John Hickenlooper jumps into the Colorado Senate race with universal name recognition, Democratic establishment cred and a strong electability argument — as well as progressive discomfort with his record and a broad field of primary opponents who say he won’t force them out of the race.
In other words, he’s the Joe Biden of his new campaign.
Hickenlooper struggled to make an impact on the presidential race, but the ex-governor is now the heavyweight, with a familiar set of pluses and minuses that come with it. While the former governor’s positions on energy, health care and other issues have prompted discomfort and pressure on the left, he’s also a twice-elected known quantity in one of the most important Senate races in the country, and polling shows he enters the race as a clear front-runner. That — as well as signature accomplishments fighting gun violence and boosting his state’s economy — may send him to Washington.
“At the end of the day, I think, the one thing Democrats want is to beat” GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, said Doug Friednash, a former chief of staff to Hickenlooper. He listed off issues from climate change to the Supreme Court where he said Washington was out of step with Colorado voters.
“That will energize a lot of people and that is to John’s benefit because he walks in as the candidate who is the safest bet to beat Cory,” Friednash said. “I think that’s the part that’s going to be hard for these other candidates to overcome and gives him a huge advantage.”
Democrats need to flip three seats to gain the Senate majority if they win the White House, and their hopes start in Colorado, which is one of only two states Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 where a Republican senator is up for reelection. (The other is Maine.)
Despite Hickenlooper’s early polling advantage, he isn’t likely to clear the field of around a dozen Democrats currently running for Senate — at least not immediately. Each of the top-tier candidates sent out statements Thursday promising to continue their campaigns, for reasons including generational change and more progressive platforms. Several candidates would, unlike Hickenlooper, break demographic barriers: Dan Baer, a former Obama administration official, would be the first openly gay man in the Senate, and several women are running to be the first female senator from Colorado.
Baer said in a statement that there are “new voices ready to lead across our state.” State Sen. Angela Williams said Hickenlooper has “failed to fight for the progressive solutions our state and country need.” Andrew Romanoff, a former state House speaker, said he disagrees with Gardner and Hickenlooper on “some fundamental issues.” Alice Madden, a former state House leader and Mike Johnston, a former state senator who leads the field in fundraising, similarly have vowed to stay in the race.
“Frankly, any of the major candidates in the race right now beat Cory Gardner,” said Joan Fitz-Gerald, a former state Senate president who endorsed Madden. “It is not going to be that the field suddenly clears and the sun comes out and the rainbows and pot of gold go to John Hickenlooper. That’s just not going to happen.”
But most strategists in the state think Hickenlooper will consolidate support and resources quickly and maintain his status as a front-runner.
“He’s best positioned because of his track record. He’s a two-term governor that’s proven he can get things done,” said Josh Morrow, executive director of 314 Action, a group that promotes Democratic candidates with a science background and started a draft effort to get Hickenlooper into the race. “I think that makes him the best candidate. If that also means he’s the most electable, fine.”
One Colorado Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, predicted that Hickenlooper would face a relatively painless path to the party’s nomination.
“This primary is going to be absolutely handed to him, unlike Biden, where he’s going to have to fight to the very last vote,” this strategist said.
Hickenlooper, who avoided any negative campaigning during his gubernatorial runs, isn’t likely to attack his fellow Democratic competitors, trying to stay above the fray of the primary. He told the Denver Post there is “a lot of talent in the field” but said he has “unique experience” as a mayor and governor.
In a video launching his campaign, Hickenlooper — who previously said he was “not cut out to be a senator” and disparaged the job of a legislator — said Washington is a “lousy place” but added, “This is no time to walk away from the table.”
“I don’t think Cory Gardner understands that the games he’s playing with Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell are hurting the people of Colorado. We ought to be working together to move this country forward, and stop the political nonsense,” Hickenlooper said in the video, while shooting billiards in the Denver brewpub he founded.
Casey Contres, Gardner’s campaign manager, said in a statement Hickenlooper was “just another liberal in the clown car.”
“Whoever their party nominates will be wildly out of step with Colorado and we look forward to facing them in the general election,” Contres said.
But Democrats across the spectrum — from those boosting Hickenlooper to those skeptical of his candidacy — agree the party is in strong shape in Colorado heading into next fall. Democrats swept statewide races in 2018, and they won the gubernatorial race by double-digits despite a hard-fought primary earlier that year.
Ian Silverii, who leads ProgressNow Colorado, a progressive advocacy group, said he expected Democrats to rally and defeat Gardner in the increasingly blue state regardless of who their nominee is.
“Electability, purity, policy, all these tests people are running miss the point,” he said. “The point is win, the point is beat Gardner and beat McConnell.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine