Colorado voters got their first chance to see their U.S. Senate candidates face off in a debate Friday night, and the attacks started flying seconds after it started.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner entered the debate in Pueblo as an underdog trailing in every poll. He repeatedly attacked his Democratic opponent, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, for being fined by a state board for accepting free flights and other gifts in violation of Colorado’s ethics codes.
“You violated the (state) constitution, John,” Gardner said.
He asked Hickenlooper whether he would repay taxpayers for the state money that was spent on the former governor’s defense attorney.
Hickenlooper said the ethics complaints, which he was fined for in June, were fueled by “dark money Republican groups.” He has previously called them a political stunt.
In his opening statement, Hickenlooper largely ignored Gardner and instead took aim at President Donald Trump. Hickenlooper offered prayers for the president, who was hospitalized with COVID-19 hours before the debate. But he criticized Trump's response to the pandemic.
“He ignored the risk. That was negligent,” Hickenlooper said. “We’re in a crisis and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Gardner said he convinced the White House on Friday to extend the declared public health emergency for the virus. He also touted his support for the paycheck protection program and said he worked with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to help secure additional testing kits from South Korea.
Gardner added Hickenlooper did not do enough to prepare Colorado for a pandemic while he was governor.
Hickenlooper said Gardner’s responses to the pandemic were a “wall of words.”
“Why didn’t we have testing capacity (early in the pandemic)?” Hickenlooper responded. “We are at that point now where we need more testing capacity, we need additional protective equipment.”
Hickenlooper said Gardner and the Trump administration did not do enough to provide additional testing to places like the JBS meat packing facility in Greeley.
The candidates also offered differing views on health care, with Hickenlooper defending the Affordable Care Act.
Gardner said Hickenlooper wants “government-run health care.” He also said health care costs went up in Colorado during his tenure.
“Under John Hickenlooper’s watch as governor, health insurance premiums went up 35 percent,” he said.
Hickenlooper responded saying Gardner hasn’t offered a feasible health care plan. He also said it was the issue the two men have the biggest disagreement on.
“You know what’s the cruelest lie of all, it’s that Cory Gardner says he has a plan to protect people with pre-existing conditions,” Hickenlooper said. “We need to get to universal coverage. It’s not going to cost a fortune. It’s not going to break the bank.”
The hour-long debate, which was held without a live audience due to the pandemic, was one of just three chances Gardner and Hickenlooper have to talk to voters from the same stage before voting ends in November.
Ballots will be mailed to Colorado voters next week. But they will get another chance to see Gardner and Hickenlooper square off on Friday, Oct. 9 in Denver before the voting begins.
The race has received national attention because the outcome could decide whether Republicans maintain control of the Senate.