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The U.S. Senate debate between Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, right, and Democratic former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper took place at the Denver7 studio in Denver, Colorado on Friday, October 9, 2020. (Pool photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Republican incumbent Cory Gardner and Democrat John Hickenlooper faced off in the third of four U.S. Senate debates on Friday, hours after Colorado elections officials began mailing ballots to voters across the state. 

The 90-minute faceoff, hosted by Denver7, The Denver Post and Colorado Public Radio, covered many expected topics: health care, immigration, Hickenlooper’s ethics violations and Gardner’s close ties to President Donald Trump. 

But the two candidates in one of the nation’s most-watched contests this year also delved into some new territory. At times, both Gardner and Hickenlooper, Colorado’s former governor, evaded a number of tough questions, too. 

Here are seven big takeaways from the debate:

Gardner on the offensive, swinging harder

Gardner, who polls have consistently shown is trailing Hickenlooper in the Senate race, used  the first two debates to take verbal swings at Hickenlooper. Friday was no different, though Gardner seemed to be swinging harder, using a great deal of his time to press his opponent and attack him. 

It makes sense: Part of Gardner’s plan to close the gap with Hickenlooper is to use the debates to show a clear contrast. And time is running out with Election Day only about three weeks away.

“You can’t trust John Hicknelooper,” Gardner said, pointing to Hickenlooper’s ethics violations

Gardner also tried to paint Hickenlooper as self-centered. “It’s all about you and it’s got to stop,” he said at one point. 

EARLIER: The next four weeks will determine if Cory Gardner keeps his job. Here’s how he plans to shift the tide.

But Hickenlooper never really engaged, brushing off the attacks and saying Gardner was only going on the offensive because he is trailing and has a record he can’t defend. “I don’t think it’s going to stop at any point,” he said.

Hickenlooper added that he thinks Coloradans will “see right through” Gardner’s attacks.

“He knows his allegations really don’t carry much water,” Hickenlooper said. “… To distort statistics is really never going to get us anywhere.”

Gardner accused Hickenlooper of running the most negative campaign of his political career since the former governor has, for the first time, run attack ads. Hickenlooper said he felt he had to go negative because of all the money being spent against him.

Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner at the Denver7 studio in Denver on Friday. (Pool photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Making coronavirus relief happen, and fast

Hickenlooper and Gardner didn’t see eye to eye on much during their debate, but both men agreed that Congress should work quickly to pass a coronavirus relief bill for Americans struggling financially. 

But that’s about where the consensus ended. 

Hickenlooper attacked Gardner for being tied to President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis, saying the senator is part of a “status quo that doesn’t get things done.” 

“President Trump, from the very beginning, his negligence in identifying the real challenge and the risk of COVID-19 and then the incompetence of the response once they finally owned up to it — that has made our consequences more severe than any industrialized — or pretty much any industrialized — country in the world. Our economy is upside down and we still can’t get additional relief.”

Gardner declined to answer a direct question about whether he is proud of the Republican response to the pandemic, instead saying that “we have to improve our work each and every day.”

MORE: Health care, the environment, coronavirus: How the pandemic has become a top election-year issue in Colorado

Gardner attacked Hickenlooper for not supporting a Republican relief package in September that did not advance in the Senate after Democrats complained it didn’t do enough. The package came after months of GOP infighting that stalled progress on any new legislation. 

“He believes it’s more important to play politics than providing relief for the people of this state,” Gardner said. “… The relief that the American people need was on the floor with more coming just a few weeks ago.”

Hickenlooper never definitively said if he would have rejected the measure, but he contended that the legislation didn’t “do nearly enough to help Americans who are struggling to put food on the table and pay their bills.” Also, it was Trump who just this week shut down negotiations on a new COVID-19 relief package, urging the Senate to focus instead on pushing through his new Supreme Court nominee. 

Both Hickenlooper and Gardner said they oppose a national mask-wearing mandate, something Democrat Joe Biden has called for on the presidential campaign trail. Hickenlooper said he would favor shutting Colorado back down if the state’s positive coronavirus test rate exceeds 5%, while Gardner said he would be opposed. 

Democratic former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at the Denver7 studio on Friday. (Pool photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Hickenlooper’s record on appointing judges

Hickenlooper was pressed over his record as governor of appointing judges. Specifically, he was asked about Ryan Kamada, a Weld County District Court judge placed on the bench by Hickenlooper in 2018, who recently pleaded guilty to obstructing an investigation into a cocaine trafficking ring.

Hickenlooper defended himself by explaining that a bipartisan commission chooses nominees for the governor to decide from. “We had a team of people that would go through and vet them.” he said. “I don’t know — I don’t remember Judge Kamada. Certainly, based on the evidence we’ve seen, he shouldn’t be a judge.”

Gardner quipped that “there were three nominees that were put forward and Gov. Hickenlooper chose the one who covered up a cocaine ring.”

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Gardner also attacked Hickenlooper for appointing a Colorado Supreme Court justice toward the end of his gubernatorial tenure since Hickenlooper is now blasting Gardner for supporting a U.S. Supreme Court replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg so close to Election Day. (More on that below.)

Hickenlooper appointed Judge Carlos Samour Jr. to the panel in late May 2018, months before that year’s gubernatorial election. Colorado’s system for appointing Colorado Supreme Court justices is much different than the one used for the U.S. Supreme Court. A commission sends a list of recommendations to the governor, who then picks a justice. There is no legislative approval as there is on the federal level. 

Finally, Gardner attacked Hicknelooper for appointing judges who supported his political campaigns financially. Colorado Supreme Court Justice Melissa Hart, a Hickenlooper appointee, did give to Hickenlooper’s gubernatorial campaigns before she was selected as a jurist and he supported her when she ran for University of Colorado regent.

Gardner on Trump

Gardner was pressed on his relationship with the president and provided some new information on why he vowed never to support Trump when he was running for the job in 2016 but is now endorsing his 2020 reelection bid. 

“I didn’t think Donald Trump could win in 2016,” Gardner said plainly when asked about his change of heart. 

In October 2016, after a previously unreleased Access Hollywood video of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women was revealed, Gardner released a statement saying, “I cannot and will not support someone who brags about degrading and assaulting women.” Gardner’s staffers have said the senator wrote in Vice President Mike Pence’s name on the ballot that year.

Cory Gardner embraces President Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the World Arena in Colorado Springs on Feb. 20, 2020. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Gardner declined to directly answer whether he is proud of his support of the president nor a question about whether he thinks Coloradans support his overwhelming allegiance to the president on policy and nominations. 

“I’m proud of the work that we have done together,” Gardner said, citing the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, the Bureau of Land Management’s controversial relocation to Grand Junction and the decision to make Space Command’s headquarters in Colorado Springs. 

MORE: Colorado doesn’t appear to be a presidential swing state in 2020. That could spell big trouble for Cory Gardner.

Gardner split with the president in two key ways during the debate: He said Trump should release his tax returns (which the president has refused to do) and he condemned white supremacist groups.

When asked if he thinks Trump’s words have inspired domestic terrorism, however, Gardner replied: “I sure hope not. No.”

Gardner also differed from the president by saying that he would absolutely accept the results of the presidential election. Trump has not committed to doing so. 

Abortion and contraception 

The moderators pressed Hickenlooper and Gardner on their views on abortion, which has become a bigger election year issue with the possibility of a conservative U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.

Gardner described himself as a “pro-life candidate” and said he supports a question on Colorado’s November ballot that would ban abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy. 

Hickenlooper said he opposes the initiative, Proposition 115. “I believe a woman has a basic right to control her own body and to decide the health care that she receives,” he said.

Proposition 115 explained: Colorado’s broad access to abortion would be scaled back under ballot measure

Gardner added that he thinks the politicization around abortion should end, pointing to his efforts to pass legislation allowing women to access birth-control pills over the counter at pharmacies.

Hickenlooper said that’s not nearly enough.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at a “car rally” at Denver East High School on Thursday. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“That doesn’t, in any way, lower the cost of birth control, which for many people is prohibitively expensive,” Hickenlooper said. “(And) by making it over the counter, it means that the women who are getting coverage through Medicaid can no longer get that birth control. It’s taking the choice away from women rather than expanding their options.”

Some state Medicaid programs cover over-the-counter contraception without a prescription, though most require a prescription for coverage of over-the-counter methods, like emergency contraception, according to the Oral Contraceptives Over-the-Counter Working Group.

Gardner’s unanswered questions

Gardner danced around several key questions during the debate. 

Namely, he declined to engage with a question about whether William Perry Pendley, whom Trump nominated to lead the Bureau of Land Management before reversing course, should still be in a leadership position at the agency. He currently serves as BLM’s deputy director of policy and programs.

“He hasn’t been confirmed,” Gardner said. 

That did not answer the question, however, continuing a trend of Gardner refusing to discuss Pendley, whose record has been criticized by environmental groups. A federal judge ruled last month that Pendley served unlawfully as the acting head of BLM for 424 days without being confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner at the Denver7 studio on Friday. (Pool poto by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Gardner also declined to provide details on a specific health care plan to replace the Affordable Care Act should it be unwound by the U.S. Supreme Court when it goes before the panel later this year. 

Finally, Gardner did not provide a clear answer on why he reversed himself after saying in 2016, following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, that the Senate should put off confirming judges when a presidential election was so near. Gardner now supports the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“We will follow and oblige our advise-and-consent requirements in the constitution,” Gardner said. 

Hickenlooper’s unanswered questions

Hickenlooper’s biggest dodge of the night came on the question of whether or not he supports expanding the U.S. Supreme Court. Pressed repeatedly by the moderators and Gardner, he declined to offer a clear answer. 

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Hickenlooper said of so-called court packing. “I continue to have hope that there are enough Republican incumbents running for Senate that they — when the bright lights are turned up and they recognize that their vote is going to violate the will of the American people — that this is not the time. I don’t think that Amy Coney Barrett is going to be approved.”

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at the Denver7 studio on Friday. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Pressed by The Colorado Sun recently, Hickenlooper also refused to answer questions about expanding the panel beyond its current 9-judge set up.

When he was running for president, however, Hickenlooper said he was “open” to the idea of expanding the Supreme Court. 

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....