Nearly a year before next June’s primary election, the field of Democrats vying to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner is beginning to sort itself out, though what promises to be a crowded race still appears entirely up for grabs.
It’s too early to tell whether the long-anticipated entry into the primary by state Sen. Angela Williams will shake up the race — and there’s still time for other candidates, including some potential game-changers, to jump in — but the 10 other currently declared candidates appear to be falling into clearly differentiated tiers in the wake of a campaign finance deadline.
Without providing details, Gardner's campaign said on July 11 that the incumbent raised $2 million for the second quarter ending June 30 — bringing his total raised for the cycle to $6.6 million, with $4.9 million on hand.
While most of the Democrats have yet to reveal their fundraising totals for most recent quarter, the two leading potential Gardner challengers who had trumpeted their totals by the afternoon of July 11 suggest in broad strokes how the eventual pecking order might fall.
Former state Sen. Mike Johnston, who finished third in last year’s gubernatorial primary, sits atop the pack with $3.4 million raised since the beginning of the year, including $1.6 million during the most recent quarter.
And former ambassador Dan Baer, who had about $250,000 left over from a brief 2018 congressional campaign, raised $1.1 million in his first quarter in the Senate race.
It’s a safe bet that none of the other major candidates cracked seven figures in contributions for the second quarter.
Those include former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who reported raising just over $500,000 last quarter and has a proven fundraising track record — he hauled in plenty of cash for unsuccessful 2010 Senate and 2014 congressional bids — and former Colorado House Democratic Leader Alice Madden, who didn’t get into the primary until the most recent quarter but has yet to release her initial fundraising totals.
Former U.S. Attorney for Colorado John Walsh, who announced his candidacy during the second quarter, brings strong fundraising potential but hadn’t released his totals.
In addition, Stephany Rose Spaulding, who unsuccessfully ran against U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn last year, got in the race after the start of the second quarter and had yet to say how much she’s raised.
The other Democrats running are climate activist Diana Bray, who reported raising $72,514 for the second quarter; scientist Trish Zornio, who raised $59,048 for the first quarter; community organizer Lorena Garcia, who raised $14,266 for the first quarter; and economist Ellen Burnes, whose fundraising was unknown at press time.
Even though everything political seems to be on a fast track these days — the field of Democratic 2020 presidential candidates has already begun to winnow, and news cycles are measured in hours rather than days — it’s worth remembering that plenty of time remains until actual voters will weigh in on any of the Democratic Senate candidates.
Even with 11 candidates actively campaigning, the Democratic Senate primary field isn’t yet nearly as sprawling as the number of Republican hopefuls who ran for the chance to challenge U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in 2016, when 15 Republicans gave it a go and five made the primary ballot.
That year, a relatively unknown El Paso county commissioner named Darryl Glenn seemingly came from nowhere to wrest the nomination from a passel of better-known and better-funded candidates, winning by a plurality over self-funder Jack Graham, former congressional candidate Robert Blaha, former state Rep. Jon Keyser and former congressional candidate Ryan Frazier.
At this point in the cycle for Colorado’s last Senate election, hot on the heels of a Republican romp in the just-completed 2014 election, only a handful of Republicans had announced — Glenn, who got in earliest, along with a few candidates who didn’t wind up getting much traction.
The other major candidates — also including then-state Sen. Tim Neville — waited until fall or even early into 2016 to launch their runs, though it turned out that Glenn’s persistence crisscrossing the state for more than a year before precinct caucuses paid off when he was the only candidate to emerge from the GOP’s state assembly. (The other four petitioned their way onto the primary ballot.)
Bennet went on to win re-election by 5.66% — not exactly a squeaker, but a lot closer than most analysts expected, particularly because Glenn lacked the support of national Republicans and effectively built a statewide campaign from scratch in a few months before the general election.
Democrats insist it’ll be different this year when Gardner faces voters, pointing to President Donald Trump’s deep unpopularity in the state and Gardner’s relatively low approval ratings among Republicans in public opinion surveys, as well as recent shifts in voter registration and partisan voting behavior that doesn’t bode well for Republicans.
According to the most recent statistics from the Colorado secretary of state, Democrats outnumber Republicans in Colorado by just under 50,000 voters, flipping the partisan profile on its head compared to the same point in 2013, when Republicans enjoyed a roughly 50,000-voter advantage over Democrats before Gardner upset Democrat Mark Udall.
But the biggest change in the Colorado voter registration numbers over the last six years has been among unaffiliated voters, who ranked third in the state in July 103 but have now taken a wide lead ahead of both parties.
Of course, in Colorado an advantage in voter registration isn’t destiny. All those years when Republicans held the edge — sometimes by commanding margins — voters kept electing Democratic governors and sending Democrats to the Senate more often than they went with the Republicans for either office.
It’s an oft-cited statistic, but it’s still worth noting that over the last 50 years, Republicans have only won gubernatorial elections in Colorado three times — John Love once and Bill Owens twice — while voters have opted for the Democrat on 10 occasions, picking Dick Lamm three times, Roy Romer three times, Bill Ritter once, John Hickenlooper twice and Jared Polis once.
Likewise, in the 16 Senate elections held in Colorado since 1970, Democratic candidates have prevailed nine times: Floyd Haskell once, Gary Hart twice, Tim Wirth once, Ben Campbell once, Ken Salazar once, Udall once and Bennet twice.
Republicans, for their part, have won the state’s Senate election just seven times — Bill Armstrong twice, Hank Brown once, Wayne Allard twice, Ben Campbell once after he switched parties, and Gardner.