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Campaign 2020 Reality Check: The Debate Over Debates

(CBS4) - Historically, Labor Day is the unofficial start of the campaign season. But, like most things in 2020, this election season looks quite a bit different, especially when it comes to debates for the U.S. Senate candidates. CBS4 Political Specialist Shaun Boyd sat down with our analysts, Republican Dick Wadhams and Democrat Mike Dino, to talk about why the candidates are skipping so many debates.

Republican incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic challenger John Hickenlooper have agreed to only two debates, one in Pueblo and one in Denver.

Usually the Club 20 Debate on the Western Slope kicks off the debate season, but Gov. Jared Polis skipped it in 2018 and now Hickenlooper along with Congressional District 3 Democratic candidate Diane Mitsch Bush passed this year.

Boyd asked why candidates would want to avoid a debate that has traditionally been non-partisan.

"I do think on the Democratic side, certainly Governor Polis as a candidate set precedent for not showing up two years ago," Dino said. "What did surprise me is that the Republican candidate (for CD3) Lauren Boebert said she wasn't going to go because she wanted to pre-record her responses or at least know what the questions were ahead of time."

"Even 18 year ago when I was running a gubernatorial campaign for a Democrat, we knew that it may have leaned Republican but it was a friendly environment, collegial to some extent. I think that's changed. I think because of the last four years it's just become more strident, more negative and people feel less comfortable being in that venue than they once were."

Boyd also said she considered not doing the debate a bit of a snub to the Western Slope. Wadhams agreed.

"It's even a snub of rural Colorado, I think by Hickenlooper, especially," Wadhams said. "He also turned down a request by Club 20, Progressive 15 and Action 22, the three main rural organizations in Colorado. They wanted to jointly host a rural Colorado debate in Alamosa. Hickenlooper said no and I'm still not sure why."

"Frankly, I think it's a very disturbing trend. Two things. Number one, Democrats continue to kind of treat rural Colorado as an orphan and they don't have anything really to do with it. Second of all, we have had a proud tradition (of debates). I think it's a great Colorado tradition but it is in jeopardy right now because of the behavior of candidates in 2018, and, I think, of John Hickenlooper in 2020."

But Boyd wondered if voters even care about debates.

"I don't think so," was Dino's answer. "I think voters have a limited attention span. We have so many different media platforms. TV is still the most dominant one because we see all the money that's spent on ads but it comes to media not paid for in advertisements, it has less of a cache."

Wadhams had a bit of a different take. "I would never suggest that even during the glory years of debates -- where both candidate agreed to these debates -- that every Colorado voter was glued to their TV watching them. But I do think over the course of a series of four, five, six or even seven or eight debates, that voters become aware of where these candidates stand, their strengths and weaknesses."

"That's why I think debates are still very relevant and I just don't buy this notion of 'Well, we shouldn't do it because just because nobody wants it.'"

The group also tackled the issue of the first negative ad from Hickenlooper, something he has denounced since he got into politics.

"I think it's another reflection of where this race might be heading," Wadhams said. "For them to violate his long-standing, almost sacred, commitment he would never do a negative ad. Now he's got one up, (that) tells me they think they've got to go negative on Cory because of the dynamics of the race."

"Otherwise why would they go through the brain damage of the criticism they are gong to get and they are getting on this. I think it's just another indication this race is getting closer."

Dino agreed the Senate race is getting tighter. "What it'll come down to is that the voters don't penalize you for doing negative ads," Dino said. "They never have."

Wadhams disagreed, saying he believes Hickenlooper will pay a price for going negative.

Mike Dino is a Democratic government affairs expert with more than 30 years of experience. He was the CEO of the 2008 Democratic National Convention Host Committee where President Obama received his historic nomination. Dino also served as the executive director of Denver's Task Force for the 1997 Summit of the Eight.

Dick Wadhams is Republican political consultant who has worked with former Colorado Senator Wayne Allard and former Colorado Governor Bill Owens. He also worked on John Thune's upset victor over then United States Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota. Wadhams was elected as the Chair of the Colorado Republican Party in 2007 and 2009.

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