Ever since John Hickenlooper joined the Democratic primary for Colorado’s Senate seat in August after ending his White House run, the former two-term governor has been the presumed front-runner in the race to take on Sen. Cory Gardner, one of the most vulnerable Republican senators seeking re-election next year.
While the six other Democratic candidates seeking the nomination hope to dislodge the former two-term governor from his perch, he leads the primary field by wide margins, according to just about every quantifiable measure — fundraising, polling and the number of incessant attacks tossed his way by national Republicans.
Hickenlooper is also the only Democrat running who stands a chance of unseating Gardner, if a consistent pattern expressed in the past 14 U.S. Senate elections in Colorado holds true.
It has been nearly 50 years since Colorado voters elected a senator who wasn’t a sitting member of Congress or a statewide office-holder. (The rule comes with an asterisk, since Democrat Michael Bennet, Colorado’s senior U.S. senator, hadn’t been elected to anything before he defeated Republican Ken Buck to win his first full term in 2010, but Bennet held statewide office when he ran as the appointed incumbent.)
In 1974, Democrat Gary Hart, the Denver lawyer who managed George McGovern’s unsuccessful 1972 challenge against incumbent President Richard Nixon, was the last senator to win election who didn’t start the race as a congressman or elected state official.
Since then, Colorado’s senators have all come from the state Capitol or the U.S. Capitol — Bill Armstrong, Tim Wirth, Hank Brown, Ben Campbell, Wayne Allard, Ken Salazar, Mark Udall, Bennet and Gardner. (Salazar, a two-term attorney general, is the only one who wasn’t already in Congress when he won his Senate seat.)
Though no election is suis generis, next year’s Colorado contest looks like it could differ in important ways from any other in memory, though it will almost certainly echo many state elections past.
As the old saying attributed to Mark Twain goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
Colorado’s 2020 Senate primaries will be the first for that office following the 2016 passage of Proposition 108, which allows the state’s unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in Democratic or Republican primaries. And if last year’s example is any indication, they’ll likely turn out in big numbers.
While the field has slimmed in the three months since Hickenlooper got in, this cycle’s crowded Democratic primary bears some resemblance to the 2016 Republican primary for the Senate seat held by Bennet, though there are some crucial differences.
That year, a then-record 15 candidates sought the GOP nomination — four fewer than the 19 Democrats who have thrown their hat in the ring at some point this cycle.
While the 2020 Democratic Senate primary field appears in late November to be mostly set — following the Thanksgiving Eve withdrawal of state Sen. Angela Williams, there are eight Democrats running, including one who has filed paperwork but hasn’t campaigned — the 2016 Republican field was still far from complete at the same point.
Only two of the five Republicans who made the primary ballot had even launched a campaign by Thanksgiving — eventual nominee Darryl Glenn, an El Paso County commissioner, and former Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier. The other three candidates who made it all the way to the primary — then-state Rep. Jon Keyser and businessman Robert Blaha and Jack Graham — didn’t even begin their campaigns until January.
It’s unlikely next year’s Democratic Senate primary ballot will be as crowded, though, since four of the 2016 Republicans — Blaha, Frazier, Graham and Keyser — petitioned their way onto the ballot after Glenn was the only primary nominee to emerge from the state assembly.
The Democrats hoping to challenge Gardner have another couple months to decide which route they’ll take to the ballot, but only Hickenlooper has raised the funds required to mount a statewide petition drive. (Nonprofit director Lorena Garcia, a first-time candidate, says she’ll attempt to make the ballot by a volunteer-led petition effort.)
Like Gardner, Bennet was facing headwinds the year before the election, though the Democrat’s approval rating was at least right-side-up: In a July 2015 poll, 41% of Colorado voters approved of Bennet, and 34% disapproved. (Barely six months into his Senate term, Gardner scored a 48% approval rating, with 28% disapproving, in the 2015 Quinnipiac poll. Hickenlooper, who had been elected to a second term the previous fall, at that time had the approval of 51% of voters, compared to 40% disapproval.)
Gardner, in contrast, is upside-down with Colorado voters ahead of his re-election bid, according to an October 2019 poll that found 34% viewed him favorably and 45% viewed him unfavorably — slightly worse than in other polls conducted earlier in the year, but not far off.
President Donald Trump’s deep unpopularity among Colorado voters could be dragging down Gardner’s numbers. In the same October poll, which was conducted by a Democratic firm, Trump was viewed favorably by just 38% of voters and unfavorably by 60%.
Since Gardner and Trump will appear together on next year’s ballot — and the two Republicans have endorsed each other — Gardner could be weighted by the top of the ticket in ways Bennet wasn’t in 2016, when Democrat Hillary Clinton beat Trump in Colorado by about 5 percentage points.
If you squint, the parallels are striking between the 2020 Democratic primary and the 2014 GOP primary that nominated Gardner to challenge first-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.
In 2014, then-U.S. Rep. Gardner, like Hickenlooper, jumped in the primary late at the urging of state and national party leaders who weren’t impressed with the field.
Although Gardner joined the fray closer to the election than Hickenlooper did — in late February 2014, as opposed to late August 2019 — they both faced a similar number of active candidates, including several early front-runners who soon dropped out.
In Gardner’s case, the Republicans who stepped aside after he got in included Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck — who went on to win Gardner’s House seat that fall — and El Paso County legislators Amy Stephens and Owen Hill.
The Democrats who got out following Hickenlooper’s entry include former state Sen. Mike Johnston, former U.S. Attorney for Colorado John Walsh, former Obama-era ambassador Dan Baer, former state House Majority Leader Alice Madden and Williams, who had been the only currently elected official in the primary.
The Democratic candidates still in the running: Garcia, Trish Zornio, Andrew Romanoff, Stephany Rose Spaulding, Diana Bray, Michelle Ferrigno Warren and Hickenlooper.
Ahead of his bid for a second term in 2014, Udall’s fortunes were also tied to an incumbent of the same party who was unpopular with Colorado voters. Though he had carried Colorado twice, President Barack Obama was nearly as upside-down in the state as Trump a year before the election, with an average 41% approval rating and a 55% disapproval rating.
Udall was slightly more popular with Colorado voters than Gardner is at this point, but not by much. In a December Public Policy Polling survey, 41% of voters disapproved of the job he was doing, compared to 40% who approved.