• Original Reporting
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, left, and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, right, attended the final televised debate on Denver7 June 16, 2020. (Screenshot)

In the final moments of the final televised debate ahead of the June 30 primary, U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper returned to a familiar refrain in making his most forceful argument yet about why he is better than his Democratic rival Andrew Romanoff.

“Inside the state of Colorado, I haven’t lost yet. And Andrew hasn’t won an election in 14 years,” Hickenlooper said Tuesday, counting his two successful campaigns for governor but excluding his failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The electability argument is central to Hickenlooper’s campaign — and the reason national Democrats endorsed him from the start, pumping about $400,000 into his campaign so far. But he’s struggled to make the case in recent weeks because it was overshadowed by his own mistakes — being held in contempt by the state ethics commission, twice violating the state’s constitutional gift ban, taking oil and gas money as governor and repeated, insensitive comments on race. 

Hickenlooper continued to sidestep important questions on all three topics during the debate,  and flipped his position on a key issue, leading political observers to suggest the cumulative missteps could give Romanoff an opening. “Hickenlooper has had a lucky run since 2003,” said Floyd Ciruli, the director of the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Denver. “Last year was a bust; this year may be worse.”

Earlier in the day, Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and a national GOP committee debuted attack ads against Hickenlooper. The ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee that highlighted the ethics violations ran during the 90-minute debate hosted by Denver7, Colorado Public Radio and The Denver Post.

Hickenlooper accused Republicans of interfering in the Democratic primary to help Romanoff, a lesser-known challenger who served as state House speaker and is running on a progressive platform aligned with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The reason Republicans are spending money attacking his campaign, Hickenlooper said, “is not because they want to run against me. It’s because they don’t want to run against me — they want to run against Andrew.”

Romanoff made the case that Hickenlooper’s mistakes make him vulnerable in the November election and any Democratic candidate can beat Gardner based on the incumbent’s poor polling numbers. He also noted Hickenlooper’s repeated assertions prior to his bid that he’s not cut out for the Senate and doesn’t want the job.

Turning to his campaign, Romanoff said he went statewide to help elect the first back-to-back Democratic majorities in the state House, culminating in him being named the chamber’s leader for four years starting in 2005.

YouTube video

Moreover, he made the case that he represents a clear difference from Gardner with his support for government-paid health insurance through “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal proposal to address climate change and a commitment to address racism and police brutality. 

Hickenlooper and Gardner oppose those health care and climate change plans, and both are offering more incremental reforms in other areas.

“I’ve demonstrated a willingness even by running to stand up to my own party,” Romanoff said. “And I think that’s what Coloradans want to know: When the going gets tough are you willing to stand up to your own team when your constituents or your conscience demands it? I’m doing that right now.”

MORE: Where Hickenlooper and Romanoff split on major policies in Democratic U.S. Senate primary

Hickenlooper faces tough questions on race and ethics

The first two debates occurred on video conferencing platforms to address public health concerns amid the pandemic, but the two candidates agreed to appear in-person for the last scheduled TV debate and stood at lecterns at least 6 feet apart. 

Hickenlooper faced new questions about whether he is out of touch with the national conversation on race after a video from 2014 surfaced Monday showing him comparing politicians to slaves being whipped while rowing “an ancient slave ship.” 

The same day, Tay Anderson, a black member of the Denver school board and one of the recent protest leaders, released a video on social media that endorsed Romanoff and attacked Hickenlooper for a “culture of policing” that targeted people of color during his two terms as Denver mayor in the 2000s.

Hickenlooper said the 2014 remarks “caused pain and I deeply regret them and I apologize for them.” But he stopped short of expressing remorse for a prior comment that Black Lives Matter means the same as “every life matters” and his record as mayor, where he added accountability measures but still pursued an approach that led to a crackdown on minor crimes.

He defended his work as mayor to add greater accountability to the Denver police department but acknowledged he could have done more.

When it came to his ethics violations for accepting rides on a private plane and luxury limousine paid for by corporations, Hickenlooper continued to defend his actions, saying he was merely traveling the world selling Colorado. 

He faced a question for the second straight debate about why he defied a subpoena to testify at a video conference hearing before the state’s independent ethics commission and whether he considered himself above the law. 

MORE: What you need to know about the ethics complaint against John Hickenlooper, explained in 6 questions

Pressed on the fact that criminal defendants are facing virtual court proceedings, Hickenlooper said he “wasn’t intentionally trying to play by a different set of rules” and suggested it was “a fair point.”

“I certainly regret having caused the disruption,” he said.

Romanoff interjected that Republicans can’t “attack me for breaking the state ethics laws because I didn’t and I didn’t defy a subpoena and I didn’t get held in contempt.”

Corporate gifts and other issues trip Hickenlooper

On another question, Hickenlooper also defended his administration’s practice of accepting corporate money to pay for its initiatives — including from the oil and gas industry — which were first reported last week by The Colorado Sun and CBS4. He suggested the money was transparent, saying each donor was reported and recognized in news releases, which is not true.

EXPLORE: Where John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff stand on dozens of issues in the Democratic Senate race

He also defended the initiatives, such as a bike ride in rural Colorado sponsored in part by The Denver Post and a program to give preschool students free books, as “essential programs.”

A grab-bag of other topics also put Hickenlooper on the edge. He previously said he supported reparations for African Americans, but he added a new qualifier saying that he supports federal legislation to study the topic, saying only “there would have to be some sort of reparations.” Romanoff supports them.

On the Electoral College, which faces a test in Colorado in the November election, Hickenlooper said he supports an alternative method to name the president through “the national popular vote.” 

That’s contrary to what he told The Sun in March 2019, when he defended the Electoral College, saying “our Founding Fathers got things pretty right. It might be best to just stay right where we are.”

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