Decades, of course, are arbitrary classifications, but they can help make sense of what would otherwise be an endless churn of chatter and conflict.
As the second decade of the new century draws to a close and Coloradans brace themselves for the advent of the Roaring Twenties, it’s instructive to consider the personalities who have shaped the state’s politics in the last stretch.
No politicians have better embodied the tensions and triumphs of their parties over the past 10 years than Democrat John Hickenlooper and Republican Ken Buck.
Both moved to Colorado from the Northeast, perhaps fitting in a fast-growing state where more than half of all residents were born outside its borders.
Hickenlooper grew up in Philadelphia and earned degrees from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, soon landing in Colorado to work as a petroleum geologist during one of the state’s regular boom-and-bust periods.
Buck hails from Westchester County, a suburb of New York City, and earned a degree from Princeton University before heading west to get a law degree at the University of Wyoming.
In 1986, Hickenlooper was laid off from his job at Buckhorn Petroleum and began considering what to do next, eventually starting a brewpub in Denver’s Lower Downtown neighborhood.
That same year, Buck went to work for then-U.S. Rep. Dick Cheney on the Iran-Contra investigation and later took a job in Washington, D.C., with the Justice Department before settling in Colorado to work as a federal prosecutor.
At the dawn of the 2010s, both men were long-serving local officials mounting their first statewide campaigns.
Hickenlooper, serving his second term as mayor of Denver, jumped in the race for governor in 2010 after the incumbent, Democrat Bill Ritter, set the political world on its ear with a relatively late announcement the former Denver district attorney wouldn’t seek a second term.
Buck, the district attorney for Weld County, had been criss-crossing the state for months in a long-shot bid for the 2010 GOP U.S. Senate nomination to challenge Democrat Michael Bennet, who had been appointed to the seat a year earlier.
They both burst on the statewide scene in an unpredictable midterm election year dominated by a national backlash to the Obama administration’s aggressive moves to address a financial crisis whose effects were still palpable.
It was a roller-coaster year that saw sure-things go down in flames once Republican voters had a chance to weigh in — former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis lost the GOP’s gubernatorial nod to newcomer Dan Maes, and Buck wrested the Senate nomination from former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton.
Maes most clearly manifested the spirit of the Tea Party, which emerged to rail against government bailouts in the wake of the Great Recession but swiftly turned on GOP elites, leaving establishment picks like Norton in its wake.
Hickenlooper, who famously launched by taking a shower with his clothes on in an ad decrying negative campaigns, lucked out as the Republican Party tore itself to pieces over Maes, and former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo joined the field in late summer as a third-party candidate.
Although Hickenlooper and Buck carried their respective party’s banners that November, their fortunes diverged on election night, with Hickenlooper winning the three-way race by a wide margin and Buck losing to Bennet by a hair.
Fast-forward to the end of the decade, and both remain among the enduring voices of their parties, though not without plenty of vocal challengers.
Hickenlooper won another term as governor in 2014 and reportedly made the short list for Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016. After running for the White House for a while this year, Hickenlooper gave in to pressure from national Democrats and declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate.
Hickenlooper’s evolving position on fossil fuels over the decade — from a cozy relationship with oil and gas interests to declaring climate change “the defining challenge of our time” — mirrors the Democratic Party’s, though some of his fellow party members complain the geologist didn’t get on board fast enough and hasn’t gone far enough.
In 2014, Buck won the first of three terms representing the heavily Republican 4th Congressional District in Congress, where he's belonged to the conservative House Freedom Caucus and has been among President Donald Trump’s most vocal defenders.
Earlier this year, Buck was elected chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, fending off a challenge from a state lawmaker whose grassroots supporters charged that Buck had grown too cozy with the establishment.
Like Hickenlooper, Buck is said to have his eye on the U.S. Senate and could be positioning himself to challenge Bennet in the 2022 election.
Other politicians have gotten more votes from Coloradans than Hickenlooper and Buck.
Cynthia Coffman was the first Republican to receive more than 1 million votes, when she won her only term as attorney general in 2014. Her total, however, has since been surpassed. The GOP candidate who has gotten the most votes in Colorado is Darryl Glenn, the 2016 U.S. Senate nominee, followed by Donald Trump in 2016, and attorney general nominee George Brauchler in 2018.
Coffman, notably, was the only one of the top vote-getting Republicans who won their race in Colorado.
On the Democratic side of the ledger, Bennet holds the record for the most votes received in the state, in his 2016 win over Glenn, followed by Jared Polis’ total in his 2018 win for governor and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 win over Trump.
Among the hundreds of Democrats and Republicans who vied for the titles this decade, two runners-up stand out.
Republican Cory Gardner broke a decade-long losing streak by Republicans at the top of the ticket in Colorado in 2014 when the two-term congressman won election to the U.S. Senate. And he accomplished that by unseating Democrat Mark Udall, marking the first time since 1978 that Colorado senator was denied re-election.
Hickenlooper is hoping to deny Gardner a second term in next year’ election, but there’s no denying a contention made by veteran Republican strategist Dick Wadhams that if Gardner hadn’t won in 2014, the Colorado GOP could have been ushered into the wilderness for the rest of the decade.
Battles over taxes, energy and education have consumed plenty of oxygen this decade, but nothing influenced the political climate like the raging debate over health care, and no one incarnates that among Democrats more than Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera.
The Broomfield Democrat began the decade by losing her bid for a third term in the state House to a Tea Party Republican but regained her seat in the next election and won another term after that.
A four-time cancer survivor, Primavera served as CEO of Komen Colorado before Polis picked her as his running mate. Soon after they were sworn in, he named her to head the governor’s Office of Saving People Money on Health Care.