FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Colorado's U.S. Senate race is one of the most closely-watched in the country. Democrats see it as an opportunity to gain a seat, while Republicans are fighting to keep their slim majority, which currently stands at 53-47.
Republican incumbent Cory Gardner is trying to hold off a challenge from Democrat John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado and mayor of Denver.
The two candidates met Tuesday night at Colorado State University for "Race for the Senate," a debate presented by Next and moderated by anchor Kyle Clark and political reporter Marshall Zelinger. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no audience. Both the candidates and moderators were six feet apart.
Here’s a look at some candidate responses to specific topics as well as videos of their answers. Watch the full debate in the video player above.
The general election is on Nov. 3.
Question: “What is the single most important thing we can do to improve our pandemic response and what or who is standing in the way?”
Gardner advocated for a relief package from the U.S. Congress that includes support for unemployment benefits including vaccines, childcare, education, small businesses and PPP loans.
“We also need to follow our social distancing guidance and make sure people are practicing good hygiene and wearing a mask,” Gardner said.
Hickenlooper also said Congress needs to pass a COVID-19 relief bill, and that it should take precedence over current efforts to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“If COVID relief is the most important thing, Cory can just say ‘I will not vote to support this Supreme Court nominee,’” Hickenlooper said.
Question: “We're here in Northern Colorado where the JBS meatpacking plant saw one of the state's largest COVID-19 outbreaks. Mr. Gardner, you bragged about getting 5,000 tests for JBS workers. Union leaders say the tests never arrived. JBS also didn't test all its workers before reopening, as it had promised. Mr. Gardner, JBS is a significant donor to your campaign. Did that company properly protect its workers and did you deliver the 5,000 tests you promised?”
In his response, Gardner called the people who work at JBS “heroes” and said he worked “closely with [Gov. Jared Polis] to make sure they had the tests they needed.”
He punted the question to Hickenlooper and accused him of failing to stockpile personal protective equipment (PPE) for the state while he was governor.
Hickenlooper denied this particular accusation, before saying that he spoke to JBS workers who claimed the company was not testing them and they were forced to return to work.
“I think that’s a question of willful negligence,” Hickenlooper said.
Question: Should Democrats stop adding other things to the stimulus?
Hickenlooper responded by saying that more people in Washington need to “actually negotiate” and that recent discussions have been frustrating.
When pressed for a direct answer to the question, Hickenlooper said, “If I was in Washington I would make sure there’s an efficient process to get a lean bill to put forward.”
Question: "Mr. Gardner, at the time of the February 2020 rally when you were shoulder-to-shoulder with Trump, we now know thanks to journalist Bob Woodward that Trump knew it was serious. Did Trump say if he knew all those things while you stood next to him?"
Gardner said that he was not aware of the severity of the virus, and accused China and the World Health Organization of lying at the time.
"I don't know what he knew or didn't know," Gardner said. "I sure wish that we had all the information at the beginning of this."
Question: “The percentage of Black and Latino Coloradans without health insurance plummeted by about half with the expansion of Medicaid coverage and the Affordable Care Act.
Mr. Gardner: if you succeed in getting rid of the Affordable Care Act, the loss of health insurance would disproportionately fall on Black and Latino Coloradans at the same time that the pandemic is impacting those communities harder than others. Has that given you any pause about your long-standing goal to end ACA coverage?”
Gardner said he doesn’t believe “this has to be a zero-sum game” and that his healthcare plan would be “patient-focused.”
Hickenlooper said he would work on a plan to improve the ACA.
During a follow-up question, Gardner also said that he had written legislation that would protect people with preexisting conditions.
Ethics and honesty
Question: “Mr. Hickenlooper, you were the first person held in contempt by Colorado's Independent Ethics Commission, which found you broke the law in accepting illegal gifts. You blamed Republicans. You misleadingly claimed you were exonerated on dozens of allegations. And you told Marshall that journalists should be protecting you on this. Do you regret breaking the law and will you change your behavior if returned to elected office?”
Hickenlooper said he recognized the ethics commission found him in violation of two counts and called them “relatively minor.”
He blamed the allegations on a “dark money Republican organization” whose “sole purpose was to create material for attack ads.”
“I paid the $2,800 fine, I take responsibility for that, I will make sure it never happens again,” Hickenlooper said.
Question from Ernest Lunning, Colorado Politics: “Governor, you've been endorsed by all the leading gun safety organizations who point to legislation you signed in 2013, but after signing those bills you told Colorado sheriffs that you didn't expect the magazine ban to be so controversial, and that you only signed it because a staff member had committed you. Saying one thing publicly and then privately saying the opposite, that's something you accuse Senator Gardner of doing. How are you any different?"
Hickenlooper did not directly answer the question, saying instead that he stands by the measure on gun safety and that the U.S. should adopt measures as strict as Colorado's.
When pressed by moderator Zelinger on an investigation while found high-capacity gun magazines were still accessible in Colorado, Hickenlooper said “oftentimes when laws are passed, it takes a while for them to become the norm.”
Question: "Mr. Hickenlooper, you've been the boss in previous elected roles and in the private sector. That's one of the reasons you gave for not wanting to be a Senator and not thinking you'd be good at it. You're asking voters to pick you for a six-year job. That's a long time to be testing out whether or not it's really something you can handle. When's the last job you had that you weren't the executive?"
Hickenlooper said his last job where he wasn't a boss was as a geologist in the 1980s. That was before he said he started Wynkoop in downtown Denver, and that "as a small business owner I was an optimist, a problem solver, I only did that by bringing the whole team together."
Gardner responded by saying that as a senator, "it's the people of Colorado and this state who are in charge of this position."
"I work for the people of Colorado, we work for the people of our country," Gardner said.
The Supreme Court
Question: “Mr. Gardner, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died 46 days before Election Day. Four years ago, Justice Antonin Scalia died 269 days before the election. Four years ago, you said ‘our next election is too soon and the stakes are too high; the American people deserve a role in this process.’ Now, you're OK with a vote on the nominee. My question isn't about the Supreme Court. Why should anyone trust that you'll stand by whatever you tell us tonight?”
Gardner said he was discussing the Senate’s ability to “lay down the precedent laid out since the 1880s and the Constitution.”
He then directed the question toward allegations that Democrats intend to pack the court.
Question: “Do you support packing the Supreme Court?”
Hickenlooper said he does not support the concept of court-packing and that “we’re seeing it right now.”
During follow-up questions, he said he does not currently support term limits for justices, doesn’t know if lower-court justices should be rotated onto the Supreme Court and that he hasn’t delved into whether lower-courts should be expanded to reshape the judiciary.
Question: “President Trump's choice for the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, could create a majority to overturn Roe vs. Wade, taking away abortion rights. And last week, conservative justices on the court suggested gay marriage should also be overturned. Mr. Gardner, are those outcomes you're comfortable with?”
Gardner called both cases “settled law” and said that “precedent should be respected.”
He turned the conversation back toward court-packing, asking Hickenlooper if he supports adding justices to the Supreme Court.
Question: “Mr. Hickenlooper, during your term as Denver mayor from 2003 to 2011, Denver City Council approved more than $6 million to settle use of force cases or deaths with law enforcement. Settlements and incidents that have continued since. How will you be able to reform these problems as Senator when you weren't able to as mayor or even governor?”
During his answer, Hickenlooper touted Colorado’s state legislation, saying that it “should be a model for what we do nationally.” This happened after his term as both governor and Denver mayor.
“These are the type of reforms that need to go to Washington instead of just suggestions,” he said.
Question: “Mr. Gardner, how do you believe systemic racism affects Coloradans and what have you done about it?”
Gardner said souls are across the country were “seared” watching the murder of George Floyd. He advocated for passing the Justice Act.
Question from Jacy Marmaduke, the Fort Collins Coloradoan: “Mr. Gardner: We're continuing to see climate change impact Colorado in the form of devastating wildfires, record heat and intensifying drought. You've represented yourself as an environmental advocate in recent campaign ads, but over the last three years, you've voted to repeal limits on greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuel industry and confirm former fossil industry lobbyists as leaders of the EPA and Department of the Interior. Why have you voted against climate action in the Senate even as climate change takes a toll on your state?”
In his response, Gardner touted the Great American Outdoors Act, and said he also passed a bill to increase funding to the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden. He turned the conversation toward Hickenlooper, saying that his policy would “destroy the livelihood” of thousands of Coloradans in the energy industry.
“I don’t think we have to punish our economy in order to address climate change,” Gardner said.
Hickenlooper countered Gardner, saying “just because you have one environmental bill does not make you an environmentalist.”
He alleged that green energy jobs will make up for jobs lost in the oil and gas sector.
Question from Jacy Markmaduke, the Fort Collins Coloradoan: “Mr. Hickenlooper, you've been criticized for your record on oil and gas in particular, supporting the industry during your tenure as governor and even drinking fracking fluid at one point. Now you're pushing for 100% renewable electricity. Why has your position on oil and gas drilling changed, and why should voters who care about climate change trust that you'll follow through on your platform?”
Hickenlooper said that he was “always focused on climate change” and that when he was in college, he saw what was known as the “greenhouse effect” was an existential threat.
In his rebuttal, Gardner said that Hickenlooper “drank the fracking fluid but he’s also drank the Kool-Aid now.”
Question: “Mr. Gardner, your signature promise when you were elected was, quote, ‘When my party is wrong, I'll say it.’ Democrats point to your unwavering loyalty to President Trump and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as breaking that promise - but there's another way to look at it. The promise holds if the reason you rarely break with President Trump and Mitch McConnell is because you almost always believe they're right. Could you talk about how you view your pledge and whether you've kept it?
Gardner’s response was that he’s fought his party on immigration, marijuana legalization and conservation, and that he’s listed as the third most bipartisan member of Congress.
“I am sure that not every Democrat in the state including John Hickenlooper is happy with my record, probably because Gardner ends in ‘R,’” he said.
Question from Ernest Luning, Colorado Politics: “Senator, President Trump several times has refused to commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power after the election. At last week's debate, Vice President Mike Pence also wouldn't say whether he will accept a peaceful transfer of power. As we saw, here in Denver over the weekend, things in this country are at a boiling point. First, are you OK with a president you're endorsing being anything less than clear on this question. And second, win or lose, what concrete steps will you take to make sure there is a peaceful transfer of power at the White House?"
Gardner said that “there will be a peaceful transfer of power” and referred to it as a hallmark of democracy.
“We will follow the Constitution, we will follow the law,” Gardner said.
Technology and social media
Question: “Mr. Hickenlooper, you supported bringing Amazon's second headquarters to Colorado. Do America's big tech companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook stifle competition? Do you see the need for any specific additional regulation?”
Hickenlooper said these “behemoth companies” have to be much more responsive to our communities and that they “try to inhibit entrepreneurs from starting businesses.”
While answering a follow-up question, Hickenlooper said that large companies removing speech shouldn’t be discussed lightly.
“That said, we have to have some sort of confidence in the media where we’re getting our news, that we’re getting real facts, and I think we’re well past the time where Facebook, these behemoth companies have to be responsible,” Hickenlooper said.
Question: “Last week Facebook cracked down on QAnon conspiracy. You have campaigned alongside Lauren Boebert, who has expressed support for the conspiracy. QAnon is the theory that President Trump will round up Democrats for eating babies. Do you share the FBI’s view that QAnon is a domestic terror threat?
Gardner said that he does not believe and QAnon and that he believes it is a threat, but that he also believes Boebert for saying she doesn’t believe in the conspiracy either.
“The bottom line is extremism isn’t something we should address in this country, there’s no room for white supremacy, there’s not room for extremism,” Gardner said. “We also can’t allow our big tech companies to stifle legitimate speech whether it’s on the left or the right.”
Yes or No Questions
The candidates were asked to give yes or no answers regarding whether they support issues on the Colorado ballot. Here were their answers.
Amendment B (Gallagher Amendment repeal)
Colorado Proposition 115 (Prohibit abortions after 22 weeks)
Proposition 113 (National Popular Vote)
Proposition 118 (Paid Family Medical Leave)
The moderators asked the candidates two additional yes or no questions. One was if they believe their opponent is a moral and ethical man. While Hickenlooper answered “yes” Gardner responded to the “yes or no” question by saying he had concerns about Hickenlooper’s ethics violations.
In another question, the candidates were asked whether they believe President Trump is a moral and ethical man. Hickenlooper said no, and Gardner said yes.
Watch the two candidates closing arguments below:
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