AURORA — When Suzanne Staiert knocks on doors and asks voters about their top-of-mind issues as part of her statehouse campaign, the response these days usually has something to do with the state of the economy or the reopening of schools.
What all the concerns have in common: coronavirus.
“Some of them want to know what kind of solutions you have,” said Staiert, a Republican running to represent Denver’s southern suburbs in the state Senate.
As Colorado enters month seven of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the election less than 60 days away, coronavirus is increasingly becoming a political issue.
In a recent survey sponsored by the Colorado Health Foundation, 26% of Coloradans said coronavirus is the most important issue facing the state. About three quarters said they are extremely or very worried by pandemic-related harm to the economy compared with 53% who said they are extremely or very worried about illness and death caused by COVID-19.
Nearly 40% of Coloradans polled said they are worried they won’t be able to afford either housing, health insurance or food in the coming year.
Nowhere has coronavirus taken a larger election-year role than in Colorado’s marquee U.S. Senate race, where the two candidates have been running competing television and digital ads and hosting events centered on the pandemic. Both incumbent Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat John Hickenlooper have pitched themself as best positioned to respond to the pandemic.
Hickenlooper, Colorado’s former governor, considers COVID-19 to be among the top three or four issues in the campaign. “I keep going around the state and hearing the stories, and people’s lives are upside down,” Hickenlooper told The Colorado Sun.
Which party may benefit from the pandemic’s disruptions, however, remains a big question.
Republicans surveyed by The Colorado Sun contend that as long as the economic impacts of COVID-19 remain a bigger focus on voters’ minds than rising infection rates and fatalities, they can appeal to voters by pitching themselves as the party of a recovering economy.
Democrats say they can speak to voters either way by pointing to President Donald Trump’s failures in responding to COVID-19 and then painting all Republicans with the same broad brush. That tactic has only been amplified in recent days by revelations that Trump downplayed coronavirus’ seriousness.
A recent poll of 800 registered voters conducted by Global Strategies Group and the liberal organization ProgressNow Colorado found that 58% of Coloradans disapprove of Trump’s handling of coronavirus, including 50% who said they strongly disapprove of his job performance.
Congressional response under scrutiny
In the U.S. Senate race, it’s been a tale of two coronavirus responses.
Gardner is running television and Facebook ads touting his efforts in Congress to help Coloradans through the pandemic. “Cory Gardner got us help,” a restaurateur says in a recent TV spot, referring to the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which was passed unanimously by the Senate.
Hickenlooper’s ads, however, paint a very different picture.
“Cory Gardner’s on vacation,” a narrator says in a video released by the Democratic Senate candidate earlier this month, when the entire Senate was in its regularly scheduled recess, “still silent about Donald Trump’s failures on COVID.”
The tit-for-tat ads come with the backdrop of Congress last week failing, yet again, to pass a new coronavirus relief package. It was June when federal lawmakers last passed legislation to help Americans reeling from the pandemic’s effects, in part because of Republican infighting about how best to move forward.
Add to that a partisan impasse, and it looks like nothing will get done before Election Day, meaning pressure is mounting on incumbents like Gardner. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell nodded to that reality, saying “100% of people that are up and are in any form of danger want a vote and want a successful vote,” according to CNN.
Democrats — including Hickenlooper and Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet — have put Gardner and other Republicans on the spot for not coming up with a relief plan, citing House Democrats’ passage of the $3 trillion HEROES Act in May — legislation that was never taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate.
When the Senate returned to session this week, Republicans in the chamber tried to flip the script by bringing a pared-down relief bill that Democrats blocked, saying it was too weak for consideration.
“We will do more and we should do more,” Gardner said in an exasperated speech on the Senate floor last week before the bill failed. “But why on Earth would you vote no tomorrow and tell the people of this country to go pound sand because you didn’t get everything you wanted?”
Colorado Republicans have worked to paint Hickenlooper as being among the Democrats who would have voted to prevent the limited aid package from moving forward. Hickenlooper never definitely said if he would have rejected the measure, but he said the legislation didn’t “do nearly enough to help Americans who are struggling to put food on the table and pay their bills.”
Hickenlooper would like to see more money for local governments facing the economic effects of the pandemic, rental relief, money for food-assistance programs and funding for more personal protective equipment. That’s in addition to extra unemployment aid for people who have lost their jobs.
Gardner’s wish list isn’t all that different. He would like to see a 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, an extension of extra unemployment benefits and money for education, housing and public health needs. He has also called for $500 billion to be set aside for local governments, as well as relief for rural hospitals, nursing homes and providers treating patients living in the U.S. illegally.
But ultimately Gardner, who is in an uphill battle to keep his job, may be in a more difficult position since he is the incumbent. That has allowed Hickenlooper to pick apart Gardner’s work on coronavirus — which has been praised by Gov. Jared Polis and includes helping secure masks and tests for Colorado — by saying there’s still more to be done. Democrats have also blasted the senator for taking a tough stance on aid negotiations in May and still having nothing to show for it.
“I understand where he’s coming from — you know, ‘I did this and I did that,’ — but I think he’s missing the point,” Hickenlooper said. “People are still suffering. We haven’t done enough or we haven’t done the right things.”
And Gardner is facing backlash from voters, too. The Global Strategies Group/ProgressNow Colorado poll showed that 44% of registered voters disapprove of the job Gardner is doing on coronavirus, while 37% approve.
During a recent telephone town hall, a Denver resident asked Gardner about Trump’s downplaying of coronavirus. “We have to take this seriously. And I certainly am,” the senator said, echoing a line he’s used in recent weeks about Congress doing better in its response every day.
Another caller asked Gardner why he didn’t personally warn the public about the pandemic sooner.
“The second I knew what was happening, we were sounding the alarm,” Gardner said. “And that’s exactly what we have to continue to do.”
“We’re definitely hearing from voters”
On the state level, Republicans see Gov. Jared Polis’ executive orders limiting Coloradans’ movements and the economic consequences of those restrictions as an area where they may be able to tap into people’s frustrations.
Gardner appeared to refer to that frustration during his Senate floor speech last week, talking about a Pueblo restaurant owner who has had difficulty navigating seemingly contradictory pandemic rules.
“They’re trying to figure out and understand the regulations, the guidances that they are under, making sure that their customers are safe, making sure that their employees can be paid, making sure that they survive this and get through this,” Gardner said.
Republican state lawmakers have asked Polis to pump the brakes on his coronavirus restrictions and include the legislature in his decision making. They also asked him to call a special legislative session to help parents navigate schooling during the pandemic and sought more oversight over his emergency powers.
There’s even now an effort to recall the governor over his handling of the pandemic.
Kristi Burton Brown, vice chairman of the Colorado GOP, said she thinks Republicans are providing a way to balance the economy with keeping people healthy and safe.
Colorado Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, said voters recognize the difference between the coronavirus response by Trump and the federal government and the one by Polis and the state. And he says people want more oversight over the governor’s decision-making — which Republicans have been pushing for at the legislative level.
“Constituents, whether they are Republican, Democrats, unaffiliated or something else, continue to ask their legislators: ‘Why aren’t we doing anything? Why aren’t we providing some sort of balance? Why is there only one decision maker?’” Holbert said. “… We’re definitely hearing from voters across the spectrum who want there to be some balance, some separation of power.”
But at the same time some leading Colorado conservatives have been flouting coronavirus rules and guidance.
U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, a Windsor Republican who leads the Colorado GOP, recently released a campaign reelection ad in which he pokes fun at mask-wearing requirements. Patrick Neville, the top Republican in the Colorado House, was an organizer of a mass gathering at Bandimere Speedway criticizing Polis’ response to the pandemic, an event that prompted health officials in Jefferson County to file a lawsuit against the track.
“We have a King Polis,” Neville said at a news conference last week, attacking the governor for not seeking legislative input on his executive orders.
Despite those instances, Burton Brown said events sponsored by the state party follow proper guidelines and are geared toward keeping the virus at bay. “We’re very safe,” she said.
Those apparent contradictions within the Colorado GOP could work against their efforts to sell themselves as the best party to handle the pandemic.
“You’re confusing folks,” said Alvina Vasquez, a veteran Democratic strategist, “and when people get confused, they tune out.”
The polling by Global Strategies Group/ProgressNow Colorado shows the majority of registered Colorado voters think Polis is handling the pandemic well. In fact, 57% said they approve of his job performance when it comes to the pandemic.
When asked whom they trust more to handle the response to coronavirus, 56% said Polis and Colorado state government while just 34% said Trump and the federal government.
FInally, the poll found that among registered voters, 48% trust Democrats in Colorado to handle the health response to the pandemic compared with 37% who said they trust Republicans in Colorado.
As for the economic response to coronavirus, the split is much closer — in fact, it was nearly within the poll’s 3.5% margin of error. Forty-six percent of those polled said they trust Democrats in Colorado to handle the economic response to the pandemic compared with 42% who said they trust Republicans to take on the job.
A significant portion — between 12% and 16% — said they didn’t know which party they trust more to handle the health and economic effects of coronavirus.
And with no end to the pandemic in sight, there’s plenty of time for both parties to jostle to pick up additional support.
Updated on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, at 12:02 p.m.: This story has been updated to add more polling data from the Colorado Health Foundation-sponsored survey.