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A second look at the Colorado Senate race

Hickenlooper faces test, but Gardner still vulnerable

Republicans are trying to weaken former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper as the state's June 30 Senate primary approaches.
Republicans are trying to weaken former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper as the state's June 30 Senate primary approaches. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — For the last week, national Republican strategists have been unloading on Colorado Democratic Senate hopeful John Hickenlooper, a former two-term governor and mayor of Denver.

Their goals? First, to damage the Democratic front-runner going into a June 30 primary against former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who is running from Hickenlooper’s left. And second, to weaken Hickenlooper for the general election against GOP incumbent Cory Gardner should the former governor make it to the fall.

Hickenlooper has plenty of assets, but he also has some political baggage and isn’t as good a campaigner as Gardner, who is poised, personable and invariably smiling.

Can Gardner pick his opponent?

According to a recent Associated Press story, the state Ethics Commission found Hickenlooper “guilty of violating ethics laws by accepting a flight on a private plane to a ceremony naming the USS Colorado and by accepting a limousine ride at the exclusive Bilderberg meetings in Rome. The commission fined Hickenlooper $2,750 — the highest fine in its history and twice the estimated cost of the two trips.”

Republicans portray the relatively minor violations as disastrous for the former governor.

There has been little public polling of the Senate race. What is there, combined with private polling, suggests Hickenlooper had a huge lead in the Democratic primary and a double-digit lead over Gardner before the ethics controversy reached its zenith. But the rash of TV ads, particularly by pro-Hickenlooper groups, suggest the primary is tightening.

Obviously, late polls (and eventually the primary results) will show how seriously Hickenlooper, who was just endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has been hurt by the ethics controversy. After all, he started his Senate bid as a well-known statewide figure who is generally low-key, likable and pragmatic.

And even if Romanoff wins the primary, it isn’t clear that he is that much weaker than Hickenlooper in the general election.

What is clear is that national Democrats have decided Hickenlooper is the stronger general election nominee, which is why the former governor has been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Republicans also think Hickenlooper is the strongest challenger to Gardner.

Candidates matter, most of the time

It isn’t surprising that GOP operatives want to make the Senate race about the two general election nominees, rather than the larger political environment. Gardner is a talented politician, and the national political environment, headlined by President Donald Trump, is an albatross around the Republican nominee’s neck.

But localizing the Senate race will be difficult for Republicans, given the president’s desire to interject himself into everything. Trump casts a long shadow not only over his reelection race, but over every race in the country.

Just as important, Gardner has not done nearly enough to demonstrate his independence from Trump or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Remember, Gardner’s initial 2014 general election ad was about his support for wind farms, during which he stressed his efforts to “work across party lines.”  His TV spot ended with the tag: “Cory Gardner. A new generation. A new kind of Republican.” 

But Gardner has ended up as most GOP senators have — as an enabler of Trump. As the senator said earlier this year at a Trump rally in the state: “When we look at what we’ve been able to do for Colorado, with the help of President Trump and his entire team, the results are simply astounding. … These things happen because President Trump and I work together for Colorado.”

Trump was even more explicit about Gardner’s performance in the Senate. “Cory was with us all the way,” and “Cory has been great,” he said. It’s not difficult to imagine the Democratic ads.

From swing state to leaning Democratic

Some Republicans dispute the widely held view that Colorado has gone “blue,” insisting that it is “purple.” The evidence tells a different story.

Colorado voted Republican for president in 14 of 16 elections stretching from 1952 to 2004. (The exceptions were Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Bill Clinton in 1992.)

But the state has gone Democratic in the last three presidential contests, and Democrats swept down-ballot races in 2018, electing the governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer. Democrats also control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly, and Hillary Clinton carried the state by just under 5 points.

Party registration is a lagging indicator since voters often change their party preference without changing their registration. So when registration changes are significant, they are worth noting (even though “unaffiliated” voters play a large role in election outcomes).

In June 2007, Colorado Republicans held a party registration advantage over Democrats of 139,897 voters, according to statistics from the office of the secretary of state of Colorado. Nine years later, in June 2016, shortly before Trump was elected president, the GOP statewide advantage had shrunk to a mere 13,607 registered voters. Four years later, in June of this year, Democrats had a party registration advantage of 83,022 voters.

That kind of registration change in noteworthy and reflects a fundamental shift in the state’s partisan bent.

The bottom line

No, Colorado is not purple. It can still vote Republican under the right circumstances, but all things being equal, the state leans Democratic. And in a year like 2020, Colorado could be a disaster for Trump and the GOP.

Events can, of course, change the trajectory of an individual contest or an entire election year. We’ll know soon whether Hickenlooper has been damaged, and whether Gardner has any chance in the fall. But 2020 remains largely about Trump, and Gardner, who admittedly has strong campaign skills, has already solidified his role as a Trump apostle.

That might be a good thing to be in Mississippi or West Virginia, but it’s not an ideal role for an incumbent senator running for reelection in Colorado, no matter his opponent.

I see no reason to alter my view that Gardner is the most vulnerable Republican up for reelection this year or that he is a heavy underdog for a second term.

But, of course, I will watch the primary results and polling throughout the rest of the year to see whether that assessment needs to change.

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