Election 2020 John Hickenlooper

Then-Democratic president candidate John Hickenlooper walks on stage before speaking at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan

John Hickenlooper’s announcement that he was abandoning his quixotic presidential run for the more fertile U.S. Senate race surprised precisely no one, with the exception, we are asked to believe, of John Hickenlooper himself. It would require naivete on the order of that displayed by Alice before hopping into the rabbit hole to believe that, but you can’t deny that he did his utmost to try and project that illusion in the preceding months.

It was not so long ago that Hickenlooper not only ostentatiously dismissed the idea of running for Senate, but heaped disparagement on the very concept. “I’m not cut out to be a senator,” he said about six months ago. A few months later, when asked about a pivot to the Senate race he replied “I don’t think that’s my calling.” He repeatedly explained that his skillset was “putting administrative teams together”, saying “Senators don’t build teams. Senators sit and debate in small groups, which is important, right? But I’m not sure that’s my — I’m a doer. That’s what gives me joy.”

Well, apparently a lot can change in a couple months, for now it seems his calling has changed, he has discovered that he is in fact cut out to be a senator, and lo and behold sitting and debating in small groups now brings him unparalleled joy.

It’s a fairly remarkable evolution in political communications if he can, as the punditry expect, pull it off. Generally, a politician will, either as a result of experience or sound counsel, avoid insulting the voters by leaving the door open just a crack to alternate possibilities should whatever campaign they are currently engaged in turn south for whatever reason. But not Hick! No sir, he went to great pains, multiple times, to weld that door shut. Evidently, he’s not a great welder.

All right, so he had an epiphany, a vision, a deep spiritual experience or what have you, and woke to discover that everything he had believed of himself before 22 August was in error. Fine. So how does that play out now?

A couple of things bear consideration: first, until this year, John Hickenlooper enjoyed a surfeit of luck in his political career. He had never experienced a tough primary; his first statewide contest was handed to him by the Republicans, who made a royal mess of their own primary that year and allowed Hickenlooper to avoid a bullet in the form of Scott McInnis; and he coasted into a second term as governor on the wings of incumbency and an economy driven by an oil and gas industry that he never quite let his party dismantle.

That luck ran out this year. For the first time in his career he was faced with tough competition from his own party. And then Joe Biden wrecked everything when he entered the race disguising himself as the moderate grownup in the room, stealing the mantle tenuously clung to by Hickenlooper. Yet even before Biden, his path to the White House was dashed by the rapid leftward migration of his party, and ultimately by that fatal inertia which is bound to grip any campaign whose candidate gets mistaken for a reporter at a key event.

Second, and probably more consequential, is the brand he projects.

In many ways, Hickenlooper is the Biden of this race. Among the overpopulated primary field, he is the moderate – unlike Biden he comes by the label rather more honestly – and he comes bursting on the scene oozing with name recognition and establishment blessings. But like Biden, this presents him with some lingering, and growing, challenges. As the appointed moderate, he finds himself in the unenviable position of calling out the reckless foolishness which his party is no longer merely flirting with, but actively courting, while clinging to enough of it to remain numbered amongst their members. And this has opened him up for lavish assault from his opponents.

It is difficult to predict whether the DSCC endorsement helps him in the end. It marks him as the safe establishment pick, certainly, but that sort of thing counts for much less these days. The New Left wants Change and they want it Now, and, as the letter from seven of Hickenlooper’s female opponants to the DSCC elucidates nicely, they are not about to forego this opportunity for revolution by anointing someone with less than impeccable ideological credentials.

Conventional wisdom pegs Hickenlooper as the obvious frontrunner, and there is little doubt that he is. But the election is more than a year away, and a lot can happen in that interval.

Who knows, maybe the Onion will prove unintentionally prescient, and in a few months he will discover that being county commissioner is what, in fact, brings him joy.

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver. He also serves as executive director of the Freedom to Drive Coalition.

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