DENVER — Four Republican gubernatorial primary candidates heeded Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment at Sunday’s debate and took aim at Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper instead of each other.
The four contenders—state Sen. Greg Brophy, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, businessman Steve House and former state Sen. Mike Kopp—were united in blaming the governor’s lack of leadership for Colorado’s bitter political divisions.
“The fact of the matter is our state is divided like never before and John Hickenlooper has divided us,” said Kopp. “Eleven counties in this state have actually talked about seceding from Colorado. We have increased energy standards on one part of the state but not the other. These gun bills were a disaster.”
“The problem is not listening so much, the problem is his values,” Kopp said. “His values are out of sync with the rest of the state.”
The debate, televised live on Fox31, came at a key moment for the campaign. Rumors are rampant that former Rep. Bob Beauprez will enter the crowded primary field as early as Monday, and would be considered a leading candidate.
Candidate Jason Clark, who was not invited to attend the Fox31 debate, announced Sunday on Facebook that he has suspended his campaign and will support Beauprez.
Once again, former Rep. Tom Tancredo did not participate. Tancredo has declined so far to debate his opponents, saying he wants to avoid a primary mud fight that would weaken the ultimate GOP nominee.
On Sunday, however, the only mud being flung was aimed at Hickenlooper, who’s seeking reelection in November.
“I think we need a governor for all of Colorado, someone who will listen to the people of Colorado and not just the mayor of New York City,” said Brophy.
He was referring to last year’s hotly contested gun-control bills, pushed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and signed by Hickenlooper.
“He made Colorado the gun-control state,” said Brophy, while Gessler added, “It’s not just gun rights, it’s a whole approach to civil liberties.”
The candidates disputed Hickenlooper’s assertion that Colorado’s economy has improved during his term, saying nearly all of the job growth has come from government and not private-sector hiring.
“In fact, Colorado has some of the worst unemployment in the entire region. We’re worse off than nearly every state that borders us,” said Gessler. “When you look at a Wyoming or a North Dakota, those states are booming because of the way they’ve been able to safely use their oil and gas resources. If you look at a Utah or Texas, those states are just eating our lunch.”
While Hickenlooper is expected to win the backing of teachers’ unions, Brophy said that the governor has neglected education funding in favor of entitlements.
“He’s been short-changing education and our future, and growing entitlements,” said Brophy. “Since he came into office, spending on education has gone down two percent, while entitlement spending has gone up 67 percent. That’s unacceptable. We need to invest in our kids, not entitlements.”
Reviews were mixed on Hickenlooper’s bringing together top fossil-fuel companies and an environmental group to push for stronger air-quality standards, including the first methane regulations on the oil-and-gas industry in the nation.
“The problem with that air quality standard was not the big companies, it’s the very small producers in the field,” said House. “Those are the ones who are going to struggle with this. So yeah, you get some credit, but it’s also going to hurt some people at the same time.”
Not surprisingly, the candidates were quick to criticize the governor’s management of the state’s Obamacare health-insurance exchange, which has suffered from website glitches and lower-than-projected enrollment.
“Unfortunately, what we have right now is a governor who’s a cheerleader for Obamacare, who’s a cheerleader for a broken system,” said Gessler.
All four candidates expressed concerns about teenagers gaining easier access to marijuana under the state’s newly unveiled retail pot market. At the same time, none said that a repeal was on their to-do list, as least not yet.
Hickenlooper cautioned other governors about proceeding with legalized recreational marijuana at last week’s National Governors Association meeting, a move that Kopp described as “a little too late.”
“If the governor had issued those sentiments to the public before Amendment 64 had become law, maybe people would have thought a little differently about it,” said Kopp. “John Hickenlooper seems to have a habit of leading after the fact, and that doesn’t help us.”
The debate was sponsored by Fox31, the Colorado Springs Gazette, and the Colorado Republican Party.