Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan

Politics by its nature breeds certain paradoxes, which delineate reality from rhetoric. Take, for instance, the state Democrats' constant reassurance that the “war on rural Colorado” is merely a Republican-invented myth and that the Democratic Party is intent on governing for even the benefit of those outside the metro area, juxtaposed with the newly established Democratic tradition of skipping out on the venerable Club 20 debates.

Club 20 represents the interests of, geographically speaking, about half the state. Their fall debates have been a highlight of the election season in Colorado, often the first time candidates in the general election get to square off with one another for public comparison and evaluation. The format, a modified Lincoln-Douglas style, includes a segment for the candidates to cross examine one another — a traditionally central feature of debate, lamentably all but abandoned in what passes for most political “debates” these days — and makes the Club 20 contests probably the most illustrative and revealing political events in the state.

Less so, mind you, when only one side bothers to show up.

Jared Polis was the first major figure to skip out on the iconic showdown, in 2018. This year, former Gov. John Hickenlooper decided to eschew the debate that would have been the headliner, the first time he would publicly face U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (who, incidentally, eagerly accepted the invitation). The latest major Democratic candidate to follow suit is Diane Mitsch-Bush, who declined to face off against newly-minted CD-3 Republican candidate Lauren Boebert.

In the cases of Polis and Hickenlooper, this seems to suggest an overweening sense on the part of the Colorado Democratic Party that their statewide candidates simply have no compelling interest in exposing themselves to rural concerns. Tactically, they may have a point. Rural areas remain traditionally conservative, and reaching out to them presents a liberal candidate with two unpalatable options: be yourself and face additional opposition; or dilute your progressive message and risk disaffecting the urban liberal base that will deliver the votes needed to win.

That approach might make arithmetic sense but does make it rather more difficult to convince the rural folks you spurned that you give a tinker’s damn about them later on.

But this is unsatisfactory as a complete answer; the West Slope is not a political monolith, after all, and includes places such as Carbondale and Telluride, not exactly known for being conservative strongholds. Nor does it explain Mitsch-Bush’s passing over the debate in her quest to represent the mostly rural 3rd CD in Congress. So what else might explain the newfound Democratic aversion to the Club 20 debates?

Club 20’s Executive Director Christian Reece suggested that the debate’s format, with the gladiatorial cross-examination component, may be what triggers the allergic reaction some candidates exhibit towards it, and she is probably right. The cut-and-thrust of the cross examination is the most popular part of the debates and for good reason. Much can be revealed about a candidate based on the questions they ask and how they field those posed by their opponents. It also does a fantastic job of exposing weaknesses and inviting comment on issues that a candidate may wish to avoid. Part of its beauty lies in its inherent equality — there can be no accusation of bias or favoritism, and each candidate has the same chance to shine or be skewered, depending on their ability, knowledge and preparation.

Hickenlooper has never been a particularly skilled orator or debater and may be understandably terrified of the format, especially against the bright and articulate Gardner, but he must have picked up a few things along the way as governor. Mitsch-Bush, on the other hand, spent nearly half a decade in the state house, where she debated for a living. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Mitsch-Bush would welcome a debate with political newcomer Boebert; Mitsch-Bush’s positions on the issues may be impeachable (they are) but not her command of the subject matter.

No, the trouble they have with real pugilistic debate is that it encourages diversion from carefully-crafted messaging. There are certainly topics which the Democrats, nationally and at home, wish desperately to avoid, if the strategic silence during their convention was any indication. The recent crime surge and ongoing leftist street violence is near the top, as are several of the extremist proposals the party seems to be carelessly embracing.

Democratic candidates may not want to confront certain issues on the public stage, but avoiding the most productive debate in the state will not make them go away.

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.

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