Western Colorado isn’t going to decide whether former Gov. John Hickenlooper can flip Sen. Cory Gardner’s seat in the U.S. Senate from red to blue.

If Hickenlooper is going to win, it’s because the Democratic machinery did its job turning out the vote in the I-25 urban corridor. But polling indicates the race is tightening and Hickenlooper’s decision to skip the Club 20 debates in September reinforces an unfortunate but unrelenting conceit: western Colorado doesn’t matter.

There’s a reason this region has a chip on its shoulder and Hickenlooper — despite being a champion of western Colorado and a frequent visitor during his tenure as governor — just aggravated the Western Slope inferiority complex.

Maybe in a normal year, Hickenlooper gets a pass for skipping the Club 20 debates, which have a history of being unfriendly to Democratic candidates.

But he endured them when he was campaigning to be governor and this year there will be no hostile crowds.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and public health guidelines to social distance and avoid large crowds, this year’s Club 20 debate on Sept. 19 will take place at Colorado Mesa University and be live-streamed to anyone who wants to watch, for free.

Like the gubernatorial debate at CMU in 2018, this debate will have a limited audience. Rules prohibit audience participation or disruption.

That’s why it’s hard to understand Hickenlooper’s reluctance to participate. All he has to do is show up and he dismantles a sudden perception that he doesn’t care about western Colorado.

We’d even hazard a guess that there are a significant number of “Hickenlooper Republicans” in our midst who could be soured by the cold political calculus in play.

“This is going to be the only debate in western Colorado,” said Christian Reece, the executive director of Club 20. “I appreciate that you don’t have to have western Colorado to win statewide election, but in order to be a good elected leader, you have to represent the entire state and not just the Denver metro area.”

As a former governor, Hickenlooper should know as well as anyone the tremendous potential western and rural Colorado could play in Colorado’s future. The right bills in Congress could help alleviate problems stemming from overgrowth on the Front Range and channel prosperity to economically disadvantaged areas of the state. What a missed opportunity for Hickenlooper to tout his support of public lands in Colorado — an issue with special relevance on this side of the divide.

Of course, it’s not too late for Hickenlooper to change his mind — and ours. If Hickenlooper is taking his cues from the Democratic National Committee, he must remember that skipping the Club 20 event will have repercussions even if he wins. It means he’ll have a lot of disillusioned constituents on his hands on Day 1.

But the worst outcome is the disturbing precedent it would set. Winning statewide office while punting on a Western Slope-centered debate won’t just widen the rural-urban divide in the state — it will make our marginalization endemic.

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