Colorado’s Hickenlooper Faces Voter Gun-Control Backlash

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Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) addresses the audience at the Colorado Energy Forum presented by the Consumer Energy Alliance on October 14, 2014 in Westminster, Colorado.

Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Colorado voters who once supported Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper now plan to cast their ballots for his Republican challenger, citing the incumbent’s support for the toughest gun laws in a decade and a reprieve from execution he granted to a convicted killer on death row.

Polls show Hickenlooper, the former Denver mayor and geologist once considered America’s most popular governor, is in a statistical dead heat against Bob Beauprez, a bison rancher and former congressman who lost a 2006 run for the state’s highest office by 16 percentage points. Beauprez is leading Hickenlooper by less than 1 point, according to an average of polls by RealClearPolitics.com.

The tight race reflects a divide between rural residents angered by new regulations and city dwellers in Denver and Boulder. Hickenlooper presided over laws requiring background checks for gun purchases, limiting the size of ammunition magazines and imposing renewable energy mandates.

“I saw a guy I thought matched up with the way I looked at the world who failed to stop a runaway legislature,” said Dave Maney, 51, chief executive officer of Deke Digital LLC, a Wheat Ridge-based digital marketing services firm.

‘Personal Freedoms’

“He went from being happy to drink fracking fluid to somehow being willing to brook this giant discussion on drilling near communities,” said Maney, a registered unaffiliated voter who donated to Hickenlooper’s 2010 campaign but plans to cast his ballot for Beauprez. “Then he moved to restrict peoples’ personal freedoms with guns.”

In December 2011, Hickenlooper tied with Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman as the nation’s most popular governors, according to Raleigh, North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling. Political commentators mentioned him as a possible presidential contender. A Public Policy Polling survey released yesterday listed his approval rating at 43 percent.

Senators Recalled

Some voters say Hickenlooper changed from an entrepreneur who won in 2010 on a platform of keeping government out of peoples’ lives into a liberal politician seeking to please the national Democratic party. Eleven counties sought to secede from the state in the 2013 election as two state senators who voted for gun-control laws were recalled by voters.

The state’s political future is at stake Nov. 4. Hickenlooper is on the ballot, along with all 65 members of the Colorado House, about half the state Senate, all seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives and one of two members of the U.S. Senate. The race intensified this week, with voters marking ballots in the state’s first all-mail election. The state legislature is currently controlled by Democrats.

Sagging Economies

Hickenlooper finds himself in a battle akin to that faced by incumbent governors in Connecticut and Illinois, who instituted tax increases to combat sagging economies. Meanwhile, Colorado’s economic recovery is outpacing the nation’s with a 4.7 percent unemployment rate in September, compared to 5.9 percent for the U.S.

Gubernatorial elections in 11 states are considered toss-ups, according to The Cook Political Report. Thirty-six governors in total are up for re-election.

A sitting governor hasn’t lost an election in Colorado, carried by President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, in almost four decades. The race is considered by both parties as critical going into the 2016 presidential contest.

“Hickenlooper is remarkable for his ability to remain controversial,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at The Cook Political Report.

Summer Gaffes

The governor had a gaffe-filled summer in which a conservative group secretly recorded him at a meeting with county sheriffs saying he didn’t think background checks for all gun purchases were “going to be controversial.”

“If we’d known it was going to divide the state so intensely, I think we probably would have thought about it twice,” Hickenlooper, 62, said of the ammunition magazine limits in a video posted online by Revealing Politics.

The remarks, and a CNN program on the death penalty that re-energized the debate over capital punishment, provided an opening for Beauprez to gain 11 percentage points in the polls. The former banker who lost the governor’s race to Bill Ritter Jr. in 2006 after being dubbed “Both Ways Bob” by a challenger for inconsistent statements, has focused his campaign in part on criticisms of Hickenlooper’s centrist leadership style.

‘Getting Paralyzed’

“You seem to have a habit of getting paralyzed by -- you call it -- collaboration,” Beauprez, 66, said to Hickenlooper during an Oct. 6 debate sponsored by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t have a problem looking at an issue, sometimes a very difficult issue, and making a decision.”

Hickenlooper responded: “Deliberation isn’t necessarily a weakness.”

Beauprez vowed to undo several of Hickenlooper’s hallmark accomplishments, including nullifying a commission the governor convened to study fracking’s impact on communities to avoid a costly election fight over ballot measures to restrict drilling.

The challenger also said he would order the execution of Nathan Dunlap, who was convicted of robbing and killing four employees at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese in 1993. Hickenlooper granted Dunlap a temporary reprieve on his death sentence in May 2013 -- a reversal of his previous support of the death penalty.

Beauprez also said he would repeal a program signed into law by Hickenlooper that has provided driver’s licenses to 1,159 undocumented immigrants in its first month of existence.

Pouring Millions

Outside groups are pouring millions of dollars into television advertising in the final weeks of the race to influence an electorate evenly divided between Democrats, Republicans and independents. The Republican Governors Association raised $5 million and Making Colorado Great, a committee supporting the governor, scheduled $4.4 million in ads. Hickenlooper reported $4.8 million in contributions as of Oct. 14, more than three times more than Beauprez, who brought in $1.4 million, according to the Colorado Secretary of State.

Business Climate

About 40 percent of 1,211 voters interviewed by phone for a Sept. 17 Quinnipiac University poll ranked the economy as their top issue, with energy and the environment tying for second and gun policy ranking third in importance. A key issue in the race is the state’s business climate. With 200,000 new jobs, Colorado is home to the nation’s fastest growing economy, even as it continues to recover from the worst flood in 100 years, Hickenlooper said in an online ad.

“What’s perplexing to me is that the state and local economy is doing well -- usually when that’s the case the governor has an easier time with re-election,” said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado in Denver. “There are a lot of moderate, independent voters who are looking at Republican candidates more happily then they did in past cycles.”

Colorado’s unemployment level is higher than that of surrounding states, said Beauprez at the Denver Chamber debate.

“There is a whole lot of this state that is still wondering where is this recovery for them,” he said. “We are about 200,000 jobs short of where we would be if we had a full labor participation rate.”

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