In the final days before the vote was counted in Colorado’s Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Cory Gardner, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff was hoping for an upset.
So was pistol-packing restaurant owner Lauren Boebert, who was challenging five-term U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton in the 3rd Congressional District’s Republican primary, but hardly anyone outside her campaign paid much attention to her bid.
Buoyed by weeks of bruising news about primary opponent John Hickenlooper, Romanoff was the unnamed beneficiary of a dozen headlines in Colorado and national publications bemoaning the former two-term governor’s “rattled” campaign as it “stumbled” and “tripped” its way to the finish line.
The week ballots went out, Hickenlooper was faced with a string of accumulating setbacks — from a contempt citation for failing to appear for an ethics hearing to a ruling by the ethics panel that Hickenlooper had twice violated a state gift ban to gaffes involving the protests for racial justice that have been sweeping the nation.
Republicans pounced, sinking millions of dollars into ads attacking Hickenlooper for his newly acquired vulnerabilities, while national Democrats appeared to confirm their favored candidate was on the ropes when they spent twice as much money on ads defending Hickenlooper.
There was even a poll conducted for the Romanoff campaign — by a reputable pollster who has been taking the temperature of Colorado voters for years — that showed the underdog narrowing what had been a blowout Hickenlooper lead to a 12-point race.
Although no one used the phrase this time around, it looked like Romanoff was benefitting from the “romentum” that propelled him in 2010, when he came within 8 percentage points of unseating Democrat Michael Bennet in a primary for Colorado’s other U.S. Senate seat.
Add to that Hickenlooper’s less-than-gripping performances in televised debates, particularly in contrast to the pugnacious Romanoff, and it’s understandable why the Washington, D.C., press corps concluded that Hickenlooper had been knocked back on his Achilles heels.
Meanwhile, Boebert and her team were criss-crossing the sprawling 3rd CD, quietly chasing votes for the conservative celebrity, who first went viral when she opened Shooters Grill in Rifle, where the armed wait staff packs enough heat to rival the green chile.
The next time Boebert went viral was last fall, when she challenged Texan Beto O’Rourke on the steps of Aurora’s city hall over the then-presidential candidate’s proposal to confiscate firearms with the “Hell no, you won't take away our guns!” heard ’round the world.
In May, Boebert got more ink for defying public health orders by opening her restaurant back up for in-person dining before Gov. Jared Polis had lifted an order banning sit-down service in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
On primary night, Romanoff confounded prognosticators by failing to topple the front-runner, falling 20 percentage points short of Hickenlooper, who finished with almost precisely the same 60% of the vote he had in a primary poll released last August.
And Boebert pretty much bowled everyone over by unseating Tipton by 9 percentage points, despite the incumbent’s endorsement by President Donald Trump, whose mantle Boebert also claimed.
Even though few were noticing it, Boebert was the one with the romentum.
She’ll face former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush in November, in what will be the Steamboat Springs Democrat’s second bid for the seat after losing to Tipton in the last cycle by 8 percentage points.
What eluded Romanoff — and Boebert accomplished — turns out to be an exceedingly rare feat in Colorado.
Upsets in Colorado primaries in major races — for statewide office and congressional seats — are as scarce as hens’ teeth, which do show up in the occasional chicken’s mouth, though not very often.
Unseating an incumbent in a top-ticket Colorado primary, however, is rarer still — and hasn’t happened in almost 50 years.
It was only recently that a longshot candidate stunned observers by winning a statewide primary, though it was in a crowded race without a clear favorite, so this one comes with an asterisk.
Republican Darryl Glenn, the mostly unknown El Paso County commissioner who vaulted onto the ballot on the strength of a head-turning speech at the GOP’s state assembly, finished first in a field of five U.S. Senate candidates — good enough to win the 2016 nomination to challenge Democrat Michael Bennet. But by the time the primary votes were counted, Glenn had as much claim to front-runner status as any of the others on the ballot.
There have been plenty of other primaries in top-ticket races in the past five election cycles, but in every other instance, the winner was the favorite going into the primary — whether for reasons of incumbency or a clear lead in fundraising and support from his or her party’s establishment.
The outcome was particularly striking in 2018, when the primary ballot was chock full of contested races up and down the ticket and across the state, starting with Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton prevailing in crowded gubernatorial primaries where they brought the most establishment cred and held the fundraising leads.
The same held true in the spate of last cycle's congressional primaries, with U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Doug Lamborn fending off spirited challengers in their districts’ Democratic and Republican primaries, respectively, while Democrats Joe Neguse and Jason Crow defeated more left-leaning candidates to win the nomination in their districts by wide margins.
The last time the favorites didn’t win major race primaries was a decade ago, when the Tea Party’s strength in the Republican Party was at its peak and a pair of insurgents toppled establishment picks. That was the year the GOP spurned former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis to nominate political newcomer Dan Maes for governor and handed the U.S. Senate nomination to a young upstart DA named Ken Buck, bypassing former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton.
Both went on to lose the general election. Hickenlooper won a three-way race for governor against Maes and former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, who ran on an obscure third-party ticket but got more three times as many votes as Maes. Bennet, fresh from fending off a challenge by Romanoff, eked out a win over Buck in the night’s nail-biter.
And the last time an incumbent member of Congress lost a primary? It was 1972, when environmentalist Alan Merson unseated veteran U.S. Rep. Wayne Aspinall in the Democratic primary, only to lose in November to Republican Jim Johnson.