Crisanta Duran rethinking 2020 Senate bid, eyeing possible primary against Diana DeGette

Crisanta Duran has long been seen as a favorite to unseat U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020. (Photo by Jeffrey Beall via Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: Two days after this story was published, Crisanta Duran announced she is running for Congress. You can watch her announcement video here.

Former Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran, long seen as a favorite to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020, is rethinking that path and is engaged in serious talks about a Democratic primary run against longtime U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette in Colorado’s 1st Congressional District, according to more than a half a dozen sources with knowledge of those talks.

What Duran will do remains unclear.

“No final decisions have been made,” she texted on Friday, when The Independent contacted her for comment about the 2020 Senate race and her potential run against DeGette.

On Wednesday, Duran told The Independent, “I am figuring out where I can be most effective, and that’s what’s most important to me, to be in a position to be as effective as possible to accomplish change.”

Sources say she has been wrestling with her decision for weeks. While Gardner is considered vulnerable, the Democratic field taking shape against him promises a tough and expensive primary — and Duran appears to have soured on the prospect of jumping in.

A primary battle against DeGette may be no less bruising, however. Other than former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff’s 2010 bid for Michael Bennet’s Senate seat, it has been decades since a Democratic incumbent for federal office or governor has seen a major primary challenger in Colorado. And none has lost from that position. DeGette has had no trouble vanquishing her primary and general election opponents since she first won the seat in 1996.

Duran, 38, has communicated with political consultants about a potential run against DeGette, including Georgie Aguirre-Sacasa and Jessica Campbell-Swanson, sources said. Aguirre-Sacasa and Campbell-Swanson are identified with progressive politics, indicating that Duran could seek to challenge DeGette from the left, despite the fact that many observe little demonstrable ideological difference between the two of them.

Aguirre-Sacasa reiterated Friday to The Independent that Duran hasn’t made a final decision, but added, “I do think we need new leadership in CD1 and look forward to seeing capable people jump in the race.”

Campbell-Swanson said she could not speak to Duran’s plans, adding: “The voters who are left of Diana are the most dissatisfied with Diana’s performance, and are looking for, and would be open to and supportive of, a solid challenge from the left.”

Many Democratic lawmakers and political operatives see 2020 not only as an opportunity to oust Gardner, a Republican in his first term, but also to install a woman as his replacement. Colorado has never had a female U.S. senator.

Two women, Trish Zornio and Lorena Garcia, have already announced plans to run against Gardner. Neither have Duran’s name recognition or political connections — nor do they have the pull of the two men already in the race, Romanoff and Mike Johnston, a former state senator who ran for governor last year.

The Independent also has learned that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has talked with longtime Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter about a 2020 Senate run.

“Everything’s on the table,” Perlmutter spokeswoman Ashley Verville said. “But he won’t be making any decisions any time soon.”

Schumer has had similar conversations with former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is actively touring early presidential primary states and is expected to announce soon that he will join an already crowded Democratic field. Hickenlooper would have time to exit the race for president before the Iowa caucuses and strike up a Senate run.

Multiple sources also said Schumer, whose office declined to comment for this story, has expressed a lack of confidence about Duran running against Gardner. They also said the potent political organization Emily’s List — which supports female Democratic candidates and last cycle spent more than $100 million on congressional races, and which in 2016 labeled Duran its “rising star” of the year — has grown frustrated with Duran’s indecision. Emily’s List has invested significant time getting to know Duran and there’s no indication it’s pulling its support.

In a statement, Emily’s List spokeswoman Maeve Coyle said, “Cory Gardner’s support for policies that hurt women and families have left him the most vulnerable Republican in the Senate, and EMILY’s List is excited at the prospect of supporting a qualified woman to defeat him in 2020. We’re proud of the work Crisanta Duran has done in Colorado, and we can’t wait to see what she’ll take on next.”

Duran and anyone else who might think they can win a competitive Democratic primary and then go on to beat Gardner will need millions of dollars to do so. The seat is one that could determine whether the Senate stays red or flips blue.

For a primary contest against DeGette, Duran would still need to court significant support and dollars, but the race would be less expensive and the field would be smaller.

But it’s not clear that it’d be easier for Duran to win that race versus the one for Senate. Duran has already generated a lot of interest as a possible Senate candidate and, were she to enter the race today, she would be the only woman and person of color with significant name recognition in the field.

If Duran challenges DeGette, she’ll be going up against an incumbent who’s closely connected to the Democratic establishment of Colorado. Several influential Democratic operatives told The Independent they think Duran would have trouble winning the support of even some of her closest political allies, since many of them are DeGette’s allies, too.

DeGette, 61, has served in Congress for 21 years and ascended to become chief deputy whip. She now chairs the powerful Oversight and Investigations panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Now in her 12th term, she’s spent her congressional career cruising through the primary and general elections in her Denver district. In 2018, she defeated Saira Rao with more than two-thirds of the primary vote.

Regarding Duran’s plans, DeGette Chief of Staff Lisa Cohen said, “We are not going to respond to rumors. The Congresswoman is focused on working on behalf of her constituents and in fact is deeply immersed in preparation as chair of two oversight hearings next week” on the measles outbreak and climate change.

Some have encouraged DeGette to run for the Senate in 2020 instead of for re-election to the House, but she’s not seriously considering that option.

Duran’s record doesn’t point to any major ways at which her politics are at odds with DeGette’s. Both are reliably blue votes, but neither is regarded by political observers as being particularly far to the left — which makes Duran’s talks with progressive campaign consultants worth note.

Georgie Aguirre-Sacasa ran Sairo Rao’s campaign against DeGette last year. Rao is an unapologetic leftist who has repeatedly called for abolishing ICE and speaks out consistently and forcefully about racism and her disappointment with white women. Rao told The Independent she is not going to run for CD1 again in 2020.

Campbell-Swanson managed the since-suspended campaign of progressive Kayvan Khalatbari, who planned to challenge Denver Mayor Michael Hancock from the left in this year’s municipal election.

Complicating the decision for Duran is the fact that Colorado, with its booming population, is widely expected to get an eighth congressional district after the 2020 Census. It’s too soon to know where that potential new district might be situated, but it could include parts of Denver, which, like Aurora and many other cities in the metropolitan area, has seen substantial growth since the 2010 census.

Depending on where that district is drawn — if it’s drawn at all — Duran could be a strong candidate for Congress in 2022. But already there are people said to be lining up in consideration of that seat, including state Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver.

Herod said she’s been encouraged to run for various positions but wouldn’t say which one she might go for. Denver will have another mayoral race in four years, and she is viewed as a possible contender for that job, if she opts against a congressional run or a 2020 Senate run.

“I’ve been approached by many to consider higher office, and I am honored,” she said. “Right now, I’m focused on getting through this legislative session.”

A 2022 race for Duran also would mean being sidelined for another three years — an eternity for an ambitious politician.