Colorado & Hickenlooper —
Decisions, Decisions

By Jim Ellis

Feb. 27, 2019 — Saying he’s “not cut out to be a senator,” former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said that he will either run for president in 2020 or no office at all. He further stated that, “Senators don’t build teams. Senators sit and debate in small groups … But I’m not sure that’s my — I’m a doer. That’s what gives me joy.”

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper – not running for Senate (Photo Moritz Hager)

While Hickenlooper is definitive that he won’t enter the Democratic senatorial primary to challenge first-term GOP incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner, he also has made lesser-than-expected moves toward entering the presidential race.

With already a dozen Democrats either officially entering the race or forming exploratory committees, and ex-Vice President Joe Biden set to announce his decision about becoming a candidate in the coming month, Hickenlooper, with low national name identification, may be waiting too long to generate a serious effort. Therefore, the more time that passes, the greater the chances of this ex-two-term governor and Denver mayor not being on the ballot at all in 2020.

The Monday announcement was certainly good news for Sen. Gardner. Possibly in the most vulnerable position of any Republican senator standing for re-election in 2020 – largely because his state has voted decidedly Democratic in the past several elections – the Colorado and national party leadership had hoped to recruit Hickenlooper into the Senate race. Most political observers clearly believe he would be Gardner’s strongest general election challenger.

Right now, mostly minor candidates have announced for the senate in Colorado. The two most prominent Democratic figures are former state House speaker and defeated US Senate and congressional candidate Andrew Romanoff, and ex-state senator and defeated gubernatorial candidate Mike Johnston, who finished third in the 2018 party primary that nominated current governor, Jared Polis.

Most would agree that Sen. Gardner ran the best 2014 Senate Republican campaign, unseating then-Sen. Mark Udall (D), 48-46 percent. And it is also arguable that ex-Sen. Udall ran the worst campaign of any Senate Democratic incumbent that year.

Gardner also enjoyed a favorable Republican wave year, something he likely won’t have in 2020, particularly with the state moving to the left since his initial statewide victory. Therefore, this Senate race will be a tough one for him regardless of who the Democrats nominate.

The bigger surprise of the day involves the solid Democratic 1st Congressional District, however, the seat that encompasses the city of Denver and stretches to the Denver International Airport. The 1st contains all of Denver County with small portions of Jefferson and Arapahoe counties added to provide the necessary population.

The district is remarkably consistent in its general election voting. The Democratic presidential nominees in 2016, 2012, and 2008 received 69, 69, and 71 percent of the vote. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Denver), now serving her 12th term in the House, obtains an average 70 percent re-election vote, never dropping below 65.8 percent in any election since her first victory in 1996.

Though not challenged for re-nomination until the past two election cycles, Rep. DeGette has performed well in those contests, too, winning 68.2 percent (2018) and 86.4 percent (2016) Democratic primary victories.

With this background, former state House Speaker Cristina Duran (D-Denver) said yesterday that she would launch a 2020 Democratic primary challenge to DeGette, which could be a prelude to similar nomination contests around the country.

Duran was thought of as a potential challenger to Sen. Gardner after being term-limited out of her state House seat in the 2018 election. Therefore, the announcement caught most observers by surprise.

The former state House speaker also has an impressive electoral record. In her four state House victories, she averaged 76.1 percent of the vote in the general election, but her downtown Denver House district comprises only about 10 percent of the 1st District.

Rep. DeGette will begin this primary contest as a heavy favorite, but Duran is certainly a credible challenger. This could turn into a race to watch, just like many other potential Democratic primary battles soon to pop up across the country.

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