Last week, former Colorado governor and short-lived presidential candidate John Hickenlooper announced a Senate bid in his home state of Colorado. For many, the decision was met with the relief that finally, viable Senate candidates with no shot at the presidency were seeing the light, and shifting their efforts to where they could actually make a difference. Hickenlooper pulled out of the presidential race a few weeks ago after failing to broach the 2 percent mark in polling; already he’s being declared a heavy favorite to win the Senate seat currently held by Republican Cory Gardner.
But the excitement over Hickenlooper’s candidacy—informed at least partially by the hope that a certain former Texas congressman with similarly low poll numbers in the presidential primary and a vulnerable Republican Senate seat at home awaiting a Democratic challenge might take that same hint—is misplaced. If anything, Hickenlooper’s candidacy may prove to be a setback for progressives hoping to make gains in or even flip the Senate in 2020, as they hope to put some legislative power behind a possible Democratic president.
The bulk of Hickenlooper’s appeal, which he sounded repeatedly during his time as a presidential candidate, is based on the fact that he won as a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the purple political arena of Colorado. He’s touted his ability to reach across the aisle and strike good-faith accords with intransigent Republicans, evinced by his partnership with former Ohio Governor John Kasich on everything from Affordable Care Act reform to defending the sanctity of NAFTA.
Even if Democrats were able to claw back a Senate majority, the No Labels approach that Hickenlooper is championing would simply mean conceding to a Republican Party that has built its entire style of governance on a summary refusal to compromise on anything.
The problem is, Hickenlooper is now running for a chamber of government where that sort of bipartisanship doesn’t exist. Even if Democrats were able to claw back a Senate majority, the No Labels approach that Hickenlooper is championing would simply mean conceding to a Republican Party that has built its entire style of governance on a summary refusal to compromise on anything.
Furthermore, the purple Colorado Hickenlooper claims to have broken through in doesn’t even exist anymore. Colorado has gone Democratic for three straight presidential campaigns. It’s got a liberal Democratic governor, a Democratic majority in both houses of the state legislature, and a majority of its representatives are Democrats as well. They’ve passed sweeping new regulations for the oil and gas industry, enhanced gun control, and established free, full-day kindergarten.
Gardner’s seat, which he only narrowly won in 2014, is widely considered to be the most flippable Republican Senate seat in the 2020 cycle. Democrats romped in Colorado in 2018, with youth and Latino turnout changing the makeup of the electorate to the point that these gains would seem to be lasting. President Trump is extremely unpopular there, which means whichever Democrat gets the nomination will see a presidential cycle turnout boost. And Gardner, despite positioning himself as a moderate, has voted with Trump nearly 90 percent of the time, more than double what would be expected given his constituency.
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Beyond that, a January poll found Gardner trailing a generic Democrat 38 percent to 46 percent. And the presidential cycle bump will be non-negligible as well: Every state that had a Senate race in 2016 voted for the same party in both the presidential and Senate election. All that means that Gardner is extremely likely to lose his seat to a Democrat, any Democrat. The question is whether that Democrat should be John Hickenlooper.
Beyond his avowal of bipartisanship, it’s worth scrutinizing his record to see what Hickenlooper would bring to the chamber. While governor, Hickenlooper famously ushered in the fracking revolution in Colorado, earning the nickname “Frackenlooper” while fossil fuel production in the state soared. With him at the helm, oil production went from 2.7 million barrels a month in 2011 to an average of nearly 14 million by 2018, more than a fivefold increase. He fought off regulations for oil companies, threw support behind a controversial coal mine, and famously bragged about drinking a glass of Halliburton fracking fluid to prove its safety. Despite the rising popularity of ambitious climate-related policies, there’s no reason to believe Hickenlooper would be anything but an obstacle for Democrats’ green policy proposals.
There’s an electability argument to be made as well. Evidence shows his presidential campaign may have hurt his standing in his home state. Despite his speckled environmental record, Hickenlooper left office fairly popular, with 49 percent approval of his job performance in his last three months, while 30 percent disapproved. However, recent polling found that only 41 percent of Coloradans had a favorable opinion of him, with his unfavorable rating now up to 37 percent. Perhaps the most lasting moment of his presidential campaign came when he was booed mercilessly at the California Democratic convention while proclaiming his opposition to the Green New Deal, saying, “We should not try to attack climate change by guaranteeing everyone in America a government job.”
Despite the enthusiasm for Hickenlooper’s pivot from senators like Tim Kaine and Kamala Harris, Colorado-based Democrats and progressives have been far less sanguine about his entering the race, as well. Already, there are 11 candidates in the running, with organizers having laid the groundwork for a number of challengers, largely to Hickenlooper’s left. And those candidates have refused to cede ground to his candidacy: Former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff has said he wouldn’t bow out were Hickenlooper to enter the race, while state Senator Angela Williams even released a statement discouraging him from running. “If he’s going to switch gears and run for the senate, he has a lot to explain to Colorado voters. This won’t be a coronation.”
Most formidable among those candidates are Obama-era former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Dan Baer and state Senator Mike Johnston, who’s pacing the group in terms of fundraising. So far, he’s pulled in $3.4 million since announcing in January, including $1.6 million in the second quarter, more than the $1.1 million Hickenlooper banked over the same period as a presidential candidate. Johnston is a supporter of the Green New Deal.
If his presidential campaign is any indication, Hickenlooper is content to make a reputation for himself as more spoilsport than ally. His debate contributions were overwhelmingly focused on frustrating the emerging Democratic agenda rather than advancing it. That mentality, combined with a fading star of electability, is not a winning recipe. It may not be what Chuck Schumer wants, but there are better options out there for Colorado.