing news organizations cover climate change like they never have before. There is a level of public awareness that we have not seen before.”

The nine Democrats running in the Senate primary are jockeying to prove to voters that they are the best choice when it comes to addressing the factors that contribute to climate change. Through social media, as well as speeches at events, they are working to get that message across. And it was a major topic of discussion for voters at a candidate forum in Durango earlier this month.

Alice Madden, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, attended the climate strike protest in Denver on Sept. 20, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The leaders among the pack — Hickenlooper, Romanoff and Madden — all say it’s the most important issue of their campaign, even though all offer scant details about their policy solutions.

“To me, this is the fundamental, moral test of our time. We either end our reliance on fossil fuels, create a clean energy economy, or we’re cooked,” Romanoff said as climate strike demonstrators chanted and cheered in the background. “Literally.”

In an interview with The Colorado Sun, Hickenlooper called it the gravest threat to humanity. “I recognized even back in the ’90s that this had a high probability of being real, not something that the oil companies say you don’t have to worry about.”

Madden says climate change is the No. 1 issue she gets questions about from young voters. Many ask if they should have children if the planet’s future is so bleak. 

“The status quo is killing us,” she said. “Business as usual is not what people are going to choose.”

Hickenlooper’s record and background put him on the defensive 

For some voters, Hickenlooper represents that status quo — a notion that both he and his team are trying to fight off. He worked as a geologist for an oil and gas company, famously drank fracking fluid to prove it was safe and declined to support tougher regulations on the industry advocated by environmentalists. The Sunrise Movement, an organization of young people pushing candidates to support the Green New Deal, has placed Hickenlooper among its targets.

“I remember his stunt drinking fracking fluid,” Michele Crespo, a Denver voter who is backing Romanoff, said at the climate strike rally. “That one’s not going away. I don’t trust that he’ll actually do everything that needs to be done in order to fix this, in order to make some progress.”

Romanoff is openly attacking Hickenlooper on the issue, saying his critical statements on the presidential campaign trail about the Green New Deal being too lofty effectively go against efforts to halt climate change. Hickenlooper wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece during his presidential run that while he agrees with the concept, “the resolution sets unachievable goals.”

The Green New Deal includes demands for a massive overhaul of energy production and environmental policy in the United States stemming from federal investments, workforce retraining and infrastructure changes. Opponents say it would cripple the economy and lead to the slashing of jobs.  

“He compared the left wing of the party to Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin,” Romanoff said. “And that makes it very hard for us not just to win this race but to govern the country and tackle this problem.”

Democrat Andrew Romanoff, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Colorado, attended the climate strike protest in Denver on Sept. 20, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

But Hickenlooper says he is as committed as anyone to fighting climate change — he just has different ideas about how to go about it. “I’m not sure there’s anybody, not just in Colorado but  anywhere, that’s put as much thought, effort and time as an elected official into combating climate change,” he said, pointing to his record as mayor and governor, where he negotiated tougher rules on methane emissions with the industry. “I would match our results against any state in America.”

Hickenlooper worries that the Green New Deal would become stuck in the gears of Congress and face court challenges that could slow it even more. Instead, he’d like to see more money spent by the federal government to research renewable energy alternatives and innovative technologies, as well as boost the number of electric-vehicle recharging stations. 

“We both agree that we want to get into a renewable-energy situation as fast as we possibly can,” Hickenlooper said of his difference of opinion compared to Romanoff. “… The more focused and direct you can be, the higher your chance of success.”

And there are certainly some who don’t see Hickenlooper’s ties to oil and gas as being an issue. Ron Edgar, a Denver voter, said the connections do bother him a little bit, “but on a scale of 1 to 10, he’s like a two” when it comes to his industry ties.

“I’d probably go with Hickenlooper,” he said when asked who he is likely to support in the 2020 Democratic U.S. Senate primary. “I think he has the best chance of getting rid of Cory Gardner.”

The climate issue is helping to boost lower-tier candidates who can’t afford to raise big dollars or hire organizers to drum up support. It won the contenders the most applause at the forum in Durango, the first with the entire field.

Gardner “has not lifted a finger on climate change,” declared state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat. “… What I have found in traveling this state is climate change is affecting our farmers and our ranchers.” 

Trish Zornio is emphasizing her background as a scientist and Diana Bray says her lead qualification is her decade as a climate activist. “The oil and gas industry has a stranglehold around our necks and we need to make a change,” Bray said.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Democrats see climate change as a point of contrast with Gardner

It’s not just Democrats who are feeling the pressure over climate change. 

Environmentalists are already targeting Gardner for his record, suggesting he is contributing to the problem of climate change by being too close to oil and gas interests. And records show he has taken large sums from the industry. 

The Sierra Club, for instance, ran Facebook ads in Colorado urging him not to support Andrew Wheeler’s confirmation as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Conservation Colorado has accused him of failing “to stand up for Colorado’s environment and way of life.”

“Believing in human-caused climate change isn’t enough anymore,” Conservation Colorado’s Goad said. 

And there are signs that voters are taking notice of where Gardner stands. “Anybody that beats Gardner is OK with me,” said Chris Connelly, a Fort Collins voter for whom climate change ranks second only to ousting President Donald Trump in 2020.

Anna Ditommaso, of Denver, said she feels like Gardner has “ignored a lot of the issues about the regulations” around preventing climate change.

Gardner told The Colorado Sun in an interview last year that he believes climate change is real and that human-caused pollution contributes to it. But he says it can be fought without hurting the fossil-fuel industry

“What I’m doing is fighting for policies that have bipartisan support, that can receive successful buy-in from both sides of the aisle to reduce pollution to promote clean energy, to promote wind, (and) solar, to move toward a renewable energy future,” he said in December. “I’m not going to do that to the detriment of jobs in my hometown, or jobs in other places in Colorado. I think we can have a brighter, cleaner future without hurting the people who live next to us.”

Gardner thinks that the Green New Deal goes too far. “I’m not willing to destroy our economy,” he said.

MORE: Cory Gardner’s science award led some to cry foul over climate change. Here’s why that’s notable for 2020.

But before Gardner’s record is examined, primary voters will first have to decide who his opponent will be in November 2020. 

Knapp, the mother from Loveland who attended Friday’s demonstration, says she hasn’t made up her mind who she will vote for in the June Democratic primary election. 

On the one hand, she thinks Romanoff is the most progressive on climate change issues. As for Hickenlooper: “I think he’s pretty moderate, pretty industry focused. But I think he also listens to people.

“It’s up in the air,” she said.

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....