Updated 8:20 p.m.
Colorado’s former two-term governor, Democrat John Hickenlooper, has defeated Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. When the race was called, Hickenlooper led by 10 points, according to projected returns from the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.
The Associated Press called the race at 7:42 p.m., less than one hour after polls closed. This victory gives Democrats an early decisive win tonight, in a key race that could help determine which party controls the U.S Senate. Since Democrats have lost Alabama’s Senate race, the party needs to flip four Republican seats to take power.
Both Hickenlooper and Gardner’s campaigns held virtual election night watch parties and Gardner conceded the race to Hickenlooper just as it was being called.
“I will support him in this transition any way that I can to make sure that it's as smooth as possible,” said Gardner, who had called Hickenlooper moments earlier. “And please understand to all the people who supported our efforts tonight, that his success is Colorado's success and our nation and our state need him to succeed.”
Gardner won his seat in 2014 by narrowly defeating a Democratic incumbent and Democrats started the 2020 cycle optimistic they could flip the seat back to blue. President Donald Trump’s relative unpopularity in Colorado, as well as a Democratic wave of victories in state races in 2018, suggested Gardner was one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country. He is also one of the only Republican senators running in a state Trump lost. Polls through the summer and fall have consistently shown Hickenlooper comfortably ahead in the race.
Even though it was the most expensive Senate race in Colorado history, racking up $64 million dollars in TV ads, the final stretches of the campaign were relatively anti-climatic. Neither candidate made obvious missteps and both stayed on message. Gardner touted his bipartisan accomplishments in Congress, as Hickenlooper worked to tie him to the president and pledged to bring change to Washington.
“Cory Gardner has more or less voted completely in line with Donald Trump, supporting him and enabling him to do all the things that I find distasteful, repulsive, and quite likely illegal,” said Democratic voter Scott Ingram. He says he voted for Hickenlooper but says he would have given Gardner a second look, had he not supported things like the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett so close to the election. “He is unwilling to stand against his party leadership when it counts and to think for himself or for more centrists.”
Democratic political strategist Craig Hughes of Hilltop Public Solutions believes Gardner also gambled away the potential support of some unaffiliated voters by not distancing himself from Trump.
“When he chose to vote nearly every time with President Trump, the dye was cast and it became very hard to win,” said Hughes, who ran Sen. Michael Bennet’s successful re-election campaign four years ago.
But others say there wasn’t much Gardner could do, as he had to shore up GOP voters who back the president.
“I don't think Gardner could have done anything differently,” said Sal Pace, Democratic former state House Minority Leader. “He's as strong a candidate as Republicans have and this is really just symptomatic of the change in Colorado voters.”
Pace worked with Gardner in the state legislature and Hickenlooper during his time as governor. He thinks the timing was as good for Hickenlooper as it was bad for Gardner. “Hickenlooper ran a sort of a flawless campaign. That doesn't mean that it was perfect, but he didn't make a lot of mistakes.”
Hickenlooper has lots of name recognition in the state and a lot of history. After spending 16 years in high-profile political offices, the 68-year-old Democrat is one of Colorado’s most well-known politicians. He served two terms as mayor of Denver, two terms as governor, and spent five months last year in the presidential race. However his moderate, Western persona failed to catch on as he warned against any embrace of socialism by the party, as well as the expensive promises of Medicare For All and the Green New Deal.
As his presidential campaign faltered, pressure began to ramp up for Hickenlooper to switch his attention to the Senate race to try to unseat Gardner. It was an idea the former governor publicly dismissed even before joining the presidential race, telling Politico, “I’m not cut out to be a senator.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was instrumental in convincing Hickenlooper to reverse that position and national Democrats quickly lept in to support Hickenlooper, frustrating his many opponents in the already-crowded Democratic primary field.
Getting into the race, Hickenlooper had to address his past assertions that he wasn’t interested in the job, saying in a campaign video, "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 also had to deal with the political fallout of an ethics investigation into travel he took as governor. Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission found that he broke the rules on two different occasions, but cleared him in other incidents. The ethics findings, and his temporary refusal to comply with a subpoena to testify in front of the commission, were central to many of the GOP’s attacks on his candidacy.
During a debate hosted by the Pueblo Chieftain on Oct. 2, Hickenlooper dismissed the ethics violations as minor reporting errors and noted he’d paid the fine. “They were inadvertent,” he said. “I paid the $2,800 bucks. I took responsibility.”
But despite those attacks his longevity in the state held more sway for some voters.
“I’m definitely a Colorado girl. Hickenlooper has been here for a long time, keep supporting him,” said Amanda Bratton, a Democrat from Montrose.
Hickenlooper will now work closely with Colorado’s other senator, Michael Bennet, who he has a long history with. Bennet served as Hickenlooper’s chief of staff when he was the mayor of Denver. They also both graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, although at different times.
CPR News reporters Caitlyn Kim and Stina Sieg contributed to this report.