Election 2020 Democrats

Democratic president candidate and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at a Service Employees International Union forum on labor issues, Saturday, April 27, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

SAN FRANCISCO — Colorado's former governor John Hickenlooper may have just logged a breakthrough moment for his campaign for president -- by eliciting boos and jeers at a California state party gathering Saturday. 

The hostile reception came from liberal party activists after Hickenlooper (D) said Democratic candidates should not embrace socialism in their quest for the White House.

"If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer," Hickenlooper told a crowd of more than 4,500 delegates and observers on Saturday.

Before he could get finish his next sentence, a chorus of boos along with a sea of waving "Bernie" signs overtook his speech, lasting for more than 30 seconds. The moment prompted Hickenlooper to attempt a smile and eventually break from his remarks to add, "You know, if we're not careful, we're going to end up helping to re-elect the worst president in history."

The video of Hickenlooper getting booed garnered more than 100,000 views as of Monday morning and plenty of national press. 

As one Washington Post writer put it, "By denouncing both socialism and Medicare-for-all from the convention podium, Hickenlooper lost the room but gained a national audience. By Saturday evening, centrist pundits were praising Hickenlooper's courage, in telling a hostile crowd that they would lose if defined as too left-wing."

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In an interview before his convention speech, Hickenlooper elaborated further: “I’m making the case that the Republicans have already demonstrated that they want to tie Democrats to socialism,” he said . “They tried to do it in the midterms. And if you look at all the midterm candidates who won in the swing states, they were pragmatic problem-solvers and they rejected those labels of socialism.”

“I think the same thing is going to happen at the national level,” said Hickenlooper, who has dissociated himself from Medicare for All. “We have to distance ourselves from the baggage that’s tied to the word socialism.”

As the governor spoke about health care in his convention speech, a man in the audience raised his hand to give him the middle finger.

The former Colorado governor quickly highlighted the negative reaction on his Twitter account: "I know this message won't be popular with everyone in our party. But the stakes are too high. We cannot hand this election to Donald Trump."

Get more state and national politics news at coloradopolitics.com.

His seven-minute speech drew applause in other spots, particularly when Hickenlooper talked about some of his accomplishments as governor — accomplishments he described as possible only because he did not govern as a liberal ideologue.

In an interview with CNN after his remarks, Hickenlooper said, "We had no illusions that everyone was going to embrace the message. We thought it was important to say, right? Not everyone in the party is going to rally to that perception but I feel that it needed to be said." In the interview, he referenced the progress Colorado has made under his leadership toward universal healthcare, more strict gun laws and becoming the number one economy in America. "This is all through collaboration," he told CNN. "Business and nonprofits. It's Republicans and Democrats. Getting everybody to work. And I think that message that we can achieve progressive goals without this very ideological purity, I think that's a message that people have to hear."

During a roundtable discussion on CNN later,  Andrew Gillum (D), former mayor of Tallahassee, Fla., went after Hickenlooper. "There is not a single Democrat, and there are a bunch of them running, who is running as a socialist. That is a Republican trope. He went into a Democratic room, repeated it, and I find it extremely unfortunate."

Joe Lockhart, former Clinton press secretary, came to Hickenlooper's defense during the roundtable. " I think it is a Republican trope, but I think it is an important statement to make. There are some people in the Democratic Party who believe in socialism. If the Republicans are able to brand a Democrat a socialist, then they will be very successful. I give Hickenlooper credit for going in and saying that's not right. It's an important message."

A BuzzFeed reporter wrote that "his tough talk Saturday to thousands of party activists in an important primary state caught him immediate attention....Like former vice president Joe Biden, who skipped the California convention in favor of campaigning in more middle-of-the-road Ohio, Hickenlooper has been unwilling to move to the left on certain policy issues. Unlike Biden, he has not tried to assert that he’s the most progressive candidate."

Hickenlooper says he's been successful in Colorado by taking a "pragmatic approach" and not demonizing the private sector. He told a reporter he considers himself a progressive, but a "pragmatic progressive." 

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow had a different question for the former Colorado governor in a recent interview: Why not run for Senate?

As things stand, Hickenlooper is running well back in the pack among the two dozen Democrats seeking to take on President Donald Trump in 2020.

On the other hand, he would be by far the most prominent challenger to Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, considered the most vulnerable senator seeking re-election next year, in a state that just turned over every statewide office to Democrats.

"If you ran for Senate in Colorado, and you are the candidate who could most easily take a Republican U.S. Senate seat in Colorado, you would have a better chance of flipping the Senate to Democratic control," Maddow told Hickenlooper, who chuckled as she laid out the premise.

"I mean pragmatically, I wish you were running for the Senate," the liberal host added.

"No, I understand, and you've obviously been talking to Chuck Schumer," Hickenlooper replied, referring to the Senate Democratic leader who has been trying to line up strong Democratic candidates for Senate races, only to find many of them seeking the White House.

He went on to state his case as a presidential candidate, saying, "I'm that person that can bring people together, and really get done the big, progressive things that people say can't get done."

Kathleen Ronayne and Nicholas Riccardi, Associated Press and Tarini Parti and Emily Glazer of The Wall Street Journal contributed.

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