Three Republican gubernatorial hopefuls tried to stand apart from one another — while getting in plenty of shots at Gov. John Hickenlooper along the way — during an April 24 debate held two months before voters cast ballots in the GOP primary.
The event yielded few surprises, with the candidates speaking in near lockstep on issues that included gun control and the Affordable Care Act — issues they believe will resonate with voters in a general election.
But the candidates also addressed a confounding reality for the Republican Party — the fact that they’ve held the governor’s seat just once over the last 40 years. There was a little bit of soul-searching going on when asked whether they felt their party has branding problems.
“We have not articulated our values in a practical and positive way,” said Secretary of State Scott Gessler.
Three of the four GOP candidates for governor took part in the KUSA-TV debate in Denver: Gessler; former Congressman Bob Beauprez; and former state Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp.
Former Congressman Tom Tancredo did not take part in the debate.
To take over the governor’s mansion again, Republicans will have to win the seat from a sitting governor who currently is the favorite in the race.
A Quinnipiac University poll released the day before the debate shows that Hickenlooper enjoys a 7 percentage-point advantage over his closest Republican competitor.
Beauprez acknowledged that the last several years have been “a tough era” for Republicans. But he contends that the GOP is finally in a good position to win over voters, due in part to a state and federal government that he feels has overreached in several areas.
“At this moment in time, I think our brand is on the rise for a very obvious reason,” he said.
“There’s two philosophies. One believes that people are the problem and that they need to be regulated and controlled. The other believes the people are the solution.”
The candidates all took shots at Hickenlooper’s leadership style. Though they acknowledged that Hickenlooper showed leadership following the Aurora theater shooting, they criticized the governor for later signing gun-control legislation as a response to the massacre.
All three candidates said they would work to repeal those gun laws, if elected.
And Kopp said that Hickenlooper hasn’t done enough on wildfire-mitigation efforts.
“The fact of the matter is, the governor has not shown leadership on this,” Kopp said. “His big announcement this spring regarding his wildfire reforms was a big nothing burger.”
As far as policy, the three candidates sounded familiar, conservative themes for positions on issues that separate them from Hickenlooper and other Democrats.
They blasted the Affordable Care Act, with Kopp saying he would push for legislation that would allow Colorado to opt out of Obamacare’s health insurance exchange program.
“I don’t want to be a party of implementing such bad policy,” Kopp said. “We’re adding a new level of government and to me two wrongs don’t make a right.”
The debate over Obamacare prompted the debate’s only sharp exchange. As Senate minority leader, Kopp fought against Obamacare implementation. But Gessler said that those efforts weren’t good enough.
“What we need is someone who is going to lead to overturn that,” Gessler said. “Despite the efforts heard earlier, we’ve failed in this state.”
That drew a terse response from Kopp.
“Mr. Secretary, with all due respect, when I was advancing this agenda you were nowhere to be seen,” Kopp said.
They also said they would move forward with the execution of Nathan Dunlap – a death row inmate who killed four people at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1996. Hickenlooper has taken heat from Republicans since he granted Dunlap a temporary reprieve last year.
The candidates said they did not support raising taxes to generate money for schools or prisons. And they all said they would push to repeal a law from last year that allows undocumented students living in Colorado to attend state colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates.
For the most part, the candidates wanted nothing to do with gay rights issues. Beauprez and Kopp said they had no intention of overturning last year’s law that created civil unions in Colorado. Although Gessler said he would “have to look at the bill,” he did indicate that overturning the law “is on the table.”
The candidates all affirmed their pro-life stances, but Beauprez didn’t seem very interested in talking about abortion. He said that pursuing a law to outlaw abortion “would not be on the agenda right now for anyone on this campaign.”
“I think it’s an issue that is trumped up in every political campaign for obvious reasons – to divide good people on a very difficult issue that really isn’t simply resolved,” he said.
Kopp had no problem talking about his desire for an abortion ban.
“I am pro-life and would absolutely stand up for legislation that creates life without exceptions,” he said.
The candidates were also asked about the baggage they might bring to the race. Beauprez – who lost badly in a 2006 gubernatorial race with Bill Ritter – said he has learned from his mistakes in that “very difficult” campaign.
Gessler was asked whether a cloudy ethics image would be a barrier in the campaign. He was found to have violated ethics laws by the state’s ethics commission for using state money to attend a Republican event in 2012.
Gessler said the ethics commission is unethical itself.
“We have a corrupt ethics commission in the state of Colorado,” Gessler said. “It is controlled and dominated and run by Hickenlooper re-election supporters who are personally financially interested in seeing him re-elected.”