A few more Democrats are opting out of this year’s Club 20 political debates, but others still plan to attend.

The Democrat in the race for the 3rd Congressional District, Diane Mitsch Bush, is the latest to announce that she’s not planning to attend the Sept. 19 candidate debates during the Western Slope advocacy group’s annual fall conference.

Mitsch Bush, who is running against Republican upstart Lauren Boebert, who unseated longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton during the June GOP primaries, cited the pandemic and “balancing the risk of exposure to the coronavirus” as her reason, her campaign said.

That’s an odd position to take given that this year’s debate is being conducted with the public health emergency in mind.

Instead of the traditional format in a meeting hall in front of a crowd, this year’s debates are to be held in private studios at Colorado Mesa University with only candidates and a handful of questioners present.

Still, Mitsch Bush is the second biggest named candidate to decline attending after former Gov. John Hickenlooper turned down Club 20’s invitation last month, mirroring what now Gov. Jared Polis did in his 2018 gubernatorial bid.

The two aren’t alone. Seth Cagin, the Democratic challenger to Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, for House District 58, also said he won’t attend, saying there’s nothing to benefit.

Meanwhile, Democrat Karl Hanlon has accepted an invitation to debate Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale.

Scott Beilfuss, second vice chairman of the Mesa County Democratic Party, explains why so many Democrats are shying away from Club 20.

“The group has been in a serious decline for some time because of their old politics,” Beilfuss said. “While it’s easy for Front Range candidates to swing by and kiss the ring, there is rarely anything of consequence that comes out of their meetings.”

Regardless, as his party’s candidate for House District 55, where he’s running against Rep. Janice Rich, R-Grand Junction, Beilfuss says he plans to debate.

While Beilfuss praised the group’s new format, he’s disappointed it took a pandemic to make Club 20 come around to his way of thinking, that the debates have become increasingly unfair and unfriendly to Democratic candidates.

“I think with all the backlash, Club 20 has gotten the message,” he said. “They are streaming it on Facebook, not out of generosity but out of necessity. We’ll see who the panel is and what the questions look like. If we spend all our time talking about coal and oil and gas, I guess things are not going to change.”

Beilfuss isn’t the only Democrat who plans to attend.

Christian Reece, Club 20’s executive director, said several other Democrats for various House races have accepted invitations to debate their opponents.

That includes AliceMarie Staven-Edmond, who’s running against Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta; Colin Wilhelm, the Democratic candidate against Rep. Perry Will, R-New Castle; and Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, whose Republican challenger is Kim McGahey.

McCluskie, who is a Club 20 member, said she’s going because she hasn’t experienced anything unfavorable, though she admits she’s only debated there once, when she was first elected in 2018.

McCluskie sits on the six-member Joint Budget Committee in the Colorado Legislature, so she’s used to working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Participating in Club 20 debates, she said, forces candidates to learn about and understand issues that are specific to the Western Slope.

“The format is challenging because there’s so much you have to know to really be well-versed to stand up there,” she said. “People have shared stores with me about past debates that were not friendly to Democrats, but that wasn’t my experience. It’s disappointing to hear that the audience was playing into the debate that felt hostile or unfriendly, particularly now because we have so few opportunities to connect with the voters. But I’m happy to participate and be a part of it.”

The Club 20 debates don’t include county commissioner races, which is too bad, says Kathryn Bedell, the Democratic challenger to Cody Davis, the GOP candidate for Mesa County Commission District 1.

“I have had very little contact with them, but if they were to invite me, I, too, would participate,” Bedell said. “I actually thought about reaching out to them to help build a better bipartisan base for them.”

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