Littwin: Now the question becomes how (or if) Hickenlooper can be beaten in a Dem primary

Gov. John Hickenlooper talks about a new ad campaign aimed at preventing impaired driving on Oct. 9, 2018, at the state Capitol in Denver. (Photo by Rachel Lorenz for The Colorado Independent)

And so it begins. As long expected, failed presidential candidate John Hickenlooper is now running for the U.S. Senate despite the fact that Hick had repeatedly insisted he would not make a Senate run and that, in fact, he was not “cut out” for the job. And a lot of the state’s progressives don’t seem happy about it.

They also won’t be happy that Hick’s repeated denials that he would run — representing repeated unforced errors — will matter very little, if at all. It’s a straight commentary on the electability-is-everything mood dominating Democratic thought these days. If Hickenlooper eventually proves, as he told us, that he’s not cut out to be a legislator, the proof will somehow have to come before the primary election.

On the electability front, Mike Johnston released an internal poll showing him easily besting Cory Gardner. Other polls show a generic Democrat beating Gardner by 8 to 10 points. But unless Hick’s Democratic rivals can convince voters they’re at least as well placed as Hickenlooper to beat Gardner, he will remain the clear favorite.

The question now facing the post-Hick primary field — including Johnston, Andrew Romanoff, Alice Madden, Dan Baer, John Walsh and others — is how to change the dynamic. And I think this may offer some context:

State Sen. Angela Williams, who is also running in the Democratic Senate primary, wrote a strongly worded op-ed in the Aurora Sentinel that questioned Hickenlooper’s progressive credentials and said that despite his favorable early polling, Hick should not expect a “coronation.” On the day before she wrote that piece, one of the leading primary candidates told me that the rumor is Williams will soon drop out of the race. Her campaign says the rumor is absolutely wrong — and that Williams isn’t going anywhere.

And so it goes. What we know is that Hick is clearly the frontrunner. He has basically 100% name recognition, he’ll suck up much of the in-state money and media oxygen, and he has won two statewide campaigns, if against pointedly weak opponents. Yes, many progressives are skeptical of him. Others really don’t like him. But as I’ve pointed out before, Colorado is a culturally progressive state. Politically, it’s more center-left. As Hickenlooper said in a recent interview with KDVR’s Joe St. George when asked about progressive energy in the race, “There’s a lot of moderate energy, too.” And the primary, remember, is open to unaffiliated voters.

Hickenlooper got a break when Donald Trump tweeted praise for Gardner and ripped Hick. Trump is in the midst of what may be remembered as the most bizarre week of his bizarre presidency, and one that may not the best time to remind everyone that Trump, the chosen one, and Gardner are running mates.

In a Twitter rage Friday, Trump called his appointed Federal Reserve chair, Jay Powell, our “enemy” —  sort of like Denmark, I guess, but not like our friends in North Korea. Meanwhile, Trump “hereby order(ed)” American companies to no longer do business with China, which is not — according to my read of the Constitution — how our system of government works. But maybe there’s an amendment I missed with an exception for self-proclaimed Messiahs.

According to the polls, Trump is anywhere from 15 to 20 points underwater in Colorado. I would think the betting line would be maybe 10 points. And in an era when ticket splitting has become a lost art, many of the so-called experts expect Trump to take Gardner down with him. And it can only help Hickenlooper if Trump and other Republicans bash him. This is pure briar-patch territory.

But Hickenlooper got bad news himself with a semi-endorsement from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The last thing Colorado Democrats want to hear is national Democrats advising them how to vote. You’d have thought Hickenlooper would have warned them off.

Romanoff jumped right on it, tweeting: “Democrats: This is a moment of decision. Do we want DC to dictate our choice and buy this election before any ballots are even cast — or do we believe voters still matter? I’m attached to democracy. Join me if you are too.”

Hick has clear weaknesses. In his presidential campaign, he embellished his record on guns. He avoided his record on oil and gas. The anti-fracking activist community will definitely oppose Hickenlooper. His run can’t help but look opportunistic. He made his stand against socialism, which is not the same thing as democratic socialism. And, like Joe Biden, he gaffes.

But a central fact of campaigning against a strong frontrunner is that you have to bring down his favorables — meaning, going negative, which can mean nothing more than strong contrast ads, although it usually gets much uglier than that. If Hick is now the Joe Biden of Colorado, you’ll recall that Biden’s worst moment of the race so far came with Kamala Harris’s debate takedown of the former vice president.

But going negative in Colorado is, shall we say, risky, particularly in a primary setting. There was one negative ad in the entire Democratic primary for governor — a hit by the teachers’ union, which favored Cary Kennedy, on both Jared Polis and Johnston. The negative reaction to that negative ad may have cost Kennedy her shot at winning. Hick’s condemnation of the ad, by the way, played a significant role.

I don’t see any big third-party money, other than GOP money, coming out against Hickenlooper in the primary. There’s too much risk involved.

And the one candidate I see going hard against Hickenlooper is Romanoff, who went very hard against Michael Bennet in a losing effort in the 2010 Senate primary. Romanoff, who was a moderate in his days as House speaker,  went left against Bennet and he has stayed there. Romanoff has already likened Hickenlooper to Gardner on Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and attacks on socialism.

The attacks are fair, by political standards, but Gardner is well to the right of Hickenlooper on these issues, of course. And I’d guess that Hickenlooper will basically ignore any such attacks unless they come up in debates, and even then, he’ll try to turn it around and make it about Gardner.

As one candidate told me, anonymously, about a need to go negative and the difficulties involved: “This is a hard circle to square.” 

Which is one more reason why Hickenlooper will be very difficult to beat.


  1. Mike’s right. It is an opportunistic run at the Senate. Going negative in Colorado, however, in my opinion, has very few consequences politically for the Democratic field, unfortunately. Colorado is solidly blue in the age of Comrade Trump and Complicit Cory. Going negative isn’t going to change that so there is little downside to a muddy race.

  2. Hickenlooper could greatly improve his chances of winning next year’s senatorial primary by simply changing his party affiliation.

  3. Please Mr Littwin use your contacts and skills to educate your reader’s about the Clements murder Al-Turki and the people involved. This man should be investigated for accessory at the least. and not a US Senator.. I dont care for Gardner either..(MIke Coffman lite) But Hickenlooper ? At least for the Pizza kids family The Officer Young killing by an illegal ain’t a big deal to the left. The whole “Pigs in a blanket ” thing. ..Please You asked if he could be beaten…

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