Less than a week after withdrawing from the Democratic presidential primary, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper announced his bid for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Cory Gardner in a video posted to his campaign website late Wednesday night.
"I'm not done fighting for the people of Colorado," Hickenlooper says in the video, which depicts him shooting pool at the Wynkoop Brewing Co., the brewpub he founded three decades ago in Denver's Lower Downtown neighborhood.
"I don't think Cory Gardner understands that the games he's playing with Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell are hurting the people of Colorado," Hickenlooper says, calling out the president and the Senate majority leader, who drew criticism earlier this month from Hickenlooper for blocking gun legislation.
"We ought to be working together to move this country forward and stop the political nonsense," Hickenlooper says.
Even before Hickenlooper's exit from the presidential race, speculation had been growing that he would switch to the Senate contest in a state that voted heavily Democratic in last year's election and favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016.
The 67-year-old Hickenlooper joins 11 Democrats already running against Gardner, including several who have said they don't intend to step aside for the popular former two-term governor, whose moderate record puts him at odds with his party's more left-leaning elements.
A Public Policy Polling survey released last month showed that Hickenlooper is far and away the frontrunner in the Democratic field. The PPP poll showed Hickenlooper with 44% support in the Senate primary among likely Democratic primary voters, followed by former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff with 12% support.
An Emerson College poll released Tuesday found Hickenlooper with a 13-point lead over Gardner in the general election.
Monday, after speaking at a campaign appearance, Gardner told Colorado Politics' Joey Bunch that he was not concerned about the prospect of facing the former governor in next year's general election.
"I'm not concerned about any of them," Gardner said of the field of Democrats. "I'm concerned with doing what's right for Colorado."
“To us Gov. Hickenlooper is just another liberal in the clown car," Casey Contres, Gardner's campaign manager, said in a statement Thursday. "Whoever their party nominates will be wildly out of step with Colorado and we look forward to facing them in the general election.”
In his campaign video, Hickenlooper addresses critics who point out that when he was running for president, he repeatedly dismissed suggestions that he jump to the Senate race, saying he didn't want the job and insisting he wasn't suited for it.
"Look, I'm a straight shooter. 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 says.
"I know changing Washington is hard, but I want to give it a shot," he adds before sinking three balls with a single shot and then flashing a smile.
Hickenlooper's late entry in the race is meeting with a cool reaction from some of his Democratic rivals for the 2020 nomination, some of whom will be running to his left.
"Governor Hickenlooper says he’s not done fighting, but a lot of Colorado’s working families are wondering when exactly he started to fight," said state Sen. Angela Williams, one of the Democrats running in the Senate primary, in a statement Thursday.
“On health care, worker’s rights, climate change, criminal justice reform and more, Governor Hickenlooper has failed to fight for the progressive solutions our state and country need," she said. "While Governor Hickenlooper was in Iowa and New Hampshire, I've been crisscrossing the state hearing directly from Coloradans about what's on their mind. I’m staying in this race because all of Colorado’s working families deserve a senator who will fight for them in Washington.
"What I heard Gov. Hickenlooper tell everybody who asked is, he wasn't cut out to be a senator and didn't want the job," Romanoff said in an Aug. 15 radio interview.
On Monday, another candidate, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, released an internal poll showing a generic Democratic candidate leading Gardner by 10 percentage points — the same margin the poll found Hickenlooper held over Gardner.
The poll and its accompanying memo was meant to counter an argument that Hickenlooper stands the best chance of unseating the Republican incumbent in an increasingly Democratic-leaning state, where polling has consistently shown Trump to be deeply unpopular with voters.
Others in the primary include former state House Majority Leader Alice Madden, former U.S. Attorney for Colorado John Walsh and former Obama-era ambassador Dan Baer, who served in Hickenlooper's cabinet.
In reaction comments Thursday, Republican political leaders signaled that Hickenlooper's previous dismissive remarks about a Senate bid will be thrown back at him in a general-election contest with Gardner.
“For months, John Hickenlooper told anyone who would listen that he would not make a good senator. We could not agree more," said Kyle Kohli, Colorado communications director for the Republican National Committee.
"John Hickenlooper is desperate to redeem himself after flopping on the national stage, but we think he said it best just a few months ago: he is ‘not cut out’ for the Senate," said Joanna Rodriguez of the National Republican Senate Committee. "This crowded Senate field has been in a race to the left and Hickenlooper’s quixotic presidential bid did not do him any favors in proving he can compete in any race in 2020.”
"Being a U.S. senator for Colorado is not a consolation prize," said Jack Pandol, spokesman for the pro-Republican super PAC Senate Leadership Fund. "We agree with John Hickenlooper he is 'not cut out to be a senator,' and we intend to litigate his very long and liberal record as a career politician to ensure Coloradans understand why."
Leading Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, have been pressuring Hickenlooper to ditch his floundering presidential campaign — he rarely topped 1% in national and early primary state polling — to take on Gardner, considered one of the most vulnerable senators up for election next year and a must-win seat if Democrats hope to take the majority in the Senate.
Last week, 314 Action Fund, a national Democratic group that promotes electing scientists to office, launched a "draft Hickenlooper" campaign to build support for the former geologist.