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4 takeaways from the first Colorado gubernatorial debate between Jared Polis and Heidi Ganahl

The matchup was an hourlong slugfest more defined by attacks than substance
Jared Polis and Heidi Ganahl

PUEBLO – Colorado’s first 2022 gubernatorial debate was a tale of two states.

According to Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado is coming out of a stretch of hardships – the COVID-19 pandemic, record-breaking wildfires, global inflation – in a position of strength.

“Record economic growth, record property tax cuts,” he said. “Colorado has one of the strongest economies in the nation.”

According to University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl, Polis’ Republican challenger, the governor is living in a “fantasyland.” Colorado is really in a state of disaster, she said, because of drugs, crime and rising consumer costs.

“Colorado is headed in the wrong direction,” she said. “The people of Colorado face horrible problems.”

The debate Wednesday between Polis and Ganahl, hosted by the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce at Colorado State University Pueblo, was more defined by attacks than by substance. It was a fast-paced, hourlong boxing match in which the moderators mostly let the candidates – who were given the topic areas of questions in advance – go at it without interruption.

Here’s an exchange that sums up how the debate played out:

Ganahl said Polis was moving “too far, too fast” on the green energy transition, in part because people can’t afford to buy electric cars, like those made by Tesla. Polis reminded Ganahl that she owns a Tesla.

“I drive an internal-combustion engine, and I’m proud to!” said Polis, whose administration wants there to be nearly 1 million electric vehicles on the road by the end of the decade.

Ganahl shot back that her main vehicle is a Chevrolet van.

“Why don’t you get an electric car?” Ganahl asked Polis. “I don’t understand that.”

“I’ll just borrow yours since you’re not using it,” Polis said.

Here are four big takeaways from Wednesday’s debate:

The governor’s one-liners

Ganahl, who is trailing Polis in campaign fundraising and in the polls, was on the offensive all night. She attacked the governor again and again, urging voters to “hold him accountable.”

Polis said he was proud of his four years as governor. “When my opponent talks about my record, I’m happy to talk about a record number of jobs here in Colorado,” he said.

Often, Polis would respond to a line of attack from Ganahl with a one-liner.

At one point, Ganahl criticized the governor for not appointing more rural Coloradans to the state’s boards and commissions, which Republicans have griped about for years.

“The only appointee that she’s (made) was her lieutenant governor candidate,” Polis said. “She chose an election denier who denies that Joe Biden won the election.”

Polis was referring to Danny Moore, Ganahl’s running mate, who wrote on Facebook after Biden won the 2020 election that Democrats stole the contest from Donald Trump.

Moore, a Navy veteran who now works as a consultant, was serving as chairman of Colorado’s Independent Congressional Redistricting when revelations about his social media posts surfaced and he was unanimously removed from the leadership post after he rebuffed requests from fellow commissioners to step down voluntarily.

Ganahl defended her selection of Moore on Wednesday by saying that he “respects Joe Biden and he’s his commander-in-chief.”

Fentanyl and crime

One of Ganahl’s main lines of attack against Polis on crime was around fentanyl, the powerful opioid blamed for a surge of overdose deaths in Colorado.

She criticized his decision to sign a bipartisan 2019 bill into law making it a misdemeanor to possess up to 4 grams of the drug for personal use. In fentanyl’s pure form, which is rarely found on the street, that amount is enough to kill thousands of people.

Ganahl often referenced the story of “Miki,” a Jefferson County mother whose 16-year-old daughter died last year after unknowingly taking a pill laced with fentanyl. Ganahl argued that the 2019 bill “killed” Miki’s daughter, but didn’t explain how.

“Decriminalizing fentanyl was one of the most destructive things ever done to Colorado,” Ganahl said. “We will change that. We will make it a felony to have any possession of fentanyl.”

The Legislature revisited the 2019 policy this year, passing a bill increasing penalties for fentanyl dealers and making it a felony to possess 1 or more grams of the drug for personal use. The legislation also allocated tens of millions of dollars to overdose prevention, drug treatment and law enforcement.

Polis defended his record on the drug, though he never addressed his decision to sign the 2019 bill into law. (Polis told The Colorado Sun earlier this year that the 2019 measure “got some things wrong.”)

“Fentanyl has been, is and will be illegal in the state of Colorado as long as I am your governor,” he said.

The governor touted the bill passed by the Legislature this year, saying it will ensure law enforcement can “go up the supply chain” to prosecute drug dealers while also “get(ting) addicts the treatment they need.”

Polis answered a question from the moderators about crime and what contributes to it by talking about his administration’s efforts to increase behavioral health care and promote jobs.

Economy

Ganahl blamed Polis for rising consumer costs in Colorado, criticizing government growth under his tenure and the new fees the governor and Democrats in the Legislature have enacted in recent years. She said she would help Coloradans deal with inflation by cutting their costs.

“I am going to take Colorado to zero income tax,” Ganahl said, touting a pledge she unveiled months ago but still has not explained how she would do so without decimating the state budget.

Individual income taxes in Colorado are forecast to generate $11 billion in revenue this fiscal year. The money represents about a third of the state’s budget and more than half the general fund, the pot of money state lawmakers have discretion over.

Both Republicans and Democrats have cast doubt on Ganahl’s pledge since it would require deep cuts to existing services and programs, likely including education. Ganahl has promised to eliminate the income tax without raising other taxes and fees, but with less than two months until Election Day she has yet to roll out a comprehensive explanation of how.

Polis said blaming him for inflation is unfair.

“It’s about federal deficit spending,” he said. “It’s about international supply chain issues.”

The governor also pointed out how he and Democrats in the Legislature this year passed legislation that paused and reduced fees – some of which they enacted in previous years – and eliminated sales taxes on diapers and women’s menstrual products.

Polis also touted Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights refund checks this year – which would have been blocked under an unsuccessful 2019 ballot measure that he and other Democrats supported – as well as his efforts to expand kindergarten and preschool access.

Polis on the offensive

While most of the attacks Wednesday night came from Ganahl, there were times when Polis went on the offensive.

The governor blasted Ganahl’s income tax pledge and her promise to cut the 22-cent-per-gallon gas tax in half because of how they would affect funding for the Colorado Department of Corrections and the Colorado State Patrol.

The state prison system is funded by the Legislature, which gets a large portion of its funding from income tax revenue. Income tax revenue, however, is not directly tied to funding for the Colorado Department of Corrections.

The Colorado State Patrol is funded by revenue generated by the gas tax through the highway users tax fund.

“The State Patrol doesn’t need to go and fight for money with all the other priorities like schools and everything else,” Polis said.

(Ganahl said she’d never cut funding for law enforcement. Polis has also said he supports the concept of eliminating Colorado’s income tax, but is not campaigning on it and has said that the money would need to be backfilled.)

Polis also attacked Ganahl for not speaking out against a stalled, controversial plan in Douglas County to buy water rights in the San Luis Valley to allow for growth on the Front Range.

“Even Congresswoman (Lauren) Boebert joined me in opposition to this buy-and-dry plan that would destroy the ag economy of the San Luis Valley,” Polis said.

Polis pointed out Ganahl’s lack of a stance on the issue several times. Ganahl never responded during the debate to clarify her position.

Ganahl’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to a question about her stance on the San Luis Valley water proposal.

Ganahl and Polis are set to debate again Friday at an event hosted by Colorado Concern, a nonprofit representing business interests. The Colorado Sun and CBS4 are hosting the gubernatorial race’s first televised debate on Oct. 13.

Several other debates are planned.

Ballots for the general election will start being mailed to Coloradans on Oct. 17.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.