COMCAST’s Westworks Studio in Centennial was the site for the first debate in 2014’s Colorado Republican primary campaign for governor. Aaron Harber, local political talk show host, gathered up four of the declared candidates who yearn to return John Hickenlooper to his brewpub barstool in LODO. The field is likely to grow after the first of the year as additional aspirants scurry to put exploratory committees in place. But for this event the field was restricted to former Congressman, state legislator, federal bureaucrat and presidential candidate Tom Tancredo; Colorado’s controversial Secretary of State Scott Gessler; former army ranger and Colorado Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp; and the self-styled “Prius-driving, bike-riding, corn farmer” and state Senator from the Eastern Plains community of Wray, Greg Brophy.
Scanning this lineup it was hard to identify Colorado’s next governor. In fact, it seemed at least possible that the eventual Republican candidate might not have been on this early stage. Only Tancredo appeared with an open collar, sport coat, jeans and cowboy boots, while his competitors wore the obligatory 17th Street uniform of suit, tie and sensible shoes. The candidates proceeded cautiously, far less interested in throwing punches at one another than they were in bloodying the nose of the Governor. Asked to outline their priorities if elected, Tancredo, Gessler and Kopp all genuflected before the shrine of smaller government and the need to cut Colorado’s bureaucracy down to size. Tancredo touched on his lifelong commitment to expanding school choice for parents across the state while taking a swipe at the defeat of Amendment 66 and its billion-dollar price tag for school reform. He also called out the Democratic Legislature’s recent “war on rural Colorado.” His long practice, both in presidential debates and during his numerous political campaigns, evidenced itself in relaxed and fluent responses.
Gessler, who looks like a former linebacker now wearing a suit a size too snug, complained about Colorado’s underperforming economy — a theme to which he would return at every opportunity. He referenced his experience as a federal prosecutor and contrasted it with the Governor’s record on public safety and his responsibility for a state parole board that has been releasing “dangerous felons.” Kopp criticized the Colorado Supreme Court for attacking economic productivity and advocated the empowerment of individuals so that personal freedom could restore a roaring economy, closing with his legislative record of opposition to Obamacare. Brophy, who looks like he might have played a supporting role in Lord of the Rings, is the most taciturn of the candidates — settling for brief, pithy responses that elicited frequent chuckles. Alluding to the rural disgruntlement with Denver-centric government, he committed to serving as a governor “for all of Colorado.” He went on to express concerns about the “entitlement bomb” threatening the state budget and the Governor’s mishandling of the Nathan Dunlap case, which “failed the families of his victims.”
Examining the question of why Hickenlooper should be retired from office, there was near unanimity of opinion that the Governor has failed — as a leader, as a self-proclaimed moderate and in the exercise of his personal judgment. Complaints about firearm freedoms, Obamacare, rural electric rates, gun grabs and support for tax increases (Amendment 66 again) all made the list of grievances. Tancredo struck perhaps the most telling blow with his characterization of the Governor as a chameleon who masquerades as a “regular guy” but who actually behaves like an ideologue — one who even acknowledged he had signed some “stupid bills” this past year. Gessler went still further to charge that Colorado is a state in decline. What the audience didn’t hear was a clear agenda for change that would produce an improved result in 2015.
Host Harber then moved the conversation to the question of Nathan Dunlap and the competing goals of justice and forgiveness. Gessler attacked Hickenlooper’s decision to temporarily stay Dunlap’s execution as “too cute by half,” while Tancredo pointed out that justice and forgiveness are not the same thing. Brophy followed up by observing that forgiveness is not the governor’s job — that candidate Hickenlooper ran for Governor as a death penalty supporter and has now reneged on his commitment to voters. We will hear a lot more about Dunlap and the co-workers he slaughtered 20 years ago during the campaign ahead.
As the debate moved into lightning round questions the candidates became cautious with their responses, adhering closely to accepted conservative doctrine. All were opposed to further gun laws and advocated aggressive prosecution of violators of our current laws (Kopp: “We have all the laws we need.”). There was support for more guns carried by employees in soft target locations like schools and public offices, as well as additional mental health services to identify and divert potential shooters. Tancredo proposed a “trained and armed citizenry.” On the question of wildfires, all agreed Colorado should be spending more money for rapid response capability, including our own air tanker fleet. And there was considerable grumbling about the federal mismanagement of forest health.
All the candidates dismissed the need for a Colorado-specific response to climate change, although Brophy got the best laugh of the evening with the claim that his corn crop was a first-rate carbon sequestration project: “My corn just loves carbon dioxide!” Words like unneeded, silly and hubris spiced the conversation. Fracking was an issue where the candidates found themselves largely in agreement with the Governor, but it didn’t prevent them from accusing his administration of “passing up on economic development” opportunities by failing to fight opponents strongly enough. Again Brophy captured the prevailing sentiment with his admonition that the state “…should be protecting property rights for landowners.” Obamacare took a thorough drubbing, largely on behalf of the quarter million Colorado policyholders who have received cancellation notices and Kopp dragged out the shibboleth of “…the single mom who has lost her coverage.”
When asked whether there was any part of state government that required expansion, only wildfire management received a “yes” vote and only from Kopp. Gessler advocated better, not bigger government and Tancredo returned to expanded school choices. The debate closed with an inquiry about how the candidates intended to attract independent and unaffiliated voters. This triggered a conversation about whether Republican candidates should be criticizing one another. Tancredo has called for all candidates to sign a pledge that they will commit to civil behavior. The unaffiliated were quickly forgotten as Brophy pointed out that there are differences between the candidates and voters deserve to know what those are. Kopp indicated he hasn’t seen the pledge, and Brophy alleged it was merely a ploy by Tancredo to assure his swift capture of the nomination. “If you want an easy path to the ballot, why don’t you contact your friends at the American Constitution Party,” he snapped, referencing Tancredo’s 2010 ballot position. Tancredo responded that Brophy’s charge was just the kind of uncivil remark he was hoping to prevent and this first joust ended with a crackle of simmering resentments.
Was there a winner? Perhaps Kopp. He evidences the kind of cool, quiet, competent confidence you want to see in your oral surgeon. His personal back-story is both arresting and inspiring. Kopp was the only candidate who skillfully parsed his answers with just enough elbow room to allow him to return to the middle in a general election. That, of course, could prove a curse in a brass knuckled Republican primary.