Near the end of the town hall in Frisco on a recent Friday, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat in his ninth year in the Senate, invoked the famous answer Benjamin Franklin gave when asked what the framers of the Constitution had created.
"He was asked, 'What kind of government are you forming, a republic or a monarchy?' and his answer was, 'A republic, if you can keep it.'"
While Bennet had spent a little over an hour discussing everything from the Trump administration's proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency - "I think we've decided we should have the freedom to have the Cuyahoga River catch on fire again," he quipped, to the Republican Senate's plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, more than half the questions were about health care. The theme that reverberated throughout the meeting was Bennet's contention that the great American experiment could be at risk.
More than 225 years after drafting the Constitution, Bennet said, the founders might be shocked that their government had adapted and grown to a county spanning a continent, leading the world, with 300 million people and the biggest economy the world has ever known.
"That's because of their genius and because of generations and generations of Americans that answered Ben Franklin's call. And that's what this is about now for us," he said. "It's a republic, if we can keep it. And we can keep it if we stand up for independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press and balance of powers and keeping too much money out of our political system and making sure that not just 50 percent of the people vote in this country, but that 90 percent or 100 percent of the people eligible to vote, vote in this country.
"And if we do that, we will be around for the next generation and the generation after that."
He was met with nods and applause from the roughly 100 people crowded into a meeting room at the Summit County Community and Senior Center for Bennet's first town hall of the day. Two more were scheduled that afternoon, in Edwards and Glenwood Springs, bringing to 10 the number of town halls the senator has held across the state this year.
At one point, an angry constituent rose to deliver some advice - questions were taken at random from cards submitted by the audience, though this man started out by saying he was going to skip the topic he'd written down - and vent some frustration.
"What I'm hearing from you is, we're pretty much screwed for the next four years - these other people in power are going to dismantle what's taken a while to assemble."
Gathering steam, he said, "When somebody comes up with a bald-faced lie, call him on it. ... They don't know the meanings of the words they're using. Call them on it."
"Words," Bennet said, shaking his head, "have lost their meaning. I think that's exactly right."
"None of us picked this time we were going to have to deal with a president who doesn't believe in separation of powers, doesn't believe in an independent judiciary, doesn't believe in freedom of the press," he continued. "This is a time it would be very easy for people to divert their eyes and say it's so screwed up back there."
Then he brought up examples he said suggested the president was on a mission to "decouple" Americans from reality.
"When Trump said journalists were not covering terrorist acts," Bennet said, sounding exasperated and throwing out his hands, "newspapers put out a list, a long list - there are journalists who have literally been beheaded in the Middle East. And if you don't think this is part of a broader effort to try to disenfranchise the American people from their democracy, I think you're wrong."
However, he concluded, "I am not settling for the idea that we're just screwed for the next four years."
The next question was about insurance rating areas - a big concern in Summit County, which has some of the most expensive health insurance in the country. "You're free to buy insurance you can't afford," he said with a grim chuckle. "That should distinguish us as proud, free people - as opposed to all those shackled people in Europe."
As members of the crowd chuckled, Bennet continued. "I've never heard people say, 'Could you please give a $400 billion tax cut to the richest Americans? Very seldom have I heard somebody say, 'It'd be a good idea to cut Medicaid by a quarter,' which is what that bill does - that's before an $800 billion cut to Medicaid that they haven't just proposed, they've passed."
Then, in a line that prompted a quick smile from Bennet before he delivered it - he knew it would draw some laughter, which it did - Bennet said, his voice rising, "I join the Freedom Caucus in their critique of the bill the House passed, because it really is just Obamacare Lite."
In an interview with Colorado Politics before the town hall, Bennet went into some detail about a point he said he intended to make at the meeting.
"I've talked about how important it is for us to distinguish between edited content - curated content - and content that's just gibberish on the internet," he said. "I think that's important for everybody. I hope that we all have the opportunity to reassert the importance of our institutions - not just our democratic institutions, but our journalistic institutions as well."
Did the Russians interfere with the U.S. election last year?
"They absolutely did," Bennet said. "That is a place where I don't understand why Republican members of the Senate and the House aren't saying this is a - we ought to be sanctioning Russia right now."
Then, measuring his words carefully, Bennet laid out why he believes it matters.
"This shouldn't be hard," he said. "Everyone in - I won't say everyone in America - everyone who's had access to the intelligence here, with the possible exception of President Trump, knows that the Russian incursion here was real and was serious, and they were trying to influence the outcome of our elections.
Whether the Trump campaign had any involvement in the Russian meddling, he added, "is an entirely different question. What Russia did isn't."