Tuesday, Colorado Democrats will pick a U.S. Senate nominee to represent the party against incumbent Republican Cory Gardner, a seat that could go a long way to determining which party runs the nation.
With Democrats unlikely to lose the House, retaining the Senate would continue to be a shield for the president or a check on his power, if Donald Trump wins a second term in the White House.
That's the No. 1 issue of this election.
Colorado is a seat where Democrats were feeling confident just a few months ago, with polls showing President Donald Trump deeply unpopular in the state, and the Republican incumbent, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner more so, because some of his party’s base likely didn’t think he had been supportive enough of the president.
Trump’s sagging poll numbers in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the battered economy and protests for racial justice might mean any Democrat will do, but former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s recent missteps — including two violations of a state gift ban for travel he accepted while governor and earning a contempt charge for initially ignoring a subpoena to testify before the ethics commission — has had some looking at the race anew.
Coupled with former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff's peppier performance in a series of televised debates and Hickenlooper's stumbles have had skeptics claiming the underdog has the momentum, though a Colorado Politics-9News poll released Thursday suggests the popular former two-term governor has kept the upper hand.
The nominee will face a skilled debater and seasoned politician in Gardner in November, as well a barrage of negative campaign attacks from a well-financed GOP effort to preserve the Senate majority, even if the White House is at risk.
Colorado Politics measured the candidates on the issues most likely to move the needle with the state’s voters, though Colorado's turnout history suggests that around half of the primary ballots have already been returned.
Hickenlooper: Did a lot, could have done more, he says. Hickenlooper recalls his first days as Denver's mayor in 2003, when he took office just days after 15-year-old Paul Childs was shot four times in front of his mother’s house by a Denver police officer, who was later suspended for 10 months. Hickenlooper boasts that he put significant police reforms in place as mayor — including creation of an independent monitor and civilian oversight commission — and as governor, though major police reforms were enacted only this month, when the legislature passed Senate Bill 217. Like a lot of Democratic mayors and governors, he says he could have done more.
Romanoff: No sterling record of problem-solving here, either. Romanoff, however, left the state House of Representatives at a time of racial unrest and escalating distrust in police after a string of misconduct complaints in the Denver metro area. “None of us have done enough,” he conceded in a recent debate. He points out that he began his career working against bigotry for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.
Hickenlooper: Keep families together, overhaul the system. Hickenlooper has talked a lot about the issue. In an op-ed in the Boulder Daily Camera on June 23, he called for the passage of Democrats’ American Dream and Promise Act on immigration and accused President Trump of fear-mongering. On the presidential campaign trail last year, Hickenlooper said in a debate in Miami: “If you'd ever told me any time in my life that this country would sanction federal agents to take children from the arms of their parents, put them in cages, actually put them up for adoption — in Colorado, we call that kidnapping — I would have told you it was unbelievable.” He characterized Trump’s approach as "cruel and un-American."
Romanoff: It’s complicated, the former House speaker concedes. Yes, he’s a dogged Democrat who toes the party’s line in its outreach to Hispanic voters, but he also famously blessed a 2006 compromise with Republican Gov. Bill Owens on two bills — one to increase police enforcement of undocumented immigration and another to create a $50,000 fine for document fraud. Seven years later, when Democrats controlled the House and Senate, they repealed the laws with Hickenlooper's signature. Saying he cut the deal as speaker to prevent even tougher Republican measures from making the ballot, Romanoff calls the compromise his greatest regret and apologized, though a group of Hickenlooper supporters has been reminding voters of Romanoff's history in a seven-figure TV ad campaign.
Hickenlooper: “Health care is a right. It’s not a privilege,” Hickenlooper said in the June 11 CBS4 debate, echoing the party line. The governor has sought to make peace with Republicans on the issue, working with Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio in 2018 to develop a bipartisan plan for health care that neither party embraced. Like Joe Biden at the top of the ticket, Hickenlooper favors fixing Obamacare, not scrapping the private market, which he has characterized as unrealistic, expensive and disruptive to how many Americans still choose to get their health care, through their employer.
Romanoff: Medicare for All is the plan for this man. As part of his progressive brand, Romanoff has campaigned on a public system that allows Medicare starting at birth. To be clear what we’re talking about, the progressive proposal would take away private health insurance and replace it with a government plan. He contends insurers have created a business model that prioritizes profitability by denying as many claims as possible and excluding those whose illness they consider too expensive. In a letter debate Romanoff suggested the plan might not be doable, but we’ll never move in that direction if the option isn’t on the negotiating table.
Hickenlooper: Looks for an evolution, not a revolution. As governor, Hickenlooper made a name for himself negotiating compromises with the oil and gas industry, much to the dismay of such environmentalists as then-U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who now occupies the governor’s office. Hickenlooper kept Colorado in step with the goals of the Paris climate accords, when Trump pulled the nation out of the international agreement in 2017. On the campaign trail for president last year, the former gas company geologist boasted about his work as governor and mayor on clean transportation projects, including the light rail system in Denver, and efforts to boost electric vehicles, both measures Polis has championed and advanced significantly beyond Hickenlooper’s accomplishments.
Romanoff: Supports the Green New Deal. Once a centrist and a leader of the establishment, the former Colorado House speaker says climate change is an immediate, devastating crisis for the globe in general and this nation’s health and economic prosperity. He sides with the most liberal activists of his party on the immediate threat of climate change. If Romanoff is going to turn off unaffiliated voters with overreach, climate is the best opportunity, and one Republicans and well-financed industry operatives will exploit, if he’s the nominee.
Hickenlooper: Once again, he tried. As governor, Hickenlooper presided over meager pay raises for teachers amid claims of poor funding and teacher shortages across Colorado. Teachers marched at the state Capitol repeatedly and Hickenlooper was jeered in 2018 when he spoke to a teachers rally in Denver’s Civic Center park. On the other hand, when Hickenlooper negotiated a compromise on teacher testing in 2015, it elevated his stature as a potential vice presidential pick for Hillary Clinton. He was the face of Amendment 66, the $950 billion tax increase for education that lost nearly 2 to 1 in 2013. When he was Denver mayor, he helped some of the city’s poorest students through the Denver Scholarship Foundation, which has handed out more than $43 million to more than 7,000 students since 2006.
Romanoff: A self-styled education champion, Romanoff says he started his career after college teaching English in rural classrooms in Central America. He’s also taught government at the Community College of Aurora, Metro State University of Denver, Red Rocks Community College and the University of Colorado Denver. “ When we make good on the guarantee of free public education, we promote equality, propel our economy, and protect our republic,” he says on his website. His promises include universal preschool and full-day kindergarten, as well as removing barriers for students, especially students of color.
Hickenlooper: Gun control, but. Hickenlooper signed the state’s gun reform legislation limiting ammunition magazines and requiring background checks in 2013, but he later walked back his support on the magazine limits when talking to sheriffs. Nonetheless, the governor tried to strike a Second Amendment balance in a then-purple swing state. The gun laws were major issues in his reelection bid in 2014, after three Democratic legislative leaders were either recalled or resigned. As mass shootings have made Colorado famous, Hickenlooper couldn’t pass more restrictive measures, including a ban on assault rifles or further limits on concealed weapons, despite the pleas of more progressive members of the legislature. Last year, Gov. Jared Polis signed the state’s “red flag” gun law, delivered by majorities in the House and Senate, with support from a few — but not many — key Republicans.
Romanoff: “Enough is enough,” Romanoff says in his platform. He’s touting a national agenda to require background checks and waiting periods on all gun sales, strengthen the enforcement of existing laws and equip the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to carry out its mission. He also would ban all aspects of the trade — short of possession — for military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as limit bulk gun purchases.
Hickenlooper: A supporter but not an advocate, Hickenlooper was still endorsed by NARAL Pro-Choice America in February, when the field was quite crowded and uncertain. A pro-choice governor, he backed a politically risky plan in 2014 to provide contraceptive devices at little or no cost. In five years Colorado saw a 40% drop in teen pregnancies. On the campaign trail last year, Hickenlooper joked he could never run on the same ticket as John Kasich, because the Republican governor from Ohio doesn’t support Planned Parenthood.
Romanoff: A fighter for reproductive rights. Romanoff has been campaigning on the issue for more than a year. When the Trump administration was proposing changes to how transgender people and those who have an abortions are treated or billed under the Affordable Care Act, Romanoff posted on Facebook: “Women who have an abortion and transgender Americans shouldn’t have to live with the fear that they’ll be discriminated against when they need to see a doctor or visit a hospital. As senator, I will fight for human rights protections for all Americans.
Colorado Politics staff writer Ernest Luning contributed to this story. This story was corrected to not it was Polis, and not Hickenlooper, who signed last year's red flag gun law.