The race is heating up for the Colorado Senate seat held by Cory Gardner, considered one of the nation’s most vulnerable Republican incumbents on the ballot next year.
Along with candidates who have already launched campaigns and a handful facing pressure from party leaders to run, as many as a dozen Democrats are at various stages of putting together campaigns to challenge Gardner’s bid for a second term.
Political consultants and potential candidates say it could be months before the Democratic field takes shape, while perhaps the most formidable candidate might not even get in the race until later in the year.
Other Democrats who have announced a bid or are said to be considering one include two members of Congress, a former state senator fresh off an unsuccessful run for governor, and two former speakers of the Colorado House.
There’s a state lawmaker from rural Colorado with a couple of swing-district wins under her belt and a former diplomat who turned heads with his fundraising success during a brief congressional run in the last cycle.
Throw in a young scientist who has been crisscrossing the state in an effort to build grassroots momentum, and it’s shaping up to be the most crowded Democratic statewide primary field in memory — nearly rivaling the 15 Republicans who vied for the chance to take on Colorado’s other U.S. senator, Democrat Michael Bennet, in 2016.
Strategists tell Colorado Politics that the race is attracting so much interest — including from younger politicians ready to dismiss the notion that they ought to wait their turn — because polling and Colorado’s sharp turn to the left in the most recent election suggest that winning the Democratic nomination could spell a better-than-even chance of landing in the U.S. Senate.
“It could be a crowded field, because whoever wins the Democratic primary is likely to be the next U.S. senator from Colorado,” says veteran Democratic strategist Alan Salazar, a top advisor to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. “As long as Donald Trump’s in the White House, that dynamic will be alive and well in Colorado.”
Gardner’s 39 percent favorability rating in Colorado precisely matches Trump’s, a recent poll by Democratic firms found, though Trump has higher negatives than Gardner among the state’s registered voters.
In addition, a survey conducted after the 2018 election by a Republican firm found that Trump’s lopsided disapproval rating among unaffiliated voters — the largest share of the state’s electorate — threatens to drag down Republicans who back the president.
Gardner placed himself in that column in late January when he endorsed Trump’s 2020 re-election bid, a move that left some Democrats puzzled and others cheering.
While Gardner didn’t support Trump in 2016 — he called on Trump to drop out in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape and later said he voted for Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate — he told a Washington, D.C.-based news site that endorsing Trump was the “right thing to do for Colorado.”
Gardner added that he disagrees with the president on some things but is concerned about what some Democratic presidential frontrunners will do to the state.
Republicans warn against writing off Gardner’s chances, particularly in a presidential-election year when Colorado’s notorious ticket-splitters will have the chance to register their opposition to Trump by voting for his Democratic opponent while also supporting Gardner as a check on single-party rule.
What’s more, Republicans appear to be heeding the alarm sounded by Dick Wadhams, a former state GOP chairman, who has been warning since the November election that Republicans face an epic crisis if Democrats manage to oust Gardner, the only Colorado Republican to win a top-of-the-ticket race for senator or governor since 2002.
“I think Republicans overall are understanding that the best way, and frankly the only way, the Colorado Republican Party makes a comeback after this drubbing that occurred in 2018, is the re-election of Sen. Gardner,” Wadhams told Colorado Politics.
“If Cory is re-elected in 2020, it will set the Republican Party up for what could be a good year in 2022,” he added. That’s when Colorado will elect the state’s other senator, a governor and other statewide offices, as well as an additional congressional seat and a reapportioned General Assembly.
“The comeback starts with the re-election of Gardner,” Wadhams said. “But if he’s not re-elected, it will be a huge, huge defeat for the Colorado Republican Party.”
North Jeffco Tea Party founder and former county GOP officer Jimi McFarland, who goes by Jimi Mack, told Colorado Politics it’s exceedingly unlikely Gardner will draw a primary opponent, even as grassroots conservatives grow frustrated with Gardner’s more moderate positions.
“He’s been a bit wishy-washy, waffled on a few of the issues,” McFarland said. “He was not real supportive of Trump on the budget and [border] wall issue, and then all of a sudden he was. It seems like he has really tried these last few weeks to be more of a centrist in a fairly transparent effort to reach out to the moderates, the unaffiliateds.
“But if we lose Cory’s seat, it may be another 10 years before Colorado is taken seriously again as a viable Republican vote. It is crucial, but this is why it’s so frustrating to grassroots folks.”
Still, McFarland added, “You don’t go to war with the army you want, you go to war with the army you have. And this is the army we have.”
A Gardner spokesman, predictably, sees things differently.
“Cory has been one of the most bipartisan and effective members of the Senate, and he’ll continue to work hard for Coloradans across the state,” Casey Contres, a spokesman for the Gardner campaign, told Colorado Politics via email.
“In regards to the Democrat primary, it appears that each entry to the race will drag the Democratic Primary even further to the far left of the mainstream,” Contres added.
Salazar said that the candidates lining up to take on Gardner — and those mulling a bid — span the Democratic Party’s ideological range, from avowed centrists to unabashed progressives
“The question is whether the Democratic Party in Colorado cares about building a big tent or anointing the person who is most ideologically pure,” he said. “The Democratic Party is wrestling with that across the country, and Colorado is no exception.”
A formidable fundraiser
A handful of long-shot Democrats have been running against Gardner for months, and now some of the big names long expected to run are beginning to make their candidacies official.
“A lot of people are trying to figure out where the chips are going to land,” one potential candidate told Colorado Politics. “You can’t game this out, but you can ask, ‘Can a decent person make a credible run?’ That’s really all a person can go on, thinking this through at this point.”
The day after Gardner endorsed Trump, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, a candidate for governor in last year’s primary, announced he was in the race.
“Donald Trump and Cory Gardner have failed to protect us from the real threats America faces,” Johnston said. “When he’s campaigning in Colorado, Cory Gardner claims he’s independent, but when he’s voting in Washington, he sticks with Trump 92 percent of the time.”
Johnston said he has spent his life “running towards the hardest problems. I did it as a public school teacher and principal, as an advisor to President Obama, and then as a state senator, where I passed major legislation opening the doors of college to undocumented students, investing in renewable energy and taking on the NRA to pass common sense gun safety.”
Although he finished third in June’s gubernatorial primary — behind now-Gov. Jared Polis and former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy — Johnston has long been considered a rising star in the party and proved to be a formidable fundraiser.
He pulled in $2.5 million for his gubernatorial campaign, while a PAC supporting his run raised another $5.7 million, including $2 million in contributions from Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire and former New York mayor, as well as a number of wealthy tech entrepreneurs.
Johnston drew fire in the gubernatorial primary for his education reform agenda — a deeply controversial flashpoint in Democratic Party politics — but a leading consultant cautioned against assuming the same dynamics would be at play in a Senate primary.
That’s both because education issues play out differently at the federal level, the consultant said, and because many of his chief competitors have held similar positions over the years.
A Democrat long considered to be interested in the race — former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver — made it official Feb. 7 by announcing his candidacy.
In his announcement, Romanoff laid out a platform focused on energy and the environment, immigration reform, health care and drug addiction, and fostering “an economy that enables all Americans to thrive.”
Romanoff stepped down as president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, a nonprofit advocacy organization, to make the run.
He lost a primary challenge against Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010 and ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, an Aurora Republican, in 2014, though he out-raised Coffman in what was one of the most expensive congressional races in the country that year.
At a Feb. 2 meeting with Douglas County Democrats, Romanoff previewed his campaign, recalling that he served with Gardner in the Colorado House.
“I disagree with him on just about every issue that’s at stake over the next two years,” Romanoff told Douglas County Democrats.
“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.”
Romanoff concluded: “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.”
A potential ‘powerhouse’
Former House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, is also expected to run, though two Democratic consultants tell Colorado Politics she’s recently decided that she’s in no hurry to declare she’s running and could wait until the beginning of April, after the first campaign finance reporting quarter has closed — a timeline that several potential candidates suggested they could follow.
“I’m thinking about where I can be most effective moving forward,” Duran told Colorado Politics earlier in January, adding that her tenure in the Legislature demonstrated “time and time again, there’s more that binds us together than divides us.”
She added: “I am seriously considering it, and I am going to continue to do my due diligence to decide where I can be most effective.”
In recent weeks, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, the newly elected representative of the 2nd Congressional District, has been attracting wide attention in progressive circles — including numerous appearances on national cable news shows — and has emerged as a top prospect for the Senate nomination.
While Neguse declined to comment, the son of Eritrean refugees and Colorado’s first African-American member of Congress has been receiving calls from people saying he would make a great candidate, a source close to Neguse confirmed.
His colleague, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who represents the suburban 7th Congressional District, hasn’t ruled out a run for the Senate seat — a campaign spokeswoman this week had no comment on his plans — and a Democratic consultant said the eight-term congressman would be considered “the powerhouse” if he jumps in.
Observers, however, point to several factors that might dissuade Perlmutter from jumping in, including his withdrawal from the 2018 gubernatorial primary after running for a few months — he said he lacked the “fire in the belly” necessary to raise the kind of funds it would take to compete with Polis, a multi-millionaire who self-funded his campaign — and the chance to continue serving in the House majority.
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has been inching toward a presidential run, is another heavyweight who’s being encouraged to challenge Gardner by national Democrats — he said in a recent interview that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has been reaching out to him — but the former Denver mayor has insisted that he isn’t interested in a Senate run. But he could change his mind later this year if his presidential bid fails to catch fire.
Dan Baer, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe under President Barack Obama — and who ran for Perlmutter’s congressional seat before Perlmutter reversed himself — is also said to be considering a run for Senate following a stint heading Colorado’s Department of Higher Education.
According to recent financial disclosures, Baer’s federal campaign committee still has roughly $250,000 on hand, funds that could seed a Senate race.
“I’m focused on the fact that sending Cory Gardner back to Yuma has to be the No. 1 priority,” Baer told Colorado Politics.
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, an Eagle County rancher and one of five Democratic state Senate candidates who prevailed in battleground districts last fall on the way to the party winning back a majority in the chamber, told Colorado Politics she’s weighing a run for the U.S. Senate.
“It’s something I want to approach cautiously and work with trusted advisors and get the pulse of the state,” she said. “I think I would be a great candidate and would certainly bring regional diversity.”
She added: “Cory Gardner needs a strong challenger and someone who knows the problems all of Colorado faces, and I think I can be that voice and be a strong representative for the entire state. We’ve seen over Sen. Gardner’s term, he hasn’t always matched up for the values of the state. A lot of people feel he isn’t representing the state’s values.”
Meanwhile, biomedical educator and researcher Trish Zornio — a little-known candidate, yet one who insiders caution against dismissing outright — made her campaign official on the day of the Women’s March, but only after spending a year and a half holding meet-and-greets in all 64 counties and amassing tens of thousands of followers on social media.
“I’ve been prioritizing meeting and talking with Coloradans across the state,” she said. “In a time when people feel more than anything that they aren’t getting listened to, this is about valuing people.”
Noting that her campaign is on track to meeting its grassroots fundraising goals, Zornio added: “We might not have the Bloombergs, but what we have are everyday Coloradans who want to see change and a different type of person in office.
Previously announced candidates include Lorena Garcia of Denver, executive director of Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition; Navy veteran Keith Pottratz of Grand Junction; and Denver pharmacist Dustin John Leitzel.