Hickenlooper ethics questions open him up to attack

Hickenlooper ethics questions open him up to attack
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Former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn Hickenlooper Senate outlook slides for GOP The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks MORE (D) is facing fresh questions over his conduct in office after an ethics panel found he violated a state law barring officials from accepting gifts, opening him up to new attacks in his Senate bid to unseat Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Finger-pointing, gridlock spark frustration in Senate Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE (R-Colo.). 

The Independent Ethics Commission found Hickenlooper violated the state’s constitutional gift ban when he accepted a ride in a Maserati limousine in Italy and flew on a private jet owned by a home builder to Connecticut to go the commissioning of a submarine. And while the former governor was cleared on a number of other counts, the decision provides Republicans ammunition in a race in which the party was largely playing defense.

“This is not a partisan body making this attack, this is a bipartisan body that Hickenlooper actually made appointments to,” said Joanna Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “When you look at the substance of that, of course it gives Gardner something to point to, but also at the same time, I don’t think this should be framed as something that’s partisan.”

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Hickenlooper first announced his Senate bid in August after his short-lived presidential campaign fizzled out, sparking plaudits from Democrats who believed the former two-term governor would be the party’s strongest contender against Gardner in a state trending blue.

The incumbent Republican is widely viewed as one of the most vulnerable senators running for reelection this cycle, and polls have shown Hickenlooper with double-digit leads in the race.

It is still unclear how the ethics findings will play out in the coming months in the race, but they provide Gardner and Republicans a chance to knock Hickenlooper in a race where they've had scant opportunities to go on offense.

Republicans said the recent ethics ruling could specifically puncture the argument that Hickenlooper was a Washington outsider who could relate to Coloradans, a central component of his campaign.

“I think that one of the things that voters evaluate candidates on is ‘do they share my values.’ And therefore, riding in Maserati limousines and flying on private jets does not tend to be the best illustration of sharing someone’s values, or most Coloradans’ values,” Lori Weigel, a Republican pollster with Colorado-based New Bridge Strategy, told The Hill. 

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“So I think it does provide a clear opening for Gardner because basically campaigns are about contrast, and if you’re in a vulnerable position, you have to… bring the other person down to a certain extent.” 

Republicans have already begun dinging Hickenlooper over the ruling, with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump on Kanye West's presidential run: 'He is always going to be for us' Marie Yovanovitch on Vindman retirement: He 'deserved better than this. Our country deserved better than this' Trump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' MORE weighing in Friday that the former governor,“Got caught big time with his hand in the cookie jar.” And the ethics questions come over the backdrop of widespread economic uncertainty fueled by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re dealing with a very different economy now. And economic distractions and people not knowing if they can pay rent, it’s just a very different dynamic, so riding in limousines in Italy just doesn’t sound like someone who quite understands the plight of most Coloradans,” said Weigel.

The findings also come weeks before Hickenlooper heads into the June 30 primary against Andrew Romanoff, a former Colorado House speaker. While the former governor is still expected to win the contest, Romanoff took the opportunity to knock Hickenlooper.

“I have no sympathy for the Republicans who brought this complaint. Their outrage is hard to stomach. But it wasn’t the GOP that found Hick in contempt or in violation of the CO Constitution. It was the Independent Ethics Commission. The message is clear: no one is above the law,” he tweeted.

Hickenlooper defenders beat back concerns that the panel’s decision would hurt his campaign, dismissing the initial complaint against him from 2018 as chock-full with Republican talking points.

The complaints against Hickenlooper were first fueled nearly two years ago after a campaign from the conservative group America Rising and included 97 total claims of misconduct – only two of which were not dismissed.

“The Republicans who launched these attacks pursued 97 allegations, and the Commission dismissed 95 — a result that shows you they’ve been focused not on the facts but on political smears,” said Hickenlooper's campaign spokesperson Melissa Miller.

“Trailing in the polls and with nothing to run on, his Republican allies launched desperate attacks - but the commission saw through them,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Stewart Boss added in a statement. 

But while Democrats maintained that Hickenlooper’s travel was part of a successful effort to boost Colorado’s economy and pointed to ethics issues Gardner could face himself, the campaign acknowledged that the GOP is likely to try to use the issue to go on the attack. 

“We fully expect the special interests who’ve exploited this process to continue to mislead Coloradans with negative attacks because they know John Hickenlooper will be an independent voice in the U.S. Senate,” said Miller.