DENVER (AP) — Colorado's Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates wasted little time Wednesday in staking out their starkly contrasting visions — one liberal, one aligned with President Donald Trump — in a state whose unaffiliated voters will have a decisive role in choosing a successor to term-limited Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Republican Walker Stapleton, the two-term state treasurer and winner of Tuesday's GOP gubernatorial primary, lashed out at Democratic candidate U.S. Rep. Jared Polis as a free-spending liberal out of touch with tax-averse Coloradans.
Polis cast Stapleton as bound to Trump and as someone who offers no fiscal solutions to Colorado's chronically underfunded roads and schools and its striking gaps in health care coverage — disparities that disproportionately burden rural eastern and western Colorado with few insurance carriers and some of the nation's highest rates.
Both seek to succeed Hickenlooper, a centrist business-friendly Democrat who has presided over one of the strongest economic expansions of any U.S. state — largely fueled by oil and gas production — and who is an ardent defender of public lands that are vital to Colorado's multibillion-dollar recreation industry.
Hickenlooper's name has been linked with Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich's as a prospective 2020 presidential ticket.
Republicans haven't held the governor's office since 2007, but Colorado remains a purple state. Republicans control the state Senate and hold the treasurer's, attorney general's and secretary of state's offices. Four of Colorado's seven congressmen are Republicans, as is U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner.
Gardner and top state Republicans closed ranks around Stapleton on Wednesday, eager to exploit what they see as Polis's vulnerabilities: His advocacy of a regional single-payer health care system; his support for tight local control of fracking; and his pledge to unravel limits on raising taxes — limits that have frustrated Democrats' attempts to invest needed billions of dollars in Colorado's schools and roads.
Voters oppose "Bernie Sanders-style health care coming to Colorado," Stapleton, a supporter of Trump's efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, told KMGH-TV. He was referring to a failed 2016 single-payer ballot initiative.
Stapleton also said Polis' commitment to renewable energy standards for the state would "drive 230,000 jobs from Colorado and take $32 billion out of our economy."
Polis, a five-term congressman, said Stapleton offered no solutions to infrastructure investment or strengthening health care. He again criticized Stapleton's embrace of Trump on immigration — including the separation of immigrant families along the Mexico border — and a federal tax cut that Polis insists has not benefited lower-income taxpayers.
A voter-passed 2016 initiative allowed unaffiliated voters to participate in Tuesday's primaries. More than a quarter-million did so, and most of them voted Democratic, according to the secretary of state's office.
Republicans were undaunted.
"Having secured the GOP base, Walker Stapleton can focus on an unaffiliated population that represents the true middle," said Ryan Lynch, a former executive director of the state Republican Party. "I don't think Jared Polis' socialist rhetoric is going to resonate."
As for Trump's influence in a state that went for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, Lynch added: "It's no longer a divisive area among the party faithful. ... I don't think Stapleton's support of the president disenfranchised much of the GOP in the primary."
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