When Club 20 holds its gubernatorial debate on Sept. 8, just one of the major candidates will be there: Republican Walker Stapleton. That's triggered a different debate: How much does it matter to Colorado's Western Slope voters that Democrat Jared Polis won't be there? One local Democratic leader says it matters a great deal.
"We asked him to participate," Garfield County Democratic Party Chair Gretchen Brogdon said. "It is significant."
Club 20 represents local government, business and individuals in 22 counties across the Western Slope. The debate is a long-standing tradition for governor's race. The nonpartisan organization looked back to the 80s and found that no candidate has declined the invitation until now.
Conservative politics have long dominated the western half of the state, but not completely. Several counties tilt Democratic. Brogdon said Polis' decision could hinder the efforts of Democratic volunteers working to gain ground with voters.
"I don't know what it's going to hurt him (to participate)," Brogdon said of Polis. "But for the committed Democrats who pay attention on the Western Slope, it makes a difference if our candidate is only willing to engage with people on the Front Range and hang out with them and spend all their time over there or if they're willing to come out here and value the rural community."
Polis' campaign spokesperson, Mara Sheldon, said that's not the impression the campaign intends to give. Polis, she said, cannot attend the debate because of a scheduling conflict — "a personal prior family commitment" — adding that he has visited the Western Slope about three dozen times already and plans to return again over the Labor Day weekend.
Polis has also committed to other debates with Stapleton, including the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel/Colorado Mesa University/Rocky Mountain PBS debate on Oct. 6. He did offer to send a stand-in to Club 20 — Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, one of the candidates he beat in the Democratic primary. Club 20 executive director Christian Reece nixed the idea, saying candidates must debate for themselves.
"We reached out to the campaign and said we just can't allow this," Reece said, adding that the club gave Polis about a week and a half to respond by Aug. 17.
"We never heard anything back from the campaign," Reece said. "So at this point we are moving forward with a single candidate for that gubernatorial time slot."
The Polis campaign accuses Club 20 of playing politics.
"We're disappointed in Club 20's partisan reaction to a scheduling conflict and nobody benefits from their decision to deny their club members the opportunity to hear from the sitting lieutenant governor, Donna Lynne," Sheldon said in a statement.
Minor-party candidates did not meet Club 20's requirements for the gubernatorial debate.
The Club 20 issue has become fodder for attacks against Polis, including from the Republican Governors Association.
In their Aug. 23 issue, the Journal newspaper in the Four Corners region wrote a pointed editorial scolding Polis.
"A cardinal rule of campaigning for public office, especially as an election draws near, concerns impressions: Generate the positive whenever possible. Avoid the negative like the plague," the editorial stated. "Which is why we are as puzzled as every other media outlet in Colorado by Congressman Jared Polis' decision to skip the Club 20 debates in Grand Junction in September."
The issue is resonating among voters, too.
Randy Fricke lives in New Castle and is a former Democrat who ran for Congress more than a decade ago. He became disillusioned with the state Democratic Party's power structure. He's now an independent working to organize voters around core issues, like increasing democratic participation.
"With all these independent voters, they want to be sold," Fricke said. "Yeah, Jared has a lot of money. He's got a pretty good campaign. His platform is pretty strong, but I think he needs to venture out in this part of the state and tap into this changing data, especially with independent voters."
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