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Colorado voters could well decide this fall which party will control the U.S. Senate. Next week, they will pick the Democrat to challenge Republican Senator Cory Gardner. Former Governor John Hickenlooper was the party's first choice for the nomination, but his campaign has hit several snags in recent weeks. Bente Birkeland from Colorado Public Radio reports.
BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: John Hickenlooper was a two-term governor and Denver mayor. He also had a short-lived presidential bid. His primary opponent is former State House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who is less well known and more progressive. Among the first-time voters watching these candidates is 18-year-old Emma Tang.
EMMA TANG: I'm just so torn. My conscience doesn't want me to vote for either candidate.
BIRKELAND: As a child of Taiwanese immigrants, Tang says she doesn't support Romanoff's endorsement of a tough immigration law early in his career. As for Hickenlooper, she was concerned about his answer during a racial justice forum during the height of the George Floyd protests in Denver. He was asked what the term Black Lives Matter means to him.
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JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Black Lives Matter means that every life matters and that the color of a person's skin has nothing to do with the richness of their lives.
TANG: I feel like he should have done some research on all lives matter versus Black Lives Matter because it's been all over the news, all over social media. But I think there's nothing he could do or say now that would honestly make me want to vote for him.
BIRKELAND: Later, Hickenlooper apologized and said he does believe Black Lives Matter. Tamra deBrady is the president of Colorado Black Women for Political Action and was the one who asked him that question.
TAMRA DEBRADY: Being in a society that seems to show us and treat us like our lives have no value, you know, it was very disappointing.
BIRKELAND: At a different event, Hickenlooper mistakenly said George Floyd was shot. And then a video surfaced from 2014 where Hickenlooper compared politicians to slaves. And there's more. Colorado's Independent Ethics Commission determined that he violated the state's gift ban twice when he was governor. Hickenlooper defied a subpoena to testify remotely in the ethics commission hearing. He argued that it would violate his due process rights. Eventually, he backed down.
JENNIFER RILEY: The fact that he didn't comply with the subpoena, was found in contempt - I was just like, that is just so stupid. You know, instead of just owning it, that is frustrating.
BIRKELAND: Jennifer Riley is a Democrat from rural northwest Colorado. Despite her frustrations, she's going to vote for Hickenlooper. Riley thinks he has the broadest appeal to compete with Senator Gardner.
RILEY: I'm OK with moderate. I'm OK with compromise. And, well, when he was governor, I think he did compromise, and he got people on both sides of the aisle to support him.
BIRKELAND: Ultimately, Democratic insiders like Colorado's House Speaker KC Becker say they think Hickenlooper's long track record may blunt the impact of his missteps.
KC BECKER: That's going to carry him a long way. And he has always come across as someone who's really relatable and friendly, and that's an important trait, you know, in a time when things are so divisive.
BIRKELAND: But whether friendliness and Hickenlooper's oddball nature set the right tone for this historic moment is one of the things voters are grappling with, as they feel the weight of potentially deciding control of the Senate.
For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Denver.
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