Four of Colorado’s Republican gubernatorial hopefuls took turns attacking Democratic incumbent Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday at a debate in Denver but also heaped criticism on the two GOP front-runners, who have so far declined to participate in debates they say will only sow division among Republicans.
State Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, former Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, Adams County Republican Party Chairman Steve House and Aurora financial consultant Jason Clark responded to questions posed by Denver Post political editor Chuck Plunkett and Post reporters Lynn Bartels and Kurtis Lee at the hour-long forum held at the newspaper’s headquarters.
Former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo and Secretary of State Scott Gessler — the fundraising leaders in the GOP primary — sat out the exchange.
Republicans will chose a nominee to run against Hickenlooper on June 24 in what could be a crowded primary. As many as three candidates could emerge from the April 12 state assembly, where it takes 30 percent of delegate votes to make the ballot. In addition, Tancredo and House are petitioning onto the ballot, though both campaigns are leaving the door open to participating in the caucus and assembly process. Hickenlooper is unopposed in his bid for the Democratic nomination to run for a second term.
While the four Republicans on stage exhibited somewhat different styles — Brophy was perhaps the most pugnacious, Clark the most derisive, House sounded the most managerial and Kopp the most wonkish — they agreed about the lion’s share of topics raised by the reporters. All said they would welcome a revenue surplus that could lead to the first TABOR-mandated refunds to taxpayers in years. When Brophy responded to a question about transportation funding by saying, “I’m opposed to increasing taxes, period,” the other candidates nodded.
During a rapid-fire round of yes-no questions, the candidates agreed that convicted Chuck E. Cheese’s killer Nathan Dunlap should be executed, contrary to an indefinite stay imposed by Hickenlooper on last year’s scheduled execution. They also all said they wouldn’t sign a bill repealing civil unions and said they would sign a bill to repeal last year’s law requiring background checks on all gun sales.
Kopp was the only candidate who said he’d sign a bill repealing Colorado’s ASSET law, which provides in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants who meet certain conditions. Kopp and Brophy said they supported the 2012 Personhood Amendment, which defines life beginning at conception, while Clark and House said they opposed it.
The candidates agreed, though, that Tancredo and Gessler should have joined them.
“They can run their campaigns as they see fit, but I think it’s wrong that they don’t want to participate,” Clark said, calling it a measure of the candidates’ integrity.
“This is a job interview, to be governor,” House said. “You need to be able to submit yourself to questions,” he continued, adding, “As a voter, I’d like to see them here. I’d like them to articulate their vision and answer the same questions we’re answering.”
Kopp called it “wrong” that his rivals skipped the debate. “The election is about Coloradans, it’s not about Tom Tancredo or Scott Gessler or anybody else.”
Arguing that voters deserved to examine all the candidates side-by-side, Brophy invoked the last Republican gubernatorial nominee, Dan Maes. The political novice barely cleared 10 percent of the vote in 2010 in a three-way race against Hickenlooper and Tancredo, who jumped into the race as a third-party candidate after the Maes campaign imploded over the summer.
“I think we learned in 2010 that we can’t wait until August to find out if our candidate can answer the hard questions and defend his record and talk with clarity about his vision for the state of Colorado,” said Brophy. “As Republicans, we need to find out in March and in February if our candidates can answer the hard questions about themselves and articulate their vision for Colorado that voters will be comfortable with, so we don’t end up with the debacle we had in 2010.”
Brophy — he’s unfurled some of the sharpest attacks against fellow Republicans this year, surpassed only by Clark’s “a pox on all your houses” approach — then slammed Gessler for “blowing his office budget” and wondered whether Tancredo could be trusted to uphold the rights of gun owners. (Gessler is embroiled in a dispute with Democratic legislators over the secretary of state’s budget shortfalls, while Tancredo has taken heat recently for a vote to restrict some assault rifles and large capacity magazines he cast in Congress in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre, which took place blocks from his house.)
That’s just the sort of internecine argument between Republicans the Tancredo campaign says the party would do well to avoid.
“We want to make sure we’re keeping our focus on the failures of John Hickenlooper,” Tancredo spokesman Jimmy Lakey told The Colorado Statesman after the debate. Tancredo announced in December that he planned to sit out primary debates and Gessler took a similar position last month.
Whether it’s Republicans attacking Republicans or a “debate moderator trying to reap division in the party,” Lakey said, it doesn’t do the eventual nominee any good, even if that nominee is someone other than Tancredo. “We want the strongest candidate to make it out of the primary,” he said. “We don’t need to give the Democrats any talking points.”
Lakey added that his boss might be open to participating in debates closer to the primary, once the field has narrowed.
Asked what the Republican Party has to do in order to win top-ticket races in Colorado — a GOP gubernatorial or Senate nominee hasn’t prevailed in the state since former Gov. Bill Owens and former U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard won their respective races in 2002 — the four candidates at the debate offered differing takes.
“We have to understand what people really want,” said House. Republicans, he said, must communicate a clear message: “We get the problem. We understand the waste in government, we understand that things just aren’t getting done that are supporting what they need in their lives.”
Politics and politicians have gotten in the way of giving Coloradans what they want, he said, suggesting his non-political background provides the answer for voters.
Kopp noted that only four Republicans have won top races statewide in the last 40 years — former U.S. Sens. Bill Armstrong and Hank Brown, in addition to Owens and Allard — and it’s up to current GOP candidates to bottle some of their magic.
“Elect a conservative at the primary level that can build a coalition big enough to win the general election,” Kopp said, noting that Armstrong and Brown are supporting his candidacy, while the other two have yet to take sides. “You have to have a coalition-builder who does not lose track of where his conservative values are.”
“Republicans have to nominate a winner,” Brophy said, declaring that the values he shares with Colorado voters combined with his experience to govern “from Day One” make him the most qualified candidate.
Clark argued that Republicans are “alienating too many demographics to win,” listing Hispanics, gay and lesbian voters, and women. Without broadening the GOP’s appeal, he said, “You’re not going to win. It’s mathematically impossible.”
Capping the debate, the candidates had the opportunity to say which of the other Republicans they would support if each of them couldn’t be the nominee. Brophy and House embraced each other, with Brophy calling House “an electable guy,” and House praising Brophy’s business experience. Kopp provoked some chuckles when he said that Gessler would be his choice, pointing out that he’s the only candidate who has won statewide. Clark, for his part, calling himself “a fighter, a winner,” declined to name another candidate and said he wouldn’t support any of the others.