John Hickenlooper rushed into the Colorado U.S. Senate race with his third video of the year, racking up a game of pool at his old brew pub, the Wynkoop (his announcement was March 4 and his withdrawal August 15). He moved quickly because there are 11 Democrats already in the race and they appear unlikely to drop out or stop their fundraising, endorsement seeking or organizing. In an interview with April Zesbaugh and Marty Lenz on August 23, we discussed what challenges he faces in the transition from a failed presidential campaign to frontrunner in the Colorado Senate race.
Failed President Campaign
It had been clear to most observers that after the second presidential debate in late July that Hickenlooper had little to no possibility to make the next debate round. And, in spite of his repeated efforts to downplay any interest in the Colorado Senate race, a host of D.C. politicians and media personalities told him to drop out and switch.
Once a decision was made, he conferred with his colleague, Michael Bennet, and began a fast and well-planned transition as the video and some early endorsements show.
Numerous polls confirm that Hickenlooper would enter as the frontrunner against the little known Democratic primary field (more than 50 points in one poll) and that 2020 was likely a Democratic year in Colorado, with a 10- to 13-point advantage (much of the Democratic ticket won by more than 10 points in 2018).
Hickenlooper’s problem is that there are two Democratic parties voting in the Democratic primary next June. There are about 150,000 party activists. They represent the more progressive wing of the party and various important interest and identity groups, like organized labor, environmentalists, women and minorities. (There will also be a new bloc of unaffiliated voters who can participate.)
Previous elections and recent polls confirm that the progressive wing comprises more than half of these activists. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supporters are part of this group and don’t appreciate Hickenlooper’s anti-Medicare for All and Green New Deal positions. Anti-frackers have become more powerful in Colorado since Hickenlooper left office. They will actively oppose him. The teachers union opposes his position on charter schools and will likely find other candidates. At least early on, Hickenlooper will face the ire of Democratic groups that didn’t support him for president and won’t back him for senate unless forced to by the choice of Gardner vs. Hickenlooper.
Hickenlooper likely wouldn’t be in the senate race, but for the effort of the Democratic Party establishment, especially in D.C. and its media-friendly organizations, like MSNBC, to encourage him. Minority Leader Schumer and a host of other Democratic senators believe that Hickenlooper was needed to help retake the majority. Within a couple of days of the announcement, the DSCC endorsed him with its financial clout and team of top D.C. consultants.
The only problem is that Colorado Democrats resent and usually resist the party establishment. In 2016, Bernie Sanders crushed Hillary Clinton among the Colorado activists who tend to dominate the party nominating apparatus. Hickenlooper will likely need to go by a petition nominating route to minimize the rank and file resistance. Republicans should benefit from the Democratic Party’s nomination donnybrook.
A couple of side notes:
Hickenlooper mentioned Mitch McConnell as often as Cory Gardner in his video. McConnell polls worse than Gardner. Expect a lot of attacks on McConnell.
One visible message was that Hickenlooper is a straight shooter. His repeated disparagement of the Senate as not a place that gets things done and his disinterest in it will be a long-term political weakness. The sudden switch has made him appear a partisan politician, which he’s tried to avoid his entire career.