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Ethics controversy rattles Hickenlooper's Senate bid

An ethics controversy is rattling former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperBiden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Push to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw Democratic super PAC pulls remaining ads from Colorado Senate race MORE’s (D) closely watched Senate bid as he prepares to face off against a progressive primary opponent later this month.

The impact of the controversy became apparent this week after back-to-back debates between Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff, a liberal former state representative.

Hickenlooper found himself playing defense for much of those debates, struggling to explain an ethics commission ruling that found that he had twice violated the state’s ban on public officials accepting gifts as governor.

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The former governor and 2020 presidential contender is still the favorite to win the June 30 primary to take on vulnerable Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDemocrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle Trump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in MORE (R-Colo.) in November. But the ethics controversy has provided new fodder for both Romanoff and Republicans, who are desperate to hold on to Gardner’s seat.

“Look, John Hickenlooper just wrote the Republicans’ ad against him twice now,” Romanoff said in the debate with Hickenlooper on Tuesday. “The truth is that John Hickenlooper represents a threat that we cannot afford.”

Romanoff has called on Hickenlooper to drop out of the Senate race.

The ethics controversy stems from a complaint filed by a conservative group that he had violated on multiple occasions a state rule that bans public officials or their family members from accepting gifts, travel, entertainment or any other thing of value if it exceeds a certain monetary limit.

The Colorado state ethics commission ruled last week that Hickenlooper had violated that ban twice in 2018 when he accepted a flight to Connecticut on a private jet and a limousine ride while attending the Bilderberg meetings in Italy.

On top of those violations, the ethics commission also voted unanimously this month to hold Hickenlooper in contempt after he defied a subpoena requiring him to testify at a virtual hearing about the gift violations. Hickenlooper argued that the hearing’s remote format — it was conducted via video due to the coronavirus pandemic — would violate his due process rights.

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Hickenlooper said that he had offered multiple times to appear in person at a later date, but the commission denied those requests. He eventually went before the panel on June 5.

“I thought my due process rights — and my lawyer supported this — that would be better served if I could appear in person,” Hickenlooper said during a debate with Romanoff on Wednesday, adding that the video conferencing format “doesn’t give you the same opportunities to communicate with people.”

In fact, the efforts to set up a hearing on the ethics complaint spanned months. An initial meeting date in February was postponed after the ethics commission was unable to secure a conference room. It was postponed yet again in March as the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold in the U.S.

Hickenlooper said on Wednesday that he accepted responsibility for the ethics violations. But he also accused Republicans of trying to weaken him ahead of the November elections with the allegations.

The group that filed the original ethics complaint with the commission, the Public Trust Institute, was formed in 2018 by former Colorado Republican state House Speaker Frank McNulty just two days before initiating the complaint — a move that Hickenlooper’s allies see as evidence of a political motivation.

“I accept responsibility for this. But we should remember that this is a dark money attack group — a Republican dark money group — that was going to smear my reputation no matter what,” he said. “They were going to smear any Democrat no matter what because Cory Gardner can’t run on his record. He’s been a yes man for Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE from beginning to end. He’s never been that independent voice for Colorado as he promised.”

The penalties for the ethics violations aren’t extraordinary. The ethics commission moved on Friday to fine Hickenlooper a total of $2,750 for the two violations: $2,200 for the private flight to Connecticut and $550 for the limousine ride in Italy. Hickenlooper's campaign said he will not appeal the commission's decision and will personally pay the fine.

The panel did not issue a penalty for the contempt citation, though it voted unanimously on Friday to reject a request from Hickenlooper to purge the citation.

Still, the flurry of activity in the ethics case against Hickenlooper comes during a critical period in the Colorado Senate race. The primary is just more than two weeks away, and Democratic and unaffiliated voters in the state began receiving mail-in ballots this week.

Jesse Hunt, the communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that the ethics violations presented a “serious problem for him with Colorado voters.” Republicans are already planning to use the controversy against Hickenlooper if he wins the Democratic nomination.

“The fact that he was held in contempt because he refused to comply with a subpoena shows you he’s afraid to be transparent about what he did during his time as governor and fuels further questions about his unethical behavior,” Hunt said.

There are also some bright spots for Romanoff, a progressive who backs "Medicare for All" and the Green New Deal. Romanoff scored a decisive victory over Hickenlooper in the Colorado Democratic caucuses in March.

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At the same time, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOcasio-Cortez says she doesn't plan on 'staying in the House forever' What a Biden administration should look like Ocasio-Cortez: 'Trump is the racist visionary, but McConnell gets the job done' MORE (I-Vt.) carried Colorado in the March 3 presidential primaries, making it one of only four states that went for the progressive firebrand on Super Tuesday and suggesting that the left flank of the Democratic Party may have momentum in the state.

But Democratic operatives in Colorado and Washington say that Hickenlooper still has the advantage both in the primary and in the general election in November.

After being elected to two terms as mayor of Denver, he went on to serve two terms in the Colorado governor’s mansion from 2011 until 2019. He also ran briefly for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination last year before exiting the race and launching his Senate bid.

He has near-universal name recognition in Colorado and the backing of national Democrats, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which endorsed the former governor last August.

He also has a massive financial advantage over Romanoff. In the first quarter of 2020, Hickenlooper’s campaign brought in more than $4 million to Romanoff’s $421,000. At the end of the period, the former governor reported having nearly $4.9 million on hand, while Romanoff lagged at about $806,000.

Whichever candidate pulls off a win on June 30 will face off against Gardner in November in one of the closest-watched Senate races of the 2020 cycle.

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Gardner’s seat is one of four Republican-held seats that both parties see as pivotal to deciding control of the Senate this year. Election handicappers currently rate the race as a toss-up.

Democrats need to flip three or four Republican-held seats, depending on which party wins control of the White House, to recapture a majority in the Senate. But one of the party’s incumbents, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), is in serious political danger, so Democrats will likely need to win at least four GOP Senate seats this year.

But Gardner, a first-term senator who was elected in 2014, is in a particularly vulnerable position. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Trump fights for battleground Arizona Biden leads Trump by 12 in new national poll MORE carried Colorado in the 2016 by nearly 5 points.

Since then, the state has continued to shift to the left. In 2018, current Gov. Jared PolisJared Schutz PolisColorado governor says he was not exposed to COVID-19 after Aurora mayor tests positive Nursing home residents stage protest of coronavirus restrictions Newsom's EV executive order will help make California breathable again MORE (D) won a decisive 10-point victory to succeed Hickenlooper as governor and Rep. Jason CrowJason CrowGiffords launches national Gun Owners for Safety group to combat the NRA House approves .2T COVID-19 relief bill as White House talks stall Lawmakers grill Pentagon over Trump's Germany drawdown MORE (D-Colo.) defeated five-term Rep. Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard CoffmanColorado governor says he was not exposed to COVID-19 after Aurora mayor tests positive Colorado mayor says he called protesters 'domestic terrorists' out of 'frustration' Colorado governor directs officials to reexamine death of Elijah McClain in police custody MORE (R-Colo.) in a district that had been in Republican hands for more than three decades.

That same year, Democrats seized control of Colorado’s state government for the first time since 1936 after winning control of the state Senate and three statewide offices.

Polling in the match-up between Hickenlooper and Gardner has been scarce, but a Keating-Onsight-Melanson survey last month showed the former governor leading Gardner 54 percent to 36 percent.

Republicans acknowledged Gardner’s precarious position in the race but argued that Hickenlooper’s ethics violations could give the GOP senator an opening with unaffiliated and less ideologically driven voters in the fall.

“There are folks that — not everything is ideological,” said one GOP official who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the state of the race. “They might be voting against Republicans and Trump this time around. But I do think there are nonideological voters out there that will go for Cory Gardner.”