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Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, right, and Democratic rival John Hickenlooper, left, participate in the final debate in the 2020 contest for U.S. Senate. The debate was held at Colorado State University in Fort Collins on Oct. 13, 2020. (Bethany Baker, The Coloradoan/Pool photo)

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner said he believes the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade protecting a woman’s right to an abortion and a ruling affirming a same-sex couple’s right to marriage are settled law.

“Both cases are settled law … and that precedent should be respected,” Gardner said.

The Republican incumbent’s comments in the final U.S. Senate debate Tuesday came even as he labeled himself “pro-life” and expressed support for a 2020 ballot measure in Colorado that limits abortions by prohibiting the procedure after 22 weeks of pregnancy.

His Democratic rival, John Hickenlooper, once again refused to directly answer a question about whether he supported expanding the size of the Supreme Court to lessen the influence of Republican appointees. The former governor previously said he was “open” to the move but allowed that he’s not a fan of the concept. “I don’t like the idea of court packing,” he said.

“I think if you get new people in Washington, you won’t have to do that kind of institutional change,” he added.

The debate’s focus on the Supreme Court came the same day that President Donald Trump’s nominee to the high court, Amy Coney Barrett, faced questions about her views on abortion and court precedents at a confirmation hearing in Washington. 

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Gardner supports the Republican-led U.S. Senate’s efforts to fill the court vacancy days before the election, despite the fact that he took the opposite stance when President Barack Obama nominated a pick in 2016. Hickenlooper said the chamber’s leaders should instead focus on passing additional coronavirus relief and economic stimulus legislation, rather than working to “rush through this Supreme Court nomination.”

The two candidates delineated clear differences on a range of issues in the hour-long televised debate hosted by 9News, Colorado Politics and The Coloradoan at the Colorado State University campus in Fort Collins. 

The contest is key to determining which party will control the U.S. Senate, and earlier in the day, a newly released Morning Consult poll showed that Hickenlooper held a 10 percentage point advantage against Gardner, 50% to 40%, according to the survey conducted Oct. 2-11.

A month ago, just before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, a poll from Morning Consult found the race at a statistical tie with Hickenlooper at 46% and Gardner at 44%. But the newer numbers show Ginsburg’s death only galvanized support for the Democrat. 

POLL TRACKER: How Cory Gardner and John Hickenlooper are polling in the 2020 U.S. Senate election

Jessica Taylor, a national analyst at the Cook Political Report, said Ginsburg’s death and the Supreme Court vacancy “sends people to their partisan corners.” She said the abortion issue is one that positions Gardner “really far and away from where Colorado voters are.”

“Clearly Colorado is a state that is moving away from Republicans — we saw that in 2018 and 2016 as well, and on social issues it’s far more progressive,” said Taylor, who spoke at an election forum hosted by the University of Denver’s Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research ahead of the debate.

Here’s a look at the other battle lines in from the final debate before the Nov. 3 election: 

Coronavirus and stalemate on a federal relief package is central focus

The debate began with Gardner and Hickenlooper tussling over coronavirus and the federal response to the pandemic. 

Hickenlooper accused Gardner of not making the passage of a new stimulus package a priority, instead focusing on pushing through Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. “Cory can just say I will not vote to support this thing — this Supreme Court nominee — if indeed the relief act doesn’t get passed first,” he said. 

Then Gardner criticized Hickenlooper for not supporting a scaled-back aid bill put forward by Senate Republican leaders last month. “We can’t afford to have someone who refuses to support the people of Colorado in the Senate,” Gardner said. 

Hickenlooper has said the legislation didn’t go far enough and wasn’t a real effort at helping Americans weather COVID-19. But then he said he supported a scaled-back bill not loaded down with partisan amendments, saying Republicans and Democrats are at fault for the gridlock.

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“Certainly, if I was in Washington, I would do everything I can to make sure there was a sufficient process to get a lean bill to put forward,” he said.

Gardner also accused Hickenlooper of leaving Colorado unprepared to deal with the pandemic by not stockpiling personal protective equipment and medical devices, like ventilators. But Gov. Jared Polis has blamed Colorado’s initial struggles with the pandemic and its shortages on a lack of federal aid and guidance, not his predecessor. 

Hickenlooper, meanwhile, called the accusations “ridiculous.”

A pandemic simulation run in 2017, when Hickenlooper was governor, showed deficiencies, but mostly surrounding communication. In August 2019, under Polis, another exercise was run that in retrospect showed that neither Colorado, nor the rest of the country, was ready for a virus that a test wasn’t available for and that hit the nation and globe all at once.

Later, Hickenlooper attacked Gardner for joining Trump at a crowded rally in Colorado Springs on Feb. 20 despite the fact that the senator was raising concerns about the coronavirus and demanding hearings in Washington. “As you stood side by side with Donald Trump, you didn’t warn anyone,” Hickenlooper said.

Gardner pointed to his early inquiries about coronavirus, but said Trump didn’t warn him about the fact that COVID-19 was so deadly, transmissible by air and far worse than influenza, as he told Washington Post reporter Bob Wooward on Feb. 7.

“I don’t know what he knew or didn’t know,” Gardner said of Trump. “I certainly wish that we would have had all of the information at the very beginning of this.” 

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, participates in the final debate at Colorado State University in Fort Collins on Oct. 13, 2020. (Bethany Baker, The Coloradoan/Pool photo)

The candidates sparred over how to address climate change 

The most pointed exchange in the debate came on a series of questions about oil and gas drilling and the environment, an issue where both candidates have different records than the ones they tout in campaign advertisements.

Hickenlooper’s plan calls for 100% renewable energy, and earlier this year he said he wants to make fracking obsolete. 

Gardner said that would lead to thousands of layoffs in the oil and gas industry. He said he opposed other measures on climate change because “the number of jobs that they would cost are too high.” 

“I don’t think we have to punish our economy in order to achieve  reductions in pollution and to address climate change,” Gardner added.

When Gardner touted his legislation to fund land and water conservation programs, Hickenooper came ready with a retort: “Just because you have one environmental bill doesn’t make you an environmentalist,” he said.

As a former geologist, Hickenlooper said he always knew climate change had “the potential to be an existential threat” but he avoided a question about why he drank fracking fluid and his vocal support for the industry as governor.

Gardner replied with his own jab about his reversal and new embrace of tougher regulations on the industry: “He may have drank the fracking fluid but he’s also drank the Kool Aid now,” he said.

Gardner’s support for Donald Trump continues to raise questions

In his successful 2014 bid, Gardner proclaimed that “when my party’s wrong, I’ll say it.” But his repeated silence on Trump’s controversial actions and statements led to a question of whether he broke the promise or agreed with the president.

Gardner didn’t answer directly. But he pointed to his legislative accomplishments as evidence he can work with Democrats and the Trump administration.

Elsewhere in the debate, more questions about Trump put Gardner in the spotlight. Gardner said he believes Trump is a “moral and ethical man” but said he could communicate better with the American people. Hickenlooper said Trump is not moral or ethical.

Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner addresses a question in the final debate of Colorado’s U.S. Senate race at Colorado State University in Fort Collins on Oct. 13, 2020. (Bethany Baker, The Coloradoan/Pool photo)

On a question about the president’s ambiguous statements about accepting the election results, Gardner was direct: “The president should be crystal clear. … There will be a peaceful transition of power,” he said.

In regards to the QAnon conspiracy promoted by the president, Gardner replied: “I don’t believe in QAnon, and yes, I believe they are a threat.”

A clash of views on guns and the need for more regulations

The candidates also spent part of the debate discussing gun control, with Hickenlooper defending his record of passing legislation in 2013 tightening regulations around firearms and Gardner accusing him of trying to infringe on people’s rights. 

“I stand by my record on gun safety,” Hickenlooper said. “We were the first purple state to actually roll up our sleeves and actually pass universal background checks. To this day, Cory Gardner — Mitch McConnell — don’t think universal background checks really work.”

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Hickenlooper sidestepped a question about the firestorm that erupted in 2014 when a video surfaced of him telling county sheriffs that he didn’t think legislation banning gun magazines that carry more than 15 bullets would pass. He told the sheriffs that he signed the measure because one of his staffers committed the governor’s office to supporting it.

In the debate, Hickenlooper said he had always intended that bill to pass a year later than it did “for a variety of reasons,” though he didn’t elaborate.

The former governor attacked Gardner for receiving nearly $4 million in support from the National Rifle Association and for not backing gun regulations aimed at making firearms more safe.

MORE: Gun-control groups see Colorado’s U.S. Senate race as a big opportunity. But it’s complicated.

“I support our Second Amendment and I believe we have laws in place that need to be enforced,” Gardner said. “But I don’t think when it comes to prohibiting a sale between a father and a son — interfering at that level — that that’s a good thing for our country.”

Gardner slammed Hickenlooper for supporting a national gun licensure policy, as he did in his ill-fated presidential campaign. Hickenlooper still backs the policy, but it’s not a part of his Senate priorities.

“What he’s saying here is different than what he actually wants to do in Washington,” Gardner said. “It’s this two John Hickenloopers.”

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....

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