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Polis’ plan to skip Club 20 debate kicks up a fuss on the Western Slope

Author: Joey Bunch - August 1, 2018 - Updated: August 1, 2018

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis waves to the crowd before accepting the Democratic nomination for the Colorado Governor’s race at an election night rally June 26 in Broomfield. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

A gubernatorial candidate hasn’t bypassed the Club 20 debate for decades, if ever, and folks on the Western Slope aren’t taking Jared Polis’ decision lightly.

Monday Colorado Politics reported the debates that Polis, the Democratic nominee, and Republican Walker Stapleton were willing to do between now and Election Day. Polis is sending Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, a candidate he beat in the primary, in his stead to the Sept. 8 event in Grand Junction.

> RELATED: Polis, Stapleton commit to debates (just not the same ones)

“There are lots of great invitations and events heading into the fall,” said Polis’ spokeswoman, Mara Sheldon. “We just can’t make this one work. There are going to be plenty of opportunities to watch debates. That’s why we committed to 13 debates and forums over the course of the next 98 days.

“Jared opened his first campaign office in Grand Junction. His first public event after becoming the nominee and announcing his lieutenant governor was also in Grand Junction. And he is excited to be participating in a Grand Junction Sentinel debate later in the fall. He is committed to talking with the voters of Western Colorado.”

For 30 years Club 20’s election-year debates have been held the Saturday after Labor Day, signaling the final run to the November statewide elections.

Christian Reece, the organization’s executive director, said she was surprised when she learned the 30-year tradition for gubernatorial debates had been upended. She said she learned about it from Polis’ press release, not from a direct conversation with the campaign. While Western Colorado hasn’t been fertile ground vote Democratic votes, Reece said she’s hearing from Democratic members who are concerned the decision might hurt the ticket in local races.

Club 20 is the high-profile coalition of business and local government from 22 Western Slope counties. In Colorado political parlance, to say Club 20 wields influence is like saying Gov. John Hickenlooper knows beer.

The campaigns chose five debate sponsors in common, but the final calendar is not yet set. Besides a face-off in Grand Junction, the campaigns separately chose one in Pueblo and three televised debates in Denver.

Stapleton and Republican groups piled on the Club 20 decisions, however, conflating the debate into a signal that Polis doesn’t care about rural Colorado.

Stapleton’s campaign said Polis showed “disregard” by not choosing the Club 20 invitation or one by its Eastern Plains counterpart, Progressive 15.

“Congressman Polis’ choice to skip debates focused on issues facing rural Colorado is an insult to our rural communities and shows Congressman Polis is not ready to represent all of our state,” Stapleton said in a statement.

Kelly Maher at the conservative Compass Colorado put out a release announcing, satirically, that Polis is running for the governor of Denver and Boulder.

“How a candidate for governor chooses to focus his time is indicative of what he finds important in this race,” she said. “Jared Polis just told the entire Western Slope they’re not worth his time or attention. Colorado is bigger than just Denver and Boulder, but Jared Polis isn’t acting like it.”

Maher sent out a fundraising email to Compass Colorado supporters about “holding Jared Polis accountable” over the Club 20 decision, as well.

But, Polis (and Stapleton) agreed to debate in Grand Junction — at an event sponsored by the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Colorado Mesa University and Rocky Mountain PBS — just not at Club 20’s event on Sept. 8. And most, if not all, of the TV debates will air statewide.

The Republican Governors Association exclaimed missing the Club 20 event was a “slap in the face” to Western Colorado.

“Colorado deserves a pragmatic leader who will listen to the entire state — not a far-left radical who ignores the state’s rural voters,” RGA stated.


Correction: This article was modified at 9:32 a.m. Aug. 1 to correct the date of the Club 20 debate in Grand Junction.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.