As summer turned to fall, Colorado voters were preparing to cast ballots in an election dubbed the most important election of their lifetimes, when control of the U.S. Senate hung in the balance and politicians proclaimed that everything was on the line.
By mid-September, the state's incumbent senator, who routinely appeared on the campaign trail clad in a fleece jacket — perhaps a nod to the major conservation legislation he'd sponsored — was trailing his challenger in nearly every publicly released poll, battling the political headwinds brought on by an unpopular president from the same party.
The economy was on the upswing, though arguments raged over the shape of the recovery and whether it was happening fast enough, but that was nothing compared to fears about a viral pandemic that left Americans sharply divided over the White House's response to the threat.
As usual, in high-stakes races, the airwaves were filled with attack ads, blasting incumbent and challenger alike as too extreme for Colorado's common-sense ways. Voters could hardly flip on their TVs without seeing ads about health care, gun control and the lagging economy, with the occasional ad warning suburban residents that the wrong vote could put their safety at risk.
The year was 2014, and it was the last time Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat John Hickenlooper — both undefeated after several runs for office — faced Colorado voters.
Both won their races that year: Gardner, then a congressman, denied Democrat Mark Udall a second term in the U.S. Senate, and Hickenlooper won re-election as governor, defeating the Republican challenger, former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez.
Six years later, with the political landscape and Colorado's electorate a virtual mirror image of the last time they were on the ballot, the two politicians are facing off in the state's marquee race, as Gardner seeks a second term and Hickenlooper attempts to take his place.
The two election years are chock full of almost eerie echoes, but there are, of course, plenty of big differences. While 2014 was a midterm election held during the middle of Democrat Barack Obama's second term, 2020 is a presidential year, with Donald Trump dominating the news — and the election — to an unprecedented degree.
Still, Gardner's re-election bid is considered an uphill climb because a majority of the state's voters don't view Trump favorably — the same as Udall's campaign was dragged down by Obama's underwater numbers among Colorado voters. At the same point in September in both election years, 55% of Colorado voters reported unfavorable views of the incumbent president, though Obama posted slightly better favorability numbers than Trump, with 43% compared to the Republican's 40%.
Just as Democrats' ads have tied Gardner to Trump, Republicans took every opportunity to link Udall and Obama. In one 2014 ad, Gardner name-checked Obama as frequently as he did the senator he was running against, including calling out Udall's vote for the then-unpopular Affordable Care Act, which Gardner called "a disaster."
This year, the tables have turned, with Democratic group's reminding voters of all the times Gardner voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and Hickenlooper boasting that he added insurance coverage for hundreds of thousands of Coloradans under the law.
When they ran statewide in 2014, Hickenlooper and Gardner had both ascended to their current offices in 2010, a year when Colorado tilted toward Republicans as the tea party reached its peak.
Gardner, at the time a state representative, had won his seat representing the 4th Congressional District in 2010 by unseating U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey, who represented the Republican-leaning district for a single term after winning election during the Obama wave year of 2008.
The popular Hickenlooper, serving his second term as mayor of Denver in 2010, won a bizarre three-way race against Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Maes, who got so few votes in November that the GOP flirted with being reclassified as one of the state's minor political parties, and former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a freshly minted member of the American Constitution Party, who got more than three times as many votes as Maes.
Gardner and Hickenlooper took similar paths to the ballot as Senate challengers in 2014 and 2020, respectively, with both answering the call of national party leaders to jump in what looked like weak crowds of potential nominees who might not be able to topple a sitting senator.
Entering into the 2014 Senate primary just days before precinct caucuses, Gardner nearly cleared the field, with state Sen. Owen Hill and state Rep. Amy Stephens stepping aside. State Sen. Randy Baumgardner stuck around through the GOP's state assembly, but Gardner emerged as the sole Republican candidate with 73% of the vote.
Hickenlooper's route in the 2020 race started earlier and had more twists and turns. Several major candidates dropped out when he joined the primary in August 2019 after ending his presidential bid — including former state Sen. Mike Johnston, former U.S. attorney for Colorado John Walsh, former ambassador Dan Baer and former House Majority Leader Alice Madden — but others stayed in until the primary, when Hickenlooper prevailed over former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff by a comfortable margin.
The script for Gardner's first TV ad in 2014 sounds an awful lot like some of Hickenlooper's 2020 ads, with the Senate challenger touting his intentions to bring Colorado common sense to the Capitol. In the ad, filmed in Gardner's hometown of Yuma and featuring his daughter leaning against the bumper of a pickup truck, Gardner says, "In a place like this, you learn to get along. It's too bad Washington doesn't work that way. I'm Cory Gardner. I'll be a senator who solves problems."
Hickenlooper's first 2020 TV ad struck similar notes, though he focused specifically on the economy reeling from the effects of COVID-19.
Sitting on his front porch and wearing a checkered shirt, Hickenlooper says, “When I was sworn in as governor, Colorado ranked 40th in the country in job creation. But together we built the number one economy in America. We did it the Colorado way, from the bottom up, and that’s what Washington needs now."
Both election's abundant attack ads go after the candidates on issues particular to the year, though the 2014 versions would probably feel right at home with the negative ads running this year.
Calling Gardner "too extreme for Colorado," 2014 ads run by Udall and his Democratic allies highlighted the Republican's support of a bill that would have made abortion a felony and legislation to redefine rape as forcible rape, part of a strategy focused at times almost entirely on reproductive rights that pundits later blamed for Udall's loss.
The Republican Governors Association, meanwhile, laid into Hickenlooper on multiple fronts, with one ad charging the governor with ignoring Colorado's sheriffs on gun control legislation and turning Denver into a sanctuary city when he was mayor.
"But when he suggests giving a mass murderer clemency if he loses a political campaign, it's shocking," the ad's narrator says, referring to Hickenlooper saying he would consider setting aside Chuck E. Cheese's killer Nathan Dunlap's death sentence. "Colorado has had enough of Hickenlooper's inaction and failed leadership." (Dunlap, who killed four people at the Aurora restaurant in 1993, exited death row this year after the legislature repealed the state's death penalty.)
While the 2014 ebola pandemic pales in comparison to this year's coronavirus pandemic — two Americans who contracted the disease died in 2014, compared to more than 190,000 U.S. deaths attributed to COVID-19 — as the 2014 election approached, some of the rhetoric sounds familiar.
Just as Hickenlooper has led Gardner in available polling this year — by as much as 18 percentage points in early polls and as little as 5 percentage points in a poll released this week — Gardner, the challenger, led the incumbent Udall in nearly every poll conducted from Labor Day through the election, though the margin was within or just outside the margin of error in most cases.
With a margin of 1.9 percentage points, Gardner became the first candidate in 36 years to defeat a sitting U.S. senator in Colorado, receiving 983,891 votes. While the outcome wasn't clear until the next morning, Hickenlooper won by 3.3 percentage point, with 1,006,433 votes.