Death penalty politics resurfaced in the gubernatorial race last week on the heels of comments made by Gov. John Hickenlooper during a recent television interview.
But political observers wonder just how much voters actually care about capital punishment in relation to other issues, and what impact, if any, the death penalty debate will have come November.
Hickenlooper confirmed to KDVR-TV on Aug. 18 what many believe has been the case for a while — that he's changed his mind over the years and is now against the death penalty.
“There's no deterrence to having capital punishment,” Hickenlooper said during the interview.
The governor said he had been a death penalty supporter his entire life until factors, such as the high cost of putting someone to death, started to turn his mind around on the issue.
“And, I don't know about you, but when I get new facts, I change my opinion,” said Hickenlooper, who told voters four years ago that he was in favor of the death penalty.
Hickenlooper has had to deal with questions about his views on capital punishment since last year, when he chose to grant a temporary reprieve for death row inmate Nathan Dunlap, who was convicted of murdering four people at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant in 1993.
Republicans have attacked Hickenlooper for failing to see through Dunlap's execution. The death penalty issue has been used by former Congressman Bob Beauprez, who is running against Hickenlooper this fall, as a way to call out the governor for his “failed leadership” on the issue.
“If he truly does oppose the death penalty, he should have commuted Nathan Dunlap's sentence instead of leaving the decision to the next governor,” Beauprez said through a press statement. “As Colorado's next governor, I will see that justice is served.”
Eddie Stern, a spokesman for Hickenlooper's campaign, said the governor “made a decision knowing it wouldn't be a popular decision, but it is the right decision.”
Stern also said it is important to remember that the governor granted a reprieve, not clemency for Dunlap.
“At that time, he explained why he felt a temporary reprieve was more important than clemency,” Stern said.
Issue may not sway votes
But will voters care about Nathan Dunlap and the death penalty come November?
“When you look at voters, in particular, independents, and when you look at list of concerns they have, you're not going to find the death penalty on that list,” said Norman Provizer, a political science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
“It's a hot topic and the Beauprez campaign is trying to make an issue out of it, but I don't think it's a high priority issue.”
John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University, said “a lot of people have been changing their mind on the death penalty” over the years. And Straayer wonders if Beauprez is simply trying to energize voters who are already inclined to vote for him.
“It might be being done to the advantage of appealing to his own party,” he said. “But I just wonder whether they're getting a lot of traction out of that beyond the base of their own party.”
Provizer said voters care more about Colorado's improved economy than issues like the death penalty.
“If I were a candidate and I had a choice between being attacked on the death penalty or unemployment being down to around 5 percent, it wouldn't be a question of what I would choose,” Provizer said.
Still, a polarizing issue like this one could have on an impact on at least a small percentage of the electorate — perhaps enough to flip a tight election.
“I think we all understand, in any close election, little things can make an enormous difference,” Provizer said. “I can say the death penalty question is not a major issue, but in a close election, it could make a difference.”