Updated 8:40 p.m.
Colorado voters have chosen Democrat John Hickenlooper to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in November. It’s a matchup that could be pivotal to determining which party controls the Senate.
Hickenlooper, a two-term governor and former Denver mayor, got into the race after a short-lived presidential bid, and he had the backing of national Democrats. Despite a campaign marked by several missteps on racial justice and an ethics complaint, Hickenlooper defeated former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, the more progressive candidate, by a wide margin after The Associated Press called the race at 7:21 p.m. MDT shortly after the polls closed.
On an election night like no other due to the coronavirus, instead of the usual campaign watch party, Hickenlooper learned the results at home with his family as supporters tuned in via Facebook live to hear him speak.
"Let me be clear. Change is coming and you and I are going to bring it together," Hickenlooper said in a short victory speech. He thanked his primary opponent for the strength of his beliefs. Hickenlooper said he's never lost a political race in Colorado. "And I don't intend to."
The Democratic strategy for the race was already on display when Hickenlooper tied Gardner to President Donald Trump.
“Cory Gardner will pretend he's independent. We know what Trump said. Cory Gardner is with us 100 percent of the time," said Hickenlooper. He urged people who are “fed up” with Washington to join his campaign and said he needs people to bring their passion and energy to the “fight ahead.”
The 68-year-old is one of the most well-known politicians in Colorado, and that strong name ID and long track record as governor is one reason Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and others recruited him to run for the Senate.
Hickenlooper repeatedly dismissed the idea during his presidential run, saying it was a job he wasn’t cut out for and wouldn’t want. Those statements followed him into his Senate bid, with both Romanoff and Gardner highlighting them as reasons not to support Hickenlooper — an attack that will likely come up again in the general election.
"I've always said Washington was a lousy place for a guy like me who wants to get things done. But this is no time to walk away from the table,” Hickenlooper said when announcing his bid, an idea he repeated often in debates and interviews.
He entered a crowded field of candidates, most of whom were women and many who were people of color. Romanoff was the only other person to make it to the primary ballot, though, and conceded the race to Hickenlooper then later spoke to his supporters via Zoom.
This is Romanoff’s third failed run for Congress, and the second time he has lost a Democratic primary for the Senate. Romanoff said he would get behind Hickenlooper in the general election and urged his supporters to do so.
“For all the differences that we had, and there are many in this race. I’m equally committed to making sure Cory Gardner is a one-term senator," Romanoff said. He added that the fight for the policies he believes in, isn’t over, "I think the work goes on, perhaps in a different capacity." Romanoff's father died a few days ago, and he said he realizes there are more important things than "any election result."
Leading up to the June 30 primary Hickenlooper made what many Democratic operatives referred to as a series of unforced errors. In a racial justice forum, when asked what the term ‘Black Lives Matter’ means to him, he said, “It means every life matters.” That wording echoes the phrase ‘all lives matter’ which is often used by opponents of the Black Lives Matter movement. A video from 2014 surfaced in which he compared politicians to slaves. He apologized for both incidents.
One of the biggest issues Hickenlooper will have to deal with going into the general election is the Colorado Independent Ethics commission’s decision that he ran afoul of Colorado's gift ban in two cases when he was governor. The commission dismissed a number of other complaints in the case. Hickenlooper originally defied a subpoena to testify remotely in the hearing and was found in contempt before eventually backing down and appearing.
“Any campaign worth their salt will continue to try to keep those narratives on the minds of voters, absolutely,” said Democratic political consultant Sheena Kadi. “I would expect Gardner's team to continue to do that.” She called Hickenlooper’s missteps unfortunate. “And it will be interesting to see how those narratives continue to play amongst voters as we move through this.”
It was an issue that left some Democratic voters like Elizabeth Jordan undecided on who to choose going into the closing days of the primary. She said neither Romanoff nor Hickenlooper was her first choice for the job and she wished the ethics situation had been handled differently.
“Hickenlooper, I think, is a politician in a mold that is quickly growing outdated. This sort of centrist triangulating to please everybody and don't really stick your neck out politician,” she said. “Especially as Colorado is an increasingly progressive place, he seems pretty out of touch. I'm concerned that putting him in that Senate seat is just kind of Cory Gardner-lite at the end of the day.”
But Jordan said she would still vote for him in the fall.
“I think it's really, really important that Cory Gardner not continue on in this seat.”
Throughout his career, Hickenlooper has largely pitched himself as a pragmatist, who can bring people together to solve problems. He’s warned against any embrace of socialism by the Democratic Party, as well as the expensive promises of Medicare For All and the Green New Deal. As governor, he led the state through a booming economy and signed legislation on stricter gun laws in the wake of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting.
Democratic State Rep. Bri Buentello, who represents Pueblo, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans but President Donald Trump won, thinks Hickenlooper has a great resume of creating jobs and a strong record on health care, public lands and water rights.
“He’s also the man who’s won statewide elections twice because he knows Colorado is so much more than just Denver, Boulder and El Paso counties and he campaigns like it,” Buentello said. “He’s immensely popular in a swing state with a healthy faction of independent voters; simply put, he’s the man to beat Cory Gardner.”
Hickenlooper’s focus on compromise has put him at odds with the rising anti-fracking movement in Colorado. At a time when local governments passed bans on hydraulic fracturing, Hickenlooper argued the state had to respect private property rights. He worked with the oil and gas industry on reforms, like methane capture rules, while keeping more extreme anti-oil and gas measures off the ballot.
Democratic voter Jennifer Riley from Craig describes herself as more liberal than Hickenlooper and thinks he has some weak points. But she said she thinks he’s the best choice to compete with Gardner.
“Honestly, I don't have to agree with every single thing that John Hickenlooper says or does. I have to agree with most of what he says and hope that he is going to be true to holding a moderate stance, bringing people together,” said Riley. “I have to believe that.”
Romanoff had hoped to ride a progressive wave but he got no help from progressive stalwarts like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, who endorsed Hickenlooper. The results show that groundswell from the left wasn’t strong enough. Some Democrats cited demographics, and Romanoff’s own history in state politics, as part of the problem for him.
“There is no person of color in the U.S. Senate race,” noted Democratic state Sen. Dominick Moreno, who didn’t endorse anyone in Colorado. “The progressive candidate, Andrew Romanoff has a long history of public service and wasn't always as progressive as he was in the Senate race.”
A General Election In The National Spotlight
Sen. Cory Gardner is viewed, even by his opponents, as a skilled and strategic politician. To win his first term in 2014, Gardner narrowly defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Udall by pitching himself as a moderate willing to buck his own party. The difference now is that he’s since aligned himself closely with President Trump. Gardner is one of the only Republican senators running for reelection in a state Trump lost.
“The question is, can Sen. Gardner overcome whatever negative there is from Trump being on the ballot?” said Republican political consultant Dick Wadhams, a former GOP state party chair. “I don't know what the specific numbers are, but I would have to assume that Trump's numbers in Colorado were not very good right now.”
Wadhams believes Gardner can still pull off a victory in Colorado, even if the president doesn’t win the state. Even then, he said the margin in the presidential race will have to be relatively close.
“If Trump can get more competitive in Colorado and get close enough to Biden, I think that Cory Gardner can make up the difference.”
To make those numbers work though, Gardner will have to bank on Coloradans continuing their historical willingness to split their tickets — voting for a candidate of one party in the presidential race and another for the Senate. In 2014, the year Gardner won office, voters also gave Hickenlooper a second term as governor. But Kadi doesn’t think there are many voters in 2020 willing to follow the same pattern for the presidential and Senate elections.
“I do think that we'll continue to see some split-ticket voters further down the ballot to more local elections.”
Voter Gena Ozols from Denver was undecided until the final days of the campaign.
“I think Hickenlooper’s greatest strengths are definitely that he has wonderful name recognition and … I think he has a very ‘Colorado vibe’ for lack of a better term. He feels very Western.”
But she wants him to partner with groups that represent communities of color and others that he maybe hasn’t won over yet.
“That's where I really hope that his campaign will take some stock into thinking about how to motivate new voters to actually be supportive of him rather than simply being against Cory.”