Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper surprised few when he announced late Wednesday night that he's joining the crowded 2020 Democratic primary for the state's U.S. Senate seat only a week after he withdrew from the even more crowded presidential primary.
Republicans — who will be defending incumbent U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in what's considered likely to be one of the closest Senate races in the country — greeted the news with a barrage of attacks, focusing on statements Hickenlooper made throughout his presidential run about the prospect of serving as one of Colorado's senators.
"I respect senators. Some of my best friends are senators," Hickenlooper said on CNN in March. "I don't think I'm cut out for that."
As pressure mounted on Hickenlooper to drop his White House bid to take on Gardner, the former two-term governor dug in his heels, protesting that he wasn't suited for the job.
"It's awful hard to imagine that I could be successful in a Senate campaign or as a senator," he told MSNBC in May.
But in an interview with Colorado Politics Thursday after launching his Senate campaign, Hickenlooper said his desire to "invest [himself] in turning Washington around" outweighed the drawbacks.
Hickenlooper also previewed the kind of primary campaign he plans to run — it'll be his first Democratic primary — even as nearly all of the 11 Democrats already in the field said Thursday they plan to stay in the race.
And responding to some of the most prominent criticism lobbed at him from the left, the former petroleum geologist defended his record combatting climate change as Denver mayor and as governor.
"I don't know anybody who has a greater sense of urgency around climate change than I do," he said.
Following is a transcript of the interview, which has been lightly edited.
Colorado Politics: Republicans and some Democrats are pointing out that you repeatedly said that you're not cut out to be a senator, and don't want the job. Is Colorado's Senate seat a "consolation prize," as some are saying?
Hickenlooper: I certainly said that Washington is a lousy place if you're the type of person that likes to get things done. I still believe that, but I had to make a decision. I had to decide, do I just sit on the sidelines and criticize Washington, or do I go there and try to fix it? I spent a lot of time thinking about it and decided this is no time to walk away, this is a time for action, for someone who has a history of bringing people together and getting things done, to invest themselves in turning Washington around.
Colorado Politics: Before this year in the presidential primary, you haven't run in a partisan, Democratic primary. Are you ready to run against other Democrats, and what's that campaign going to look like?
Hickenlooper: There's certainly a lot of talent in the primary field. I think everyone's going to make their own case to the voters. To a large extent, each person's going to have a different set of experiences. I've been a small business owner; I was in the restaurant business for 16 years, as a mayor and a governor. I've won twice statewide in difficult years. I'm going to go out and try to earn the support of Colorado voters. ... I think all the Democrats are going to focus on where Cory Gardner hasn't delivered what Coloradans expect. He's blindly backed Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell 95% of the time. There's plenty of things for Democrats to talk about.
Colorado Politics: One of the things Democrats are talking about is your perceived friendliness with the oil and gas industry while you were governor. Some are saying it amounts to denial of climate change since production in the state has soared in the last nine years. Have you changed your mind about how aggressively producers should be able to drill in Colorado?
Hickenlooper: I will hold up what we got done in Colorado against any state in the country. If you look at it, when I was mayor, we did the largest expansion of public transit in modern American history. As governor, we passed the country's first methane regulations, which we achieved through getting the environmental community to work with the oil and gas industry. We're shutting down a couple coal plants and replacing them with wind, solar and batteries. We're creating a network, a framework for rapidly charging stations for electric vehicles. Washington isn't doing any of this. Cory Gardner isn't proposing any solutions for climate change.
I'll try to bring people together and get things done about the very causes of climate change. I've got a master's in geology; I don't know anybody who has a greater sense of urgency around climate change than I do. Anyone who's looked at it sharply realizes that we are rapidly approaching a point of irreversible damage. I've felt that for decades.
Colorado Politics: Speaking of Cory Gardner, he hasn't held a publicly announced, in-person town hall in more than a year and a half, and he's taken a lot of heat for that. Will you be holding town halls as you campaign, and will you commit to holding regular town halls if you're elected?
Hickenlooper: First, Cory Gardner — again, he's backed Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell 95% of the time. He's failed in any way to confront climate change, to work to lower premiums and prescription drug costs. He'll be the first U.S. senator from Colorado in over 50 years not to sponsor legislation to expand the size of wilderness areas in Colorado. I think those might be some of the reasons he might not be comfortable having a town hall meeting. I will absolutely have town hall meetings, and if elected, I will have regular town hall meetings around the state.
Colorado Politics: What lessons did you learn about campaigning in Iowa, New Hampshire and around the country, and how might you apply those to your Senate run here?
Hickenlooper: You know, so much of what I heard cross the country is what I heard in Colorado — that people are frustrated that nothing gets done in Washington, and that they want change. In a funny way, it's like when I first got into public service and I ran for mayor of Denver, I was committed to bringing together the whole region, and that's how we created FasTracks.
I think that kind of collaborative effort is totally absent in Washington. Washington can't even pass universal background checks [for firearms purchasers], which 90% of Americans believe in. The Washington Republicans along with President Trump and Mitch McConnell have been trying to toss millions of Americans off their health coverage, they're trying to end protections for millions of Americans with pre-existing medical conditions. We need to change the way Washington works; Washington needs to start making decisions for the benefit of the citizens of Colorado and the citizens of America.
Colorado Politics: One of the things you were talking about on the presidential campaign trail lately was what you described as the folly of going all-in on "Medicare for all" as a route to universal health care coverage. If a Democratic Congress considers Medicare for all next year, will you support it, or is that off the table?
Hickenlooper: I said for decades that health care is a right and not a privilege, and I think we need some of the basic blocking and tackling — how do we protect pre-existing conditions coverage that as many as 750,000 people in Colorado depend on and could be at risk? How do we bring down the cost of care and the cost of prescription drugs, the co-pays, the premium costs? I support, and I've said this, a Medicare buy-in. I think the Medicare buy-in makes a lot more sense.
Colorado Politics: Do you believe Colorado has turned as blue as last year's election might suggest, or is Colorado still a purple state?
Hickenlooper: It's hard to predict. Coloradans are independent thinkers. I've always believed and tried to represent that independence in as many ways as I can. I tried, just like we did when I started the first brewpub in Lower Downtown, tried to get other restaurant owners to come together and work together to make things better. That's what I did as mayor, what I did as governor, and that's what I'd like to do as U.S. senator from Colorado — get people in Washington to work together, but to bring that back and make sure that the stuff that Coloradans care about gets addressed, like climate change and health care.
Colorado Politics: Speaking of stuff coming out of Washington this week — should the United States buy Greenland from Denmark?
Hickenlooper: [laughs] You know, the things coming out of Washington all the time now — people scratch their heads trying to figure out, what's going on? Why don't we have some sanity, some consistency in Washington? That's part of what I want to deliver is common sense and common decency.
Colorado Politics: Do you support an impeachment inquiry? Do you think Congress ought to go ahead with that, like the House Judiciary Committee sounds like it's doing?
Hickenlooper: I've said before that I support an impeachment inquiry so that we can get the facts, but I don't think Mitch McConnell is ever going to allow an impeachment process. We need to focus on the elections in 2020. And we've got to make sure that Donald Trump isn't re-elected, and I think we've got to focus on making sure that Cory Gardner isn't re-elected, and to make sure that Mitch McConnell is not the Senate majority leader in 2021.
Colorado Politics: Will you hitting the campaign trail around Colorado right away?
Hickenlooper: I look forward to campaigning in every part of Colorado. I was talking to an old friend, a rancher from Southeast Colorado, a couple day ago. I actually imagined sitting in his living room again and talking about their challenges, their opportunities, and how can we work to make things better. I can't wait.