Western Slope business and community leaders reminded former Gov. John Hickenlooper of his work to bridge the rural-urban divide Monday as they urged him to reconsider his decision to snub the Club 20 debate in Grand Junction next month.
The executive director of the business and civic coalition, Christian Reece, said organizers were "astonished" that he would bypass the Western Slope event that traditionally signals the homestretch of campaign season. Moreover, the event is online this year, Sept. 18-19.
Club 20 officials noted they have gone to "great lengths" to accommodate health concerns around the COVID-19 outbreak by moving the political debates online and offering them free through streaming produced by Colorado Mesa University.
"This is not about partisan politics," Reece said in a morning press conference in front of the Old Mesa County Courthouse in Grand Junction. "This is about the responsibility and duty of a U.S. Senate candidate to listen to all Colorado voters, not just those in the more populous parts of the state.
"Is this what we can expect if candidate Hickenlooper is the successful candidate for Senate?"
Hickenlooper, a former presidential candidate, is taking on incumbent Republican Cory Gardner for Colorado's U.S. Senate seat in November.
He has agreed to four Front Range debates, but, so far, has nothing scheduled on the Western Slope or Eastern Plains.
Reece noted that other rural groups also have not been able to secure appearances from Hickenlooper, as his events so far have focused on the Front Range.
"Colorado's heritage lives in the rural parts of the state," she said at the press conference. "From food production to outdoor recreation and tourism, our state's heart and soul comes from the rural way of life."
In the run-up to the June Democratic primary, Hickenlooper endured perhaps the most bruising few weeks of his political career, related in part to ethics charges and how he responded to them, initially failing to honor a subpoena to testify. He still won by more than 17 percentage points, including an easy win over former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff among Mesa County Democrats.
He also apologized for offhand remarks he made about being treated like he was on a slave ship by his scheduler during a 2014 event.
Joey Bunch: "You're giving people the wrong idea at an unfortunate time with some of the things you're saying and doing, like ditching a subpoena and flubbing your take on race at a tense time in our political conversation."
Hickenlooper's campaign did not respond to Club 20 on Monday, but referred to the campaign's comment to Colorado Politics on Friday. A spokeswoman said then that Hickenlooper looked forward to the four debates he's agreed to — starting in Pueblo on Oct. 2, followed by events in Denver on Oct. 6 and Fort Collins on Oct. 13, plus a yet-to-be-finalized appearance on the Spanish-language channel Telemundo before the Nov. 3 election.
He turned down a request in Colorado Springs that, like the Western Slope, favors Republican candidates.
So far, Gardner and Hickenlooper are only scheduled to share a stage in Pueblo.
Hickenlooper, however, has not fared well outside the Front Range in his two elections for governor, and the district tilts to the right.
A new morning consult poll gives the former vice president, Joe Biden, a 13-point lead over Republican President Donald Trump. The former governor, John Hickenlooper, has less than half that advantage against incumbent Cory Gardner in the U.S. Senate race.
In 2014, as Gardner was beating incumbent Democrat Mark Udall of Boulder to win his first term in the U.S. Senate, Hickenlooper won reelection by 3 percentage points thanks to Front Range voters.
Nonetheless, he lost all 18 Eastern Plains counties, including 10 counties where GOP nominee Bob Beauprez won with 70% or better. Hickenlooper won 16 counties in western and southern Colorado that year, including Routt, Pueblo, Summit and Pitkin counties.
"John Hickenlooper does not care about the Western Slope, and his refusal to debate outside the I-25 corridor proves it," Gardner's spokesman, Jerrod Dobkin, said Monday morning. "Both Democrat and Republican leaders across western Colorado today are pleading with Hickenlooper to stop ignoring them, but Hickenlooper couldn't care less.
"Colorado deserves a Senator like Cory Gardner who represents the entire state, not someone like Hickenlooper whose party bosses in D.C. call all the shots."
The top race at this year's Club 20 events promises to be Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush against Republican Lauren Boebert, the surprise-yet-comfortable winner over incumbent Scott Tipton of Cortez in the primary.
The former governor is the second high-profile Democrat to snub the Western Slope's biggest political event in as many elections, after Jared Polis chose not to attend in 2018 as he sat on a lead over Republican Walker Stapleton.
Eric Washburn, a fifth-generation Coloradan who lives in Steamboat Springs and worked with Hickenlooper on Western Slope issues as governor, isn't working officially for the campaign. He said Monday, though, he could see why savvy politicians like Polis and Hickenlooper might pull back from Club 20, a group that has traditionally supported economics such as oil and gas and less so the emerging recreation economy of Colorado.
Likewise, many newcomers to the region are more "location neutral" on statewide issues such as education, affordable health care and public lands, Washburn said.
"I don't think this reflects an animosity toward Club 20," he said. "It's a sense that Democratic politicians have that they certainly want to plug in to the West Slope and attract West Slope voters.
"I don't think they're convinced Club 20 is the way to do that."