Littwin: Johnston says he couldn’t find a positive way to answer why-not-Hick question

Mike Johnston spoke to Democrats ahead of the precinct meetings at Tuesday's Park Hill caucus at the Smiley Middle School in Denver. March 6, 2018. Photo by John Herrick
Mike Johnston spoke to Democrats ahead of the precinct meetings at Tuesday's Park Hill caucus at the Smiley Middle School in Denver. March 6, 2018. (Photo by John Herrick)

The only thing that surprises me about Mike Johnston’s decision to leave the U.S. Senate race is that it happened so quickly.

The pool is now open for which candidate drops out next. I didn’t think Johnston would necessarily be the first in the 12-person field, but I’m sure he won’t be the last. And it probably won’t be long before the next Dem drops.

Johnston’s official explanation is on point. He says to beat someone like John Hickenlooper, with near-universal name recognition, in a race that Democrats are desperate to win, the question any Democratic candidate must inevitably answer becomes: “Why not Hickenlooper?”

Hickenlooper has the name recognition. He has, or will have, the money. He’s got the party support. He may not, to risk understating the case, be totally in step with Colorado progressives and he did say he wasn’t cut out to be a senator, but he is the only candidate in the Democratic race with statewide victories on his resume. Hickenlooper may have bombed in his presidential bid, but nearly every Democrat in Colorado has voted for him at some point.

Answering the why-not question, Johnston says, means a campaign focused on reducing Hickenlooper’s advantages, which, he says, means going negative, which, he further says, he didn’t want to do. And though Johnston has shown himself to be a prolific fundraiser and, as of now, easily leads that race in the Senate field, it’s unlikely he or anyone else would be able to match Hickenlooper’s resources. (Don’t be fooled by Hick’s embarrassing presidential fundraising. A Colorado Senate race is a whole different matter.)

But the unofficial explanation for Johnston’s departure is also on point. Johnston, who lost in the governor’s primary last year, can’t afford politically to lose two high-profile statewide races in two years. And beating Hickenlooper, he knows, is a long shot. In an effort to show he could compete, he released a poll showing that, like Hickenlooper, he could beat Cory Gardner. But that poll apparently didn’t persuade even Johnston that he would beat Hickenlooper.

That’s the message here. If Johnston, a top-tier candidate, recognized almost immediately that he had little chance of winning, what does that say for everyone else?

“For everyone in the race,” Johnston says, “beating Gardner is the primary focus.” Looking at the possibility of the race going negative and hurting the frontrunner, Johnston says, “I just couldn’t take that chance.”

Johnston says he doesn’t know what he’ll do next. He said it was the first question his 7-year-old son asked him. What he did say — and this is a safe bet — was that he probably isn’t done with politics.

I talked to many of the leading remaining candidates Tuesday to see what they might do next. No one is dropping out — yet. And none of them seemed too worried about a negative race.

The good news is that Johnston says no one from the Democratic establishment, which has come down unabashedly — and lead-footedly — on Hick’s side, tried to force him out of the race. In fact, two of the better-known candidates told me that Johnston’s departure in a divided field would probably benefit them.

Andrew Romanoff has a slightly different view than Johnston. He says there’s plenty of time to show where the candidates part ways on issues, and that discussing issue differences does not mean going negative.

“Personal attacks are off limits,” he adds. “As I said about Cory Gardner, I’m not going to attack his patriotism. I know he loves America. But we have different views on the issues facing the country. When I’m talking to people … they want to know what I’m going to do about climate change, about health care, about the border and immigration, about guns, about income inequality. We’re trying to run a campaign that looks just the opposite of Donald Trump — talking about issues and not tweeting attacks.”

Trump is currently tweeting attacks on the mayor of London, who made fun of Trump’s golf-course-based view of Hurricane Dorian. It’s not hard to be the opposite of that.

But people do remember the ugly 2010 Senate primary race between Michael Bennet and Romanoff, and there are still hard feelings on both sides. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think negative campaigning will work in this race. It would just send Hickenlooper to another fully-clothed (we hope) shower. And I doubt that many of the activist groups that would possibly oppose Hickenlooper will disagree with Johnston’s assessment — that any risk of helping Gardner is a risk too far.

No one expects Colorado to be a swing state this time — if Trump, who lost the state by five points in 2016, carries Colorado in 2020, you can pencil in a Trump rout — but the Senate race will be among the most watched, and among the most expensive, in the country. If Cory Gardner holds his seat, the Democrats have to little to no chance of taking the Senate.

That’s why the national Democrats are betting on Hickenlooper. He’s the safe choice. The job for the remaining candidates — including Romanoff, Alice Madden, Dan Baer, John Walsh, Angela Williams and the rest — is to persuade Democratic voters that in 2020, in the era of Trump, they’d also be a safe choice. That’s hardly out of the question. But what we know is that Mike Johnston, a leading contender, didn’t see a safe way to make that case.


  1. A safe choice…? so, the National Democratic system is forcing a person down our throats because of safe choice…? how about these National dems leaves us the choice, then they can support OUR choice, not theirs…I know that Gardner must be voted out of office, but not at the expense of Colorado’s independent examination of our OWN people…We are in this situation because of the National Dems…and their stupidity…I held my nose and voted for frackenlooper for governor, twice…but not again…he lied to us, and he is a friend of big oil and gas…We are now under the drilling and fracking threat of some of the last pristine areas in Colorado, thanks to big oil and frackenlooper…

  2. He wrapped it up so quickly. Kind of shocking. Hope Andy is paying attention. He still can’t get a table res next to Bennett’s folks and hopefully this turn of events jogs his memory as to why that is.

  3. I can see why Mike Johnston dropped out of the race but he collected more than a million dollars based on his participation–including $75 from me.. What, pray tell, happens to that? Please, Mike, don’t send mine to Hickenlooper. Let the DNC and Oil and Gas pay for him
    Also, Mr. Littwin, when you say every Coloradan voted for Hick at least once, are you counting the 200,000 plus people who have moved here since he last ran? The political Demographics have changed. Bernie won our caucuses in 2016. Do you think our terrific Governor Polis might have been elected BEFORE the influx happened? (In his Meet & Greet I attended in Denver 9/10th of the participants were YOUNG) Not to mention the other Dems who won EVERY midterm election and changed the composition of the legislature, not to mention the Denver City Council.
    Even if Hickenlooper wins (and like everyone I will vote for him if he is the candidate but mostly because he is NOT Cory Gardner) the candidates who stay in the race, who will pick up a lot of votes if there’s a primary, could encourage him to adopt more progressive views than he revealed in his failed Presidential race.
    In my opinion, old hat is not the way to go given the crises that face our world and our country.

  4. This state in many ways was built on extractive industry such as oil and gas. That may be deplorable, but it’s a fact. Running against that industry is a great way to advance the revolution. But before we do it we have to make sure there will be other industries able and willing to take up the slack. That’s why we need to repeal Tabor in full, so we can afford the vast improvements in education and infrastructure that can free us from oil and gas development. Doing so before would be the kind of aspirational, callous backdeck liberalism that can only prompt an unlikely Gardner victory.

  5. Vicki Lindner. ‘Points well taken. ‘But since Polis won by nearly 300,000 votes and since Democrats have won all but one top of the ballot races in Colorado since 2004, I’d say, yes, he probably would have won before the influx.I don’t think o&g will play in Dem primary or pick Hick or any Dem over Gardner. But I think Hick will be pushed further left than his presidential run. What that means once elected, though, is a different story. See Gardner for proof of that. As for Johnston, I think it would be a mistake for him to move money to Hick during a primary. I think a lot of people, like you, would feel betrayed.

  6. Vicki,

    Candidates who withdraw from races with money in the bank typically offer a refund to contributors who would like their money back. If he doesn’t take the initiative to offer refunds to his donors, you should feel free to ask for yours back. Johnston’s last campaign finance report showed $3.3 million raised, $0.75 million spent, and over $2.5 million in the bank.

    Good luck!

Comments are closed.