Six takeaways from the first Walker Stapleton and Jared Polis debate

Colorado's candidates for governor will square off another half-dozen times before Election Day

Democrat Jared Polis (left) and Republican Walker Stapleton met Friday for Colorado's first gubernatorial debate of the 2018 general election season. (Photo by Evan Semón)

In Colorado’s first televised gubernatorial debate of the 2018 general election, Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton did what voters have come to expect from them since the primary: Stapleton attacked Polis repeatedly for being extreme, and in response, Polis mostly sounded like a moderate pragmatist, saying he’d be a “convener-in-chief” who works with all sides.

Polis is “the most radical and extreme candidate that will ever be Colorado’s governor, if elected,” Stapleton said at one point.

To which Polis retorted: “It seems like every time Walker talks it’s, ‘Noun, verb, Jared Polis.'”

On Tuesday, a new survey commissioned by the organization Healthier Colorado and conducted jointly by two polling firms — one Democratic, the other Republican — showed that Polis, a five-term congressman from Boulder, is leading Stapleton, the two-term state treasurer from Greenwood Village, by 7 points (margin of error: 4 points) in the race to succeed the term-limited Democrat John Hickenlooper.

Friday’s debate was hosted by CBS4, KOA, Colorado Public TV and The Colorado Sun. The candidates will debate many more times before election day, so voters will have a half-dozen chances to see them in action in the coming weeks.

But for now, here are a few takeaways from the first debate:

Multi-modal transportation

Neither candidate supports Proposition 110, a sales tax to increase transportation funding.

Stapleton stressed that he believes roads and bridges are the top priority when it comes to transportation spending in Colorado, and that he’s disappointed they’d get only about 60 percent of the money from 110. “If we’re going to pass a sales tax increase, we need to make sure it’s spent on roads and bridges, bridges and roads, and not multi-modal transportation, like (in) Congressman Polis’s radical, extreme plans,” he said.

Polis, like Stapleton, is not supporting 110. He’s said, if passed, he’d implement the measure, which would raise $6 billion, but he’s also said the measure as written is “not what I would do.” Polis ridiculed Stapleton for suggesting that transportation spending unrelated to roads and bridges might be considered “radical,” and for saying that spending on public transit would be a “waste” of money.

“Transportation is about moving people,” Polis said. “And when you allow people different ways of commuting, whether it’s light-rail or bus … if they can get you to work quicker and you can save money on gas and on car payments, that helps put more money in your pocket.”

“Sanctuary state”

Stapleton has warned repeatedly during this campaign that Polis would make Colorado a “sanctuary state” — that is, a place where public employees’ cooperation with federal immigration enforcement is limited.

Polis, who has many close ties with immigrants — undocumented and legal residents — said at Friday’s debate that he does not believe Colorado should be a “sanctuary state,” contrary to Stapleton’s comments.

In fact, both men said, immigration policy is a matter best left to the federal government.

Stapleton didn’t showcase his own platform

Stapleton, 44, attacked Polis, 43, relentlessly for being too “extreme,” for being “radical” and for pushing policies that he argues Colorado can’t afford, such as free universal pre-K and kindergarten, and a statewide transition to 100 percent renewable energy. He did little to promote his own ideas, opting to spend more time criticizing and questioning Polis. When asked if growth is a good thing for the state, Stapleton instead launched into a criticism of how expensive he believes certain Polis policy proposals would be. When asked to say something nice about Polis, he complimented Polis’s “bold” ideas, but then he pivoted to say he’s concerned Polis’s plans will have the government “writing checks that Coloradans can’t cash.”

Polis played it safe and sometimes deflected

Polis didn’t give viewers many chances to confirm Stapleton’s comments about his “extreme” agenda. On questions that might’ve produced answers with a more progressive tint, Polis either deflected or sounded like a moderate. He reserved any judgment of the fossil fuel industry while discussing his plan for expanding renewable energy in the state, for example, and declined to answer when asked if he supports legal abortion in the third trimester. Polis did describe himself as pro-choice, while Stapleton said he’d “govern as a pro-life governor.” It’s a particularly relevant question given the prospect of abortion laws changing at the Supreme Court level. Polis opposes Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, while Stapleton supports it.

When moderator Shaun Boyd confronted Polis about why he ran a misleading ad about Stapleton, Polis didn’t answer, pivoting instead to put the pressure on Stapleton.

“Red flag” legislation

The two men parted ways on the so-called “red flag” bill, which failed in the last legislative session, but would have given judges the option to seize firearms from people deemed to pose dangers to themselves or others.

“I thought it was ill-conceived and it was rushed,” Stapleton said. “I was not convinced that this extra regulation equally respected due process. And this is a difference between me and Congressman Polis: I respect the Second Amendment.”

Countered Polis: “I support our entire Constitution and our freedoms and our rights, of course including the Second Amendment and our right to bear arms, but that doesn’t mean a parent who has a child who’s in a mental health crisis shouldn’t be able to go to a judge and seek an order to temporarily restrict their access to guns.”

Kombucha

At the end of the debate, when Boyd asked both candidates to say nice things about each other, Stapleton followed his comment about Polis’s bold ideas with: “He and I firmly support the future of kombucha.” Polis responded, “I’d love to have a kombucha sometime together, when this is all over.”

It was a rare moment of pleasantry in a debate during which the two frequently talked over each other, insulted each other’s campaigns — Stapleton did more of that, but Polis got into it on a couple occasions — and during which squabbling frequently prevailed over substance.

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