Eighteen months after the Democratic primary for Colorado’s U.S. Senate seat began, and about six weeks since the ballot was finalized, John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff are shouldering their way to the finish line.
Just over a month after the 2018 election, which swept Democrats into power in Colorado with offices they hadn’t held in decades and numbers they hadn’t seen in generations, a handful of the eventual 21 candidates hoping to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner began to launch their campaigns.
A whole lot of campaigning later — most particularly punctuated by Hickenlooper’s relatively late entry into the race last August after ending his presidential bid — the field had narrowed ahead of caucus and petition season, and then narrowed again.
Romanoff was the only Democrat to emerge from caucuses and assemblies, and Hickenlooper had the only petition that qualified him for the ballot, setting up a contest between two veteran politicos who both began their careers in elective office around the turn of the century.
When the votes are counted on June 30, it will be either the first loss Hickenlooper has suffered in his political career — following two wins for mayor of Denver and two wins for governor — or the third loss in a row for Romanoff, who won four terms in the state House of Representatives but then lost a 2010 primary for Colorado’s other U.S. Senate seat and four years later lost a run for Congress.
That’s if you don’t count Hickenlooper’s derailed White House ambitions, though he withdrew six months before the first ballots were cast in that race, so tag that with an asterisk.
Before this month, the last time either Democrat appeared on a ballot was in the fall of 2014, when Hickenlooper ran for a second term as governor against former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, and Romanoff challenged Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in the suburban 6th Congressional District, with both avoiding primaries on the way to their nominations.
After a ferocious campaign that came down to the wire — with the winner still in doubt as election night parties called it quits after midnight — Hickenlooper survived by about 3 percentage points in what turned out to be a brutal year for Democrats in Colorado and nationwide.
That same night, Gardner denied Democrat Mark Udall a second term in the Senate by about 2 percentage points, a narrower margin than Hickenlooper enjoyed, but Coffman won his fourth term comfortably, finishing almost 9 percentage points ahead of Romanoff.
Both Democrats have been busy since that election: Hickenlooper governed the state for four years, then spent about six months traipsing about early primary states before hanging up his presidential ambitions, and Romanoff headed Mental Health Colorado, a statewide advocacy organization.
But since neither has had to go head-to-head against an opponent for going on six years, Trail Mix thought it would be illuminating to check in with the strategists who ran campaigns against Hickenlooper and Romanoff the last time they faced voters.
Tyler Sandberg, vice president of education reform group Ready Colorado, managed Coffman’s campaign, and Ryan Lynch, a consultant with Polestar Strategies running congressional and legislative races in Colorado and New Mexico, was deputy campaign manager on the Beauprez campaign.
Neither is involved in Gardner’s campaign this time around. Both were avid to size up their former foes’ strengths, weaknesses and prospects as the primary nears the wire.
The most striking thing about Romanoff, Sandberg said, was his style — which turned out to be an Achilles heel the Coffman campaign was able to exploit.
“He's too smart by half. He's a very, very intelligent guy, but he comes across as slick and brings a hyper-intellectual approach to politics,” Sandberg said. “Mike was able to be much more relatable. Andrew was ivory-tower — a very smart guy, but a weakness in politics is an inability to be relatable.”
It’s a vulnerability his primary opponent could exploit, Sandberg said, though he wondered if Hickenlooper might have missed his chance.
“Hickenlooper has always relied on his ‘aw shucks’ mentality — he wasn't perfect, he was just trying his best. Romanoff hasn't had that same ability to appeal to what voters will respond to. He tries to run on issues, and campaigns aren't run on issues, they're run on stories and emotions,” Sandberg said.
Romanoff has been an underdog because of his inability to replicate the strong fundraising he accomplished in his congressional run, as well as Hickenlooper’s advantages in name identification and favorability across the state, Sandberg said.
“Romanoff's failure to make Hickenlooper pay a political price has been a defining aspect of this race. He’s not in a position of strength where he's holding Hickenlooper’s feet to the fire,” Sandberg said. “It's more, ‘Please don't forget me.'”
Noting that Hickenlooper has mostly managed to avoid facing Romanoff in forums and debates — the candidates met for three televised debates in mid-June, but Hickenlooper skipped dozens earlier this year — Sandberg maintained that Romanoff was a much better debater than either Coffman or Hickenlooper but suggested Hickenlooper had erred by conceding the point.
“Mike was able to counter Romanoff’s superior debating skills by having so many debates no one could accuse him of trying to duck them,” Sandberg said. “He was willing to engage in the tough conversations. Romanoff has been complaining about Hickenlooper skipping debates, but it’s come across as a bid for attention, not as an indictment of Hickenlooper but a sad commentary on Romanoff’s position.”
Lynch said Hickenlooper’s point of vulnerability was easy to spot.
“Hickenlooper has that affability, that likable factor,” he said. “When he's free to speak his piece, he comes across as very personable, likable. His problem is, he's just not combative in his nature. He definitely struggles with the back-and-forth, but what he especially struggles with is when you force him to play defense. He falls off his game.”
Recalling a debate between Beauprez and Hickenlooper in Colorado Springs, Lynch said the Democrats’ weakness was glaring when Beauprez pressed a point and the crowd turned on the governor, who floundered.
“He can't stand the heat is his problem, so if you really get Hickenlooper on his heels or his back against the ropes, he really struggles. The key to debating him is to get him out of his element early — come in hot. He doesn't have the ability to then fire back,” Lynch said.
Beauprez tried to frame the election around leadership, since Hickenlooper had a reputation for putting off decisions and deferring hard choices, from dubbing a statewide civic-engagement project TBD Colorado — “to be determined” — to putting convicted killer Nathan Dunlap’s execution on indefinite hold, rather than going through with it or commuting the sentence.
“We strived to paint a contrast between weakness and leadership,” Lynch said. “Hick's a smart guy, he's a likable guy, he's just not a strong guy.”
Lynch gave Hickenlooper’s Rose Garden approach to the campaign — made infinitely easier by stay-at-home orders during the pandemic — mixed reviews.
“I think he's doing the smart thing, he's laying low, he hasn't really participated much in anything,” he said. “There's an argument to be made that he's not preparing himself for the general, but he's also not doing any harm in the primary — that's something you have to weigh equally.
“But Hick doesn't have to, because he has the name ID and Romanoff doesn't. That said, without doing warmup fights, and you get thrown in the ring at the main event, are you going to be ready?"