Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff is expected to jump into the 2020 race for U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner's seat as soon as Monday, joining a growing field of Democrats hoping to challenge a Republican incumbent considered among next year's most vulnerable GOP senators, Colorado Politics has learned.
In appearances at Democratic county reorganization meetings Saturday, Romanoff stopped short of officially announcing his candidacy. But he previewed his campaign by outlining policy disagreements with Gardner and invited supporters to sign up for "news from this next venture" using their cell phones or by contacting volunteers bearing clipboards.
Recalling that he served with Gardner in the Colorado House, Romanoff told Douglas County Democrats: "I disagree with him on just about every issue that’s at stake over the next two years.
"Cory Gardner voted to slash Medicare; I think we ought to expand it to everyone," he said. "Cory Gardner describes the Green New Deal as a lot of red tape; I think it is our last, best chance to rescue the planet. Cory Gardner has showered billions of tax dollars on those at the top; I think we ought to provide a leg up to those in the middle and at the bottom."
The Denver Democrat added: "I’m going to have a little more to say about Cory Gardner and what’s at stake in 2020 next week."
Colorado Politics reported in December that Romanoff had filed Senate campaign paperwork with the Federal Election Commission at the same time Democratic strategists and volunteers said he had been contacting them about a run for Gardner's seat.
A Romanoff representative at the time insisted the filing was merely a required update to a long dormant campaign committee and didn't have anything to do with a 2020 candidacy.
Romanoff, 52, is the president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, a nonprofit advocacy organization — experience he referenced in both lighthearted and serious remarks to the Democrats.
"I used to run the Colorado House of Representatives, then I decided to run a mental health organization. You can supply your own punchline," Romanoff deadpanned Saturday, adding: "I get that a lot — what’s the difference between running the state House and running a mental health organization? The difference is, mental illness is treatable."
Turning serious, Romanoff continued:
"I joined Mental Health Colorado because my family and I lost someone we loved to suicide. We’ve spent the last four years now traveling across the state, and I’ve met so many other families just like ours who have been devastated by suicide, by mental illness, by drug addiction.
"I’ve met people who have been discarded by insurance companies or wiped out by debt. And you and I have seen a planet plundered by an industry that puts its profits ahead of our survival. And, worst of all, in some ways, we’ve seen politicians who are supposed to represent us do everything but."
After lobbing criticism at President Donald Trump for the partial government shutdown, Romanoff on Saturday zeroed in on Gardner: "We’ve seen children caged, bigots emboldened, fundamental freedoms — even the right to vote — under fire. We’ve seen [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell — a man best described as the invertebrate leader of the Republican Party — surrender the authority of the United States Senate. And here in Colorado, we’ve seen our own senator, Cory Gardner — Cory Gardner behave more like a bellhop at Trump Tower."
Noting that he led Democrats to their first back-to-back majorities in the Colorado House since the mid-1960s, Romanoff said the party has "turned this state around."
"When I became minority leader and then speaker of the House, I told our team — and I still believe this today — that the point of getting power is not to keep it, it’s to use it, to improve the lives of the people you represent," he said. "I ran for the state House — frankly, I became a Democrat — because I wanted to make sure that all of us, whether we have wealthy friends, political connections — whether we have all of the odds stacked in our favor or none at all — all of us have a seat at this table. I think we can get from here to there. I hope to be part of that effort in 2020."
Romanoff didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
It will be Romanoff's third run for federal office in the last decade. In 2010, Romanoff lost a primary challenge against U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, and he failed to unseat Aurora Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in 2014, though the Democrat out-raised the incumbent in what was one of the most expensive congressional races in the country that year.
Romanoff will be the second high-profile Gardner challenger to launch a candidacy in the space of a week.
On Thursday, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, a Denver Democrat who ran third in Colorado's gubernatorial primary last year, kicked off his campaign.
Former House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, is expected to launch her U.S. Senate bid in coming weeks.
Other potential Democratic candidates for Gardner's seat include U.S. Reps. Ed Perlmutter and Joe Neguse and former U.S. Attorney John Walsh.
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper is inching toward a run for president but is also facing pressure to take on Gardner, Democratic sources confirm to Colorado Politics.
In a surprise move last week, Gardner endorsed President Donald Trump's re-election bid, marking a reversal from his 2016 position, when he called on Trump to withdraw from the race and later said he wrote in the name of Trump's running mate, Mike Pence. Trump embraced Gardner's endorsement, thanking him in a tweet.
Hillary Clinton won Colorado by 5 percentage points in 2016, and Democrats swept every statewide race last year in what was widely seen as a rebuke to Trump.
A Democratic poll released last week found that only 39 percent of Colorado voters hold favorable views of Gardner — the same percentage of voters who hold favorable views of Trump.
Democrats who have already announced they're running for Gardner's seat in the Senate include Trish Zornio, a scientist and educator from Superior; Lorena Garcia of Denver, executive director of Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition; Navy veteran Keith Pottratz of Grand Junction; and Denver pharmacist Dustin John Leitzel.
According to the most recent FEC filings by Romanoff's U.S. Senate campaign committee, he had $3,306 on hand. The campaign listed debt totaling $248,000, funds still owed to Romanoff after he made personal loans to his 2010 Senate campaign.
FEC filings show that Gardner has raised $2.9 million and had $1.7 million on hand at the end of December.