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Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (left) and Sen. Michael Bennet make a case for their campaigns at the first Democratic debate in Miami. Photo by Wilfredo Lee / AP Photo

How the Colorado Candidates Fared in the First Democratic Debate

Sen. Michael Bennet and former Gov. John Hickenlooper stuck to their talking points, but both failed to land a headline-making moment that will help advance their campaigns.

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Oh what a night. On Thursday in Miami, Colorado’s presidential candidates—former Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet—appeared on the national stage for the first time, in an attempt to sway voters to support their longshot bids (both are polling at around 1 percent) for the White House. While neither candidate likely ruined their chances to continue in the race, they both failed to land a headline-making moment that will help advance their campaigns.

In a night of terse exchanges about race, healthcare, immigration, and, of course, President Donald Trump, Hickenlooper and Bennet delivered mediocre performances at best. But what else could you expect from the two moderates, who were joined on stage by many of the race’s front-runners, including former Vice President Joe Biden; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; California Sen. Kamala Harris; and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Add in the rest of the cast—New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand; California Rep. Eric Swalwell; former tech executive Andrew Yang; and self-help author Marianne Williamson—and one can understand how it would be challenging to get a word in. 

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For many viewers, this was the first time they got to hear Hickenlooper’s and Bennet’s plans and proposals. So how did our fellow Coloradans fare? I watched the whole two hours (yes, there was wine) to bring you this condensed version of what went down on the debate stage. 

Sen. Michael Bennet

My husband joined me in the living room as Bennet answered his first question, 11 minutes in. I asked him if he even knows what Michael Bennet looks like. “I’ve never seen that man in my life,” my husband replied. “He’s our senator,” I said. My husband, who doesn’t spend nearly as much time obsessing over politics as I do, had no idea that the man on stage, vying for the presidency, was a senator of the state we grew up in. (Cue facepalm.) 

I imagine many Americans—and sadly still, some Coloradans—were thinking that same thing when they saw Bennet on stage last night. Although he’s been in the Senate since 2009, when he filled the seat vacated by former Sen. Ken Salazar, who became Secretary of the Interior under President Barack Obama, Bennet has kept a remarkably low profile. It wasn’t until he sparred with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz over the longest-ever government shutdown in late January that the politico had his break-out moment in the national media. At the time, even I noted that I had hardly heard our senator speak, let alone raise his voice. 

As Bennet attempts to elevate his national profile, his voice has only continued to grow louder (quite literally). In many of his responses last night, it appeared that our even-tempered, moderate senator was trying hard to control his anger over the state of the nation. Who can blame him, really? But while Sen. Sanders can get away with yelling like your crazy grandpa at a family dinner, Bennet’s raised voice was less effective, and made me wonder if his prototypical calm demeanor of old would be more effective.

As for substance, in the 9 minutes and 22 seconds that Bennet spoke last night, he attempted to strike an emotional chord with the audience. On the issue of asylum, he mentioned his mother, who was separated from her parents for years during the Holocaust in Poland. When arguing with Sanders on the future of healthcare—as a moderate, Bennet does not favor Sanders’ proposed Medicare-for-All model—Bennet brought up his recent prostate cancer diagnosis, which might have landed better if it wasn’t preceded by Joe Biden’s retelling of his own heartbreaking experiences with tragedy (losing his wife in a car accident and then taking care of his injured sons, and losing his son, Beau, to cancer in 2015).  

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In the end, Bennet stuck to his talking points, which could be seen as a win. If he makes it to the third debate in September, where the barriers to entry are higher, I expect more controlled anger and arguments with Sanders and Biden, as well as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who debated on night one, on what the best vision is for the future of America. At least one American (my husband) will now know who he is.

Quote of the night: “The president has turned the border of the United States into a symbol of nativist hostility that the whole world is looking at. What we should be represented by is the Statue of Liberty, which brought my parents to this country to begin with.” 

Missed opportunity: As the former superintendent of Denver Public Schools, Bennet has more experience in education that anyone on the stage last night. But if you were listening to him for the first time, you wouldn’t know it. He mentioned his work with DPS only once, during his closing statement. Perhaps his campaign purposely decided to play down the senator’s work at DPS, given the complicated legacy Bennet left behind, even if it could help him stand out in a crowded field. 

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper

If I knew nothing of Colorado coming into this debate, I would assume that it’s a type of progresive utopia, with legal marijuana, strict gun control laws, reproductive freedom, and a plan to fight climate change that everyone—even the fossil fuel industry!—agrees with. That’s the picture Hickenlooper painted of our fair state. But I’m from here, and I know better. Despite sweeping victories for Colorado Democrats in 2018, Colorado is very much still a purple state. And Hickenlooper, for all these progressive accomplishments he touts, is still very much a moderate liberal. 

This disconnect between how he wants voters to see him (a progressive leader who gets things done) and the person he actually is (a quirky and likeable-enough moderate) was wholly evident last night. The debate moderators helped this storyline along early, throwing the fourth question of the night to Hickenlooper: “You’ve said that Democrats will lose in 2020 if they embrace socialism. You were booed at the California Democratic convention when you said that.” (Sick burn, Savannah Guthrie.) “Only one candidate on this stage, Sen. Sanders, identifies himself as a democratic socialist. What are the policies and positions of your opponents that you think are veering toward socialism?” It was a trap, meant to set up a showdown between the moderates and the progressives, and Hickenlooper had no choice but to walk right into it. “The bottom line is if we don’t clearly define we’re not socialists, the Republicans are going to come at us everywhere they can and call us socialists,” Hickenlooper said. 

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Setting aside the fact that Republicans are likely to call Democrats socialists no matter what, the exchange between Hickenlooper and Sanders highlights an issue that’s central to the Democratic primary and came up time and again throughout both nights of debate—do voters want to make big changes, or restore the existing institutions that they feel have been damaged by the Trump administration? Hickenlooper is firmly in the latter camp, constantly heralding bipartisanship as the key to success, even as he ignores the fact that Washington is more divided (and combative) than ever. 

In general, Hickenlooper made some grand claims about his work in the Centennial State, even as he ignored the fact that the state is firmly divided (I’d be curious to hear what rural Coloradans thought about the performance). But like his former employee, Bennet, he failed to deliver a performance that might catapult him to the front of the pack. No gaffes, but no standout moments either, which will earn Hickenlooper a spot right where he started—in the pack. 

Quote of the night: “If you ever told me that this country would sanction federal agents to take children from the arms of their parents, put them in cages, actually put them up for adoption—in Colorado, we call that kidnapping—I’d call that unbelievable.”  

Missed opportunity: When talk on the stage turned to gun violence, I expected Hickenlooper to attempt to interject (although, to be fair, it’s not easy to get a word in with that crowd). After the Aurora theater shooting in August 2012, Hickenlooper oversaw a legislative session in Colorado in which 14 gun control bills were up for consideration, and five passed. Most notably, Hickenlooper was able to sign a bill mandating universal background checks—an accomplishment that he mentioned only once last night, in his closing statement, and was surely missed or overlooked by many viewers. 

Watch: The next Democratic debate, hosted by CNN, will be held on July 30–31 in Detroit. Qualifications for this second go-round are the same as the first, and Hickenlooper and Bennet will both be on the docket.

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