Romanoff Hickenlooper primary cover image

With just weeks to go in a primary that began when the ink on the last election was barely dry, the two Colorado Democrats who have survived are facing off in a contest to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in an election that could determine which party wins control of the Senate.

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff met for their first debate on June 9, the day after ballots started going out for the June 30 primary.

“Well there’s no denying these are hard times, from coronavirus to racial injustice, there’s a lot of work to do. But Colorado’s always met the challenge,” Hickenlooper said in the 9News/Colorado Politics debate, participating remotely via teleconference.

“When I was governor, we faced natural disasters, mass shootings, the Great Recession, and by coming together and working together, we always made things better than they were before.”

While the moderate Hickenlooper presents himself as the folksy former barkeep who somehow found himself with a political career — he was a founder of Colorado’s brewpub industry in the 1980s before a successful run for Denver mayor in 2003 — Romanoff is running from the left as a pugnacious outsider, unwilling to settle for a polite approach to politics.

“This is no time for timidity,” Romanoff said in a June 9 virtual debate, punctuating an attack on his rival’s health care proposal. “We need bold, structural change to address each of the challenges that we discussed tonight.”

In a recent email to supporters, Romanoff put it this way: “Let me be clear, Colorado: I will strongly support the Democratic nominee in this race. But that doesn’t mean we duck and cover in the meantime.”

The ride to the election has been anything but smooth, as Romanoff has struggled to gain traction and the better-funded Hickenlooper has slipped in the waning weeks of a primary that saw 19 other candidates come and go from the race.

Gardner is one of just two Republican senators running for re-election this year in states won by Hillary Clinton, and polling has shown he’s no more popular in Colorado than President Trump, who is upside down with voters in a state that has been trending increasingly to the left in recent elections.

With more than $55 million already reserved by the leading Republican and Democratic U.S. Senate campaign committees, the race is on track to swamp the $70 million in outside spending in the 2014 election, when Gardner unseated Udall.

Since he ended his failing presidential campaign last summer and joined the crowded Senate primary, Hickenlooper, the popular former two-term mayor of Denver and two-term governor, has been the prohibitive frontrunner, outraising his primary rivals many times over and holding commanding leads in public and private polling.

But in the last week before county clerks began sending 3.4 million primary ballots to Colorado voters — including just over 1 million to Democrats and about 1.4 million to unaffiliated voters, who have the option of voting in the Democratic primary — the Hickenlooper juggernaut has hit some bumps.

Their bumpy road

First, he was held in contempt by a state ethics panel, after he snubbed a subpoena to testify on complaints over trips he took in 2018 when he was governor. Then, after Hickenlooper showed up at the virtual hearing the next day, the ethics commission found that on two occasions he violated a state constitutional amendment that bans gifts from corporations to elected officials.

The commission voted down four of the complaints filed by a Republican group but agreed Hickenlooper broke the law when he accepted a ride on a private plane from a homebuilder for a trip to Connecticut to commission the USS Colorado attack submarine and when he enjoyed hospitality provided by the corporate sponsors of the international Bilderberg meeting in Italy.

Still, Hickenlooper holds solid advantages as voting starts — he’s won election twice statewide and has sky-high name identification and strong approval ratings, particularly among the unaffiliated voters who could swing the election and don’t appear to have formed much of an impression about Romanoff.

Romanoff, who embodied Colorado’s Democratic establishment in the early 2000s when he helped steer the party to its first legislative majorities in decades, is again running as the outsider in a Senate primary, a decade after he lost a primary challenge he waged from the left against U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a former Hickenlooper aide who had been appointed to the seat.

“I’m standing up to my own party right now by running, despite all the efforts on the part of the national political establishment to sabotage our campaign and stifle this contest,” Romanoff said in an online forum last month, referring to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s endorsement of Hickenlooper after the group recruited their pick into the primary.

Like in this year’s primary, Romanoff’s run against Bennet saw him win the caucuses and come out ahead at the state assembly, earning top line on the primary ballot. Bennet, however, prevailed on election night by about 8 percentage points.

In between his 2010 and 2020 Senate campaigns, Romanoff lost a 2014 bid to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in the battleground 6th Congressional District, the same year Hickenlooper narrowly won reelection statewide and Gardner toppled Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall by an even narrower margin. In that campaign, Romanoff adopted a more centrist approach, leading with a call for a balanced budget.

But Romanoff’s last run took place before Colorado Democrats twice threw their support behind Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, who won the state’s 2016 caucuses and the 2020 presidential primary — demonstrating that the state party’s voters have moved further to the left than some of its overly cautious standard-bearers admit, Romanoff says.

Romanoff is a longtime Clinton friend, endorsed by the former president in his 2010 Senate run.

Another Clinton friend, Hickenlooper failed to gain much traction during his six-month run for the White House, but he carved out a niche for himself as the candidate who most vocally criticized key Sanders proposals, including the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, as socialism — and poison for Democrats at the polls.

“Democrats must say loudly and clearly that we are not socialists,” Hickenlooper said at an address in Washington, D.C. “If we do not, we will end up helping to re-elect the worst president in the country’s history.”

Steady attacks

Romanoff has kept up a steady attack on Hickenlooper for the nomination, but it remains to be seen if those punches landed.

“In this election the real contrast is clear: I support Medicare for All; Cory Gardner and John Hickenlooper oppose it,” he said during an online forum in May. Another familiar Romanoff line points out that Hickenlooper has compared the single-payer health care plan to “the discredited ideas of Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin.”

Hickenlooper says he agrees that the country needs to treat health care as a right but supports establishing a public option in the health insurance market, arguing that it will drive down costs and eventually lead to “an evolution, not a revolution, that will get to universal health care.”

“I don’t believe this is the time for timidity, and telling folks they have to wait for a slow evolution is heartless,” Romanoff said during a recent online forum.

The candidates fall along similar lines over the Green New Deal, a sweeping package meant to remake the economy while addressing climate change, with trillions of dollars in spending on clean energy and infrastructure.

Romanoff, who supports the Green New Deal, says it is “the heart of my campaign, and it is the profound moral test of our time,” adding, “This is an emergency, and we ought to act that way.”

Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist who has drawn fire from Democrats for boosting the fossil fuel industry when he was governor, says the two are on the same page about the climate crisis but support different approaches to solving it.

“We agree that climate change is one of the greatest existential threats to humanity in the history of the world,” Hickenlooper said in an online forum in May, declaring that country needs to reach net-zero carbon emissions “by 2050, at the latest, maybe by 2040.”

As he did during his presidential run, Hickenlooper points to a record of bringing opposing sides to the table to come up with a solution, like when he brokered the first deal of its kind between Colorado’s environmentalists and oil and gas producers to regulate methane emissions.

Don’t discount Gardner

Anyone who counts Gardner out at this point is turning a blind eye toward the Democratic candidates’ ample shortcomings, says veteran GOP campaign consultant Michael Fortney, who has run campaigns across Colorado for the last decade, including Republican Walker Stapleton’s 2010 and 2014 runs for state treasurer and his 2018 run for governor.

“Anybody looking objectively at this and saying that Cory Gardner can’t win is fooling themselves,” he said, adding that he could have helped Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer do a better job vetting his star recruit.

Gardner will be able to capitalize on Hickenlooper’s weaknesses exposed by during the primary, Fortney said, including a reputation for being thin-skinned and putting his foot in his mouth, sidestepping more than a dozen primary forums and debates and veering “far left while tripping over himself in an ugly presidential run.”

Romanoff, on the other hand, has failed to take advantage of the playbook Sanders handed him after winning Colorado and “take the big swings it was going to take to beat” Hickenlooper’s apathetic campaign, Fortney said — virtually guaranteeing Hickenlooper will win the nomination by default.

The broader Colorado electorate, however, won’t give Hickenlooper the same pass, particularly when he’s up against a Gardner campaign that has the savvy and financial resources to stay on the attack, Fortney said.

“Voters and the press will demand that he show up answer real questions and make the sales pitch,” he said. “And when he does show up, I don’t know if voters are going to see the affable governor they thought they knew. He’s too cranky, too lazy, too entitled.”

Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University, had a different take, calling the environment in Colorado a tough one for Republicans, given recent events and the general unpopularity of the president among state voters.

“Reasonable Republicans are running out of places to go,” he said.

Hickenlooper, he said, has the wind at his back: plenty of campaign cash, strong support from the national party eager to pick up the Senate seat, and name recognition in spades.

“When I think about how badly Hickenlooper or any other Democratic nominee would have to screw up in order for Gardner to come all the way back, I would be surprised.”

But there are still unpredictable factors, including Hickenlooper’s handling of the ethics investigation, which has only drawn attention to what could have been dispensed with as relatively minor allegations, Saunders said.

Romanoff, on the other hand, hasn’t been able to shake himself loose from under Hickenlooper’s sense of inevitability, partly because he hasn’t raised enough money to take the fight to the former governor, Saunders said.

He suggested that the underdog could also suffer from confusion over his ideology after tacking down the middle as House speaker, then to the left in his run against Bennet, then to the right when he took on Coffman, and then back to the left to run against Hickenlooper.

Add to that lingering damage to his reputation after challenging Bennet in 2010, as well as his inability to muster the momentum or cash to force Hickenlooper into a direct confrontation, and Romanoff hasn’t established himself as the obvious alternative, Saunders said.

Getting here

It’s only been a little over a month since the most crowded U.S. Senate primary in Colorado history — with as many as 21 Democrats throwing their hats in the ring over the last year and a half — narrowed to a one-on-one battle between Hickenlooper and Romanoff.

The winnowing started last fall after Hickenlooper joined the field and then dragged on through the winter, eventually winding up in April and May as the assembly and petition processes reached their conclusion.

After winning a statewide preference poll at the March 7 precinct caucuses, Romanoff became the only candidate to emerge from the party’s April 18 state assembly, bumping former congressional candidate Stephany Spaulding, scientist and educator Trish Zornio and perennial candidate Erik Underwood from the race.

While Hickenlooper easily qualified for the primary ballot by petition in March, three other candidates also made a go of it, arguing in court that they should be added to the ballot because the coronavirus pandemic prevented them from gathering the required number of signatures.

Climate activist Diana Bray lost her case in lower court, but nonprofit executives and first-time candidates Michelle Ferrigno Warren and Lorena Garcia made it all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court before a ruling removed them from the ballot.

In the months after Hickenlooper got in the race, five prominent candidates withdrew, citing the former governor’s strength in what had been a more evenly matched primary. Those candidates were former state Sen. Mike Johnston, former U.S. attorney for Colorado John Walsh, former ambassador Dan Baer, former state House Majority Leader Alice Madden and state Sen. Angela Williams, with Walsh and Baer endorsing Hickenlooper.

Hickenlooper has also been endorsed by several of his former presidential primary rivals, including U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Romanoff, for his part, has the backing of author and spiritual guide Marianne Williamson, who also made a White House run this cycle.

Hickenlooper raised just shy of $9 million through March 31 since jumping in the race in August and reported $4.88 million cash on hand. Romanoff, in the race since last February, raised $2.24 million through the same period and had $808,000 on hand, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings.

Both Democrats launched aggressive six-figure advertising campaigns airing TV spots statewide in the days before ballots went out, with Hickenlooper touting the state economy’s success when he was governor and Romanoff making a case for universal health care.

Facing only token opposition on his way to the Republican nomination, Gardner has pulled in $13.6 million since the 2014 election, had $9.56 million in the bank, and began airing TV ads in May featuring his work for Coloradans.

All three candidates are scheduled to file an additional FEC report before the election, due June 18 for fundraising through June 10.

More on the upcoming primary election:

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