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U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, left, and former Gov. John Hickenlooper, right, traded barbs in the first U.S. Senate debate in Colorado on Oct. 2, 2020. (Illustration from screenshots)

Republican Cory Gardner hurled attack after attack at his Democratic rival John Hickenlooper, from the opening minutes of the first debate in the U.S. Senate race to his closing statement.

He noted the former governor’s two violations of the state ethics laws, his contempt citation and taxpayer-funded defense attorney, his personal wealth and rides on private jets, his decision to take corporate money to fund positions in his office, his support for closing a coal plant that cost jobs in a rural community and his decision to appoint a donor to the state Supreme Court.

“It’s a very clear contrast between somebody who believes the people of Colorado are first — that’s what I believe — and somebody who believes their own self interests are first and they want to go to Washington to line their own pockets what they’ve done the last eight years as governor,” Gardner said in his opening remarks at a live-streamed debate in Pueblo.

Hickenlooper rolled his eyes, said his opponent was lying and repeatedly dismissed the broadsides as a “wall of words of untruth and distortion” without addressing them.

“Nothing but attacks, accusations,” Hickenlooper said toward the end of the debate. “The question is: Why isn’t Washington working better? Cory’s been there for four years in the House and six in the Senate, and as close as I can tell, it just gets worse and worse and worse. … Until we send new people to Washington nothing is going to change.”

The tone of the hour-long debate mirrored the tenor of the campaign to date as it has played out in a barrage of negative television and online advertising, but this is the first time the two candidates traded barbs in the same room.

Gardner dominated the discussion as the smooth talker speaking directly into the camera except when he assumed the role of moderator and pressed Hickenlooper with questions. The Republican incumbent smiled throughout even as he took a Jekyll and Hyde approach, outlining his major legislative accomplishments — from a major public lands bill to helping secure coronavirus relief and testing supplies — and pairing each of them with an attack on his rival’s record.

Hickenlooper appeared visibly frustrated but often ignored the remarks, refusing to let Gardner pull him into the issues, and remained focused on his vision of working together in bipartisan fashion in Washington. He returned again and again to Gardner’s votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and undermine current protections for people with preexisting medical conditions. And he often highlighted a comment from President Donald Trump that Gardner’s “been with us 100%.”

“What you do: You attack, you attack, you attack. Cory is very slick and very polished. He’s learned a lot in Washington and clearly he’s brought it back to Colorado,” HIckenlooper remarked about his opponent’s style.

The debate is the first of four in a 12-day span. Gardner is hoping to use them to give his campaign a boost and discredit Hickenlooper. The polls show Gardner is closing the gap compared to earlier in the race but he remains behind by an average of 7.8 percentage points, according to The Colorado Sun’s poll tracker.

The debates come at a crucial moment in the campaign — just days before ballots get mailed to voters and a month before Election Day. Hickenlooper is looking to hold his ground as national Democrats consider this seat a must-win if the party has a chance to take control of the U.S. Senate in November.

Hickenlooper’s ethics troubles figure prominently into first debate

Early in the debate, Hickenlooper did take a moment to defend himself against criticism on his ethics violations and decision to refuse a subpoena to appear before Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission. He called the two violations “minor reporting errors” and said they “were inadvertent.”

Hickenlooper was found in violation of the state’s constitutional ban on elected officials accepting gifts when he took a private jet owned by a political donor to a state-sanction event in Connecticut and a ride in a Maserati limousine at an exclusive conference in Italy where he talked about economic development. A conservative organization filed the complaint.

Gardner called attention to the dozens of other questions about private flights the governor took that weren’t investigated by the state’s ethics board because they fell outside the statute of limitations and his state-appointed defense from a 2003 federal relief act. He asked Hickenlooper to refund taxpayers the $150,000 cost of his defense and refute the other allegations in the complaint.

Hickenlooper has refused to do either and he didn’t address the questions in the debate. He did defend accepting millions of dollars from corporations and nonprofits to fund initiatives and positions in his office, saying the money went toward important causes.

“Several years back Gov. Hickenlooper apparently forgot he worked for the people of Colorado,” Gardner said.

“You want to talk about sending new people to Washington,” Gardner said parrying a back Hickenlooper’s line. “If you send new people to Washington with the same bad ideas and bad behavior, you get more of the same.”

The topic of health care gives Hickenlooper the offensive against Gardner

Later in the debate, the topic of health care gave Hickenlooper an opening to talk about his main line of attack on Gardner.

As governor, Hickenlooper supported the expansion of Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s federal health care law and highlighted that it helped provide insurance to thousands in rural Colorado and protected coverage for 2.4 million people in the state who have preexisting conditions.

Gardner opposes the Affordable Care Act and has repeatedly sought to repeal it without offering a comprehensive replacement plan, something Hickenlooper highlighted often. “Cory Gardner ran for Congress 10 years ago based on getting rid of the Affordable Care Act and ran for Senate on the basis of getting rid of the Affordable Care Act, and in those 10 years of trying to get rid of it, where is the replacement? This is complicated stuff, this is people’s lives, and you can’t just smooth it all over,” Hickenlooper said.

On health care, Hickenlooper supports augmenting the current health care system with a public option run through private insurers that moves closer to universal coverage. He sees it as an alternative to single-payer health care but also a way to move closer to such a system in the future.

Gardner said a public option plan takes the U.S. in the wrong direction and he worried about whether it would hurt rural hospitals that would potentially face lower reimbursement rates for their services. 

He also trumpeted his bill to protect preexisting conditions despite numerous independent analysis showing that it would not do so. “My mom has a preexisting condition,” Gardner said, invoking a subject of his campaign ads. “She is a cancer survivor. She fought hard to overcome and she did.”

Hickenlooper called the legislation “the cruelest lie of all is the fact that Cory Gardner is going to sit here and say he has a plan that’s going to protect preexisting conditions.”

“The problem is Cory Gardner is not just lying to all of you watching this debate, he’s lying to 2.4 million Coloradans,” Hickenlooper said. “That bill has 117 words in it. It does nothing to say that insurance companies have to take people with preexisting conditions on. Every expert can riddle the multiple holes. It’s almost like Swiss cheese.”

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