Sen. Cory Gardner’s already difficult reelection bid could get tougher.
The one-term Republican is facing a state electorate that voted for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and has become increasingly Democratic over the past 15 years.
But elections tend to favor the incumbent, race analysts say, and Democrats still lack a star candidate to challenge Gardner. Instead, Democrats are facing a divisive primary with nearly a dozen lesser-known candidates.
That changed on Tuesday, when the New York Times reported former two-term Gov. John Hickenlooper is considering dropping his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in favor of the Senate race.
“That primary field will clear,” Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report, told the Washington Examiner. “I would expect all or most of the other candidates to drop out.”
Hickenlooper’s entry into the race would likely force Gardner to ramp up his reelection bid much earlier, especially if there is no Democratic primary.
“If Hickenlooper gets in, the general election starts right away,” Duffy said.
Gardner is among the most endangered Senate GOP incumbents.
Most election analysis sites rate his race as “toss up” even though Democrats haven’t selected their challenger yet.
Among those running are former state Sen. Mike Johnston and former State House Democratic Leader Alice Madden.
Little polling has been conducted on the race, but Public Policy Polling released an Aug. 12 survey that pitted Gardner against Hickenlooper in a hypothetical matchup.
Hickenlooper came out 13 points ahead with 51% of support among voters, compared with 38% for Gardner in the poll, which was paid for by the Democratic group 314 Action Fund.
Gardner’s approval rating in the poll was only 30%, with 49% of voters disapproving of his Senate tenure and 22% unsure.
Hickenlooper’s favorability rating in the poll was 45% while 38% reported an unfavorable opinion.
A July Colorado Poll conducted by a consortium of Democrats found 40% of voters viewed Gardner favorably while 39% viewed him unfavorably. Among Republicans, only 63% viewed Gardner favorably, compared with 90% of GOP voters who said they viewed President Trump favorably.
In other words, Gardner is falling flat among all Colorado voters and isn’t generating much enthusiasm even among voters in his own party.
Gardner, 44, was elected to the Senate in 2014 by beating incumbent Democrat Mark Udall.
Gardner served in the Senate GOP leadership for two years as head of the campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Gardner’s voting record is consistently conservative, and he’s occasionally spoken out against Trump over his rhetoric. Democrats are eager to tie Gardner to Trump, who is unpopular in Colorado, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
"Coloradans are fed up with Sen. Gardner’s record of being a rubber stamp for his party leaders in Washington like Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump and voting against their interests, and they’re going to hold him accountable at the ballot box in 2020.” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Stewart Boss told the Washington Examiner.
A Colorado statewide voter poll conducted in June by Keating-Onsight-Martin found 56% viewed Trump unfavorably while 42% viewed the president favorably. Among those voters, 51% viewed the president “very unfavorably.”
Hickenlooper, 67, served as governor from 2011 to 2019 after serving as the mayor of Denver since 2003.
He’s one of the most well-known politicians in the state and had been hoping his popularity would help launch his presidential bid.
But Hickenlooper has failed to gain enough traction in either fundraising or poll numbers, and his obscurity could exclude him from the next Democratic debate in September.
Democrats are now urging him to drop his presidential bid and challenge Gardner, whose defeat they believe is critical to winning back the Senate majority from Republicans. The GOP currently holds a 53-47 edge in the chamber.
The group that paid for the Public Policy Polling survey, 314 Action, has launched a “Draft Hickenlooper” movement.
“Flipping Colorado blue is the key to putting an end to Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority,” the group proclaimed on its website.
Duffy said Hickenlooper’s entry into the race doesn’t guarantee Gardner’s defeat, but rather it makes the outcome of the toss-up race even more uncertain.
“Does it make it harder for Gardner? Sure it does,” Duffy said. “Is it his undoing? Not necessarily.”
A spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Joanna Rodriguez, said Hickenlooper would return to a Colorado Senate run damaged by his failed presidential bid and would also be hurt by the liberal tilt of the current field of candidates.
"After flopping on the national stage, Hickenlooper would be crawling back to Colorado to face a crowded field of competitively funded primary candidates who’ve spent months racing to the Left," Rodriguez told the Washington Examiner. "Cory Gardner has worked tirelessly to deliver real, bipartisan results for the people of Colorado in the Senate, and it’s made him the most effective member of the state’s entire delegation. He’ll be the toughest opponent any Democrat that survives this donnybrook primary has ever had to face.”
Tyler Sandberg, a Colorado Republican strategist, said Hickenlooper’s ability to defeat Gardner has been over-hyped.
Hickenlooper, he said, won his first bid for governor in part because former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo ran a third-party race as a Constitution Party candidate, splitting the GOP vote.
And Sandberg said there is no guarantee Hickenlooper would be spared a Democratic primary challenge.
“He’s never faced a truly tough opponent,” Sandberg told the Washington Examiner. “Nor has he ever won a Democratic primary.”