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When he first ran for statewide office in 2010, John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, told voters he supported the death penalty. But last year, as the state prepared to kill Nathan Dunlap, a convicted quadruple-murderer whom doctors had diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Hickenlooper said that new information—about the cost of execution, Dunlap’s mental illness, and members of the jury who had changed their minds about killing Dunlap—had caused him to change his opinion. Hickenlooper stayed the execution but stopped short of granting full clemency—thus leaving his successors with the option of ordering Dunlap’s execution at some future date. “Colorado’s system of capital punishment is imperfect and inherently inequitable,” Hickenlooper said at the time. “Such a level of punishment really does demand perfection.”
Now Bob Beauprez, Hickenlooper’s Republican opponent, is running a campaign centered on a simple promise: Elect me and I’ll kill that guy.
“When I’m governor, Nathan Dunlap will be executed,” Beauprez, a former congressman who represented Colorado’s 7th District from 2003 to 2007, promised during a GOP primary debate in May. “This is not a flippant issue,” Beauprez’s communications director said in an email, “but Bob does believe capital punishment should be an option for our most heinous crimes.”
Hickenlooper, a once-popular mayor of Denver, is now running about even in the polls with Beauprez. And although it’s unclear exactly how much Hickenlooper’s death penalty stance plays into his struggles, a poll last year found that 67 percent of Coloradans disapproved of his decision in the Dunlap case.
“It was handled very clumsily,” says Kyle Saunders, a political scientist at Colorado State University. “It was a very nuanced decision in his head, but it came off being very wishy-washy and weak.”