John Hickenlooper, a moderate and self-proclaimed pragmatist, sailed through the Colorado Democratic Senate primary on Tuesday without much of a fight from the progressive left. That, progressive advocates say, may be what tanks their best chance this year of gaining another voice and strong support for their agenda in the Senate.
Hickenlooper, the popular former governor and failed 2020 presidential candidate, routed Andrew Romanoff, the former state House speaker who ran firmly to Hickenlooper’s left, in the race to take on Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in November’s election. Gardner is among this cycle’s most vulnerable GOP incumbents, meaning the Democratic primary presented the opportunity for progressives to place an ally in the Senate.
But in letting Hickenlooper claim the nomination with a margin of close to 20 percentage points, they lost any hope of having a candidate who might actually rally around some of their biggest policy ideas, including the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All.”
Romanoff wasn’t the perfect pick for progressives. His own record as a state lawmaker, not unlike Hickenlooper’s as governor, was that of a moderate, willing to make concessions across the political aisle.
But in the Senate race, Romanoff backed a Green New Deal, while Hickenlooper said it would be a “failure.” Romanoff campaigned on Medicare For All, while Hickenlooper argued for building a public option into the Affordable Care Act. Romanoff backed tuition-free public colleges and universities. Hickenlooper favors that proposal only for community colleges. Romanoff campaigned on abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Hickenlooper used more tempered language around reforming ICE.
“You have the chance to trade an anti-Green New Deal vote with a pro-Green New Deal vote,” said David Sirota, a former presidential campaign speechwriter for Sen Bernie Sanders (i-Vt.) who has been based in Colorado for more than a decade and is married to state Rep. Emily Sirota (D). “Hickenlooper screws you. It’s an enormous missed opportunity. Whoever wins the primary has an equally good shot of winning against Gardner. When you don’t take blue state opportunities, that’s a huge missed opportunity.”
Compared to the kind of coordinated energy behind Charles Booker, the progressive candidate who fell a few percentage points short in Kentucky’s Democratic Senate race, the faceoff in Colorado went almost under the radar.
Romanoff was backed by the progressive climate activist groups Sunrise Movement and 350 Action, as well as the Denver chapter of the Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is aligned with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). But big-name elected officials stayed out of the race or came to Hickenlooper’s aid.
Sanders didn’t endorse, nor did Green New Deal co-author Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). In the campaign’s final week, Warren endorsed Hickenlooper, drawing ire from progressives. Also backing him was Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), another progressive.
Local activists and party insiders all told the same story: after Hickenlooper ended his brief presidential bid and then decided to run for the Senate, he quickly was seen as the presumptive nominee, undercutting the appetite for challenging him.
“We had some really exciting candidates (in the early jockeying among Democrats for the Senate nod), including women of color, including strong environmentalists, before Hickenlooper was in this race,” said Joe Salazar, a former Colorado state lawmaker and progressive activist who has long publicly warred with the former governor over oil and gas policy. “Then he steps into this race and the (national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) backs the show pony instead of these progressive women,”
Salazar said he reached out to Sanders’ team to endorse Romanoff, but heard nothing back. “That took a lot of wind out of the progressive energy in this race.”
National Democratic officials coalesced behind Hickenlooper
Alice Madden, a progressive and former majority leader in the Colorado House of Representatives, met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) before Hickenlooper jumped into the race. She said Schumer, who oversees the Democratic efforts to win a Senate majority in November, seemed open to her candidacy as long as she was able to do one thing: raise money. When Hickenlooper got in, that prospect was gone. She dropped out two months after Hickenlooper entered the race.
“Schumer looks at Colorado and looks at a popular governor who can obviously raise some money, sees him as dominating, and that allows Schumer to spend money in Maine and Arizona,” Madden said, referring to other states where Democrats have high hopes of toppling GOP Senate incumbents. She added, “Hickenlooper was the surest bet.”
The DSSC, the party’s official Senate campaign arm, endorsed Hickenlooper almost immediately. A rumor spread throughout the state that political consultants who worked against Hickenlooper would be backlisted by party officials. Endorsements from major groups and unions became hard to secure for Hickenlooper’s rivals.
“You think about groups like Emily’s List,” Madden said of the progressive political action committee to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. “If they get a call from DSCC, and they say we want Hickenlooper, they’re not going to buck them. And then every (progressive) candidate gets asked where is Emily’s List?”
Big environmental groups generally sat out the primary. For instance, the campaign arms of the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club declined to endorse.
“If more groups had jumped in and hard and piled on hard the way they did for Booker, this really could have been turned around.”
The Sunrise Movement campaigned for Romanoff for months. On Sunday, Evan Weber, the group’s national political director, issued a clarion call for volunteers to phonebank for Romanoff, calling him “the best candidate to defeat Cory Gardner.”
“Here’s the bottom line: This Tuesday’s election is a pivotal one for the Green New Deal,” an email from Weber read.
Some progressives complained that campaigning for Romanoff took a backseat within the movement to backing Charles Booker’s surging ― but ultimately unsuccessful ― bid to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Even if Booker had clinched the nomination, which he narrowly lost to former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, he faced a steep uphill battle to unseat one of the GOP’s most powerful incumbents. Gardner’s seat, by contrast, represented the “most flippable race in the country” for Democrats, yet Romanoff received “one-tenth the progressive energy we saw for Booker,” said R.L. Miller, president of Climate Hawks Vote.
“It’s deeply frustrating,” she said. “If more groups had jumped in and hard and piled on hard the way they did for Booker, this really could have been turned around.”
Weber now worries that Hickenlooper’s miscues and scandals, which include a resurfaced 2014 video of him comparing the job of a political scheduler to being on a slave ship and an independent ethics panel finding he violated state law as governor in 2018 by accepting rides in a private jet and a Maserati limousine, may mean Democrats “could lose the most winnable seat on the map.”
“I’m concerned the future of the Senate is actually at play from the DSCC’s meddling here,” Weber said.
When should progressives compete?
One problem for Romanoff in wooing progressives was a political past that didn’t make him a natural candidate for them to champion. His record in the state legislature was that of a moderate, said Madden, who worked with him at the statehouse in Denver. A chief sticking point was his record on immigration policy.
As Colorado’s House speaker in 2006, he championed a series of laws cracking down on undocumented immigrants. Among them was requiring local law enforcement to report any arrested individuals suspected of being illegal immigrants to federal authorities. That measure was repealed in 2013, under Hickenlooper’s governorship.
“If there was to be a progressive movement in Colorado it would not have been reflected in either of those two candidates.”
Romanoff has since said those laws were “a serious mistake.” Still, according to Salazar, it’s a record that gave a lot of progressive activists pause, particularly those in the Latino community.
“Andrew Romanoff became a born-again progressive,” Rick Ridder, a Democratic political consultant in Colorado, said. “He was never a big progressive to begin with. ... If there was to be a progressive movement in Colorado it would not have been reflected in either of those two candidates.”
That may go a long way to explain the lack of national mobilization. That, and the quick consensus that emerged that Hickenlooper would be the nominee.
“The DSCC did a better job about making clear that dissent would not be tolerated,” Sirota said, comparing the Colorado race to other primaries across the nation where progressives have been more of a force. “The money and the institutional power was so overwhelming that it ended up creating a conventional wisdom that it was an un-winnable primary.”
The race is part of a bigger debate among progressives on how to build actual power. In New York’s recent Democratic primary, Jamaal Bowman, buoyed by progressives, almost assuredly ousted Rep. Eliot Engel, and Mondaire Jones won the nomination for an open seat in a heavily Democratic district. In Kentucky, a massive push in the campaign’s final two weeks among progressives closed the 20-point gap between Booker and McGrath to less than three percentage points. The question facing progressives remains whether it’s worth fighting in races here the odds appear heavily stacked against them.
In Colorado, the consensus was that it wasn’t.
“Hickenlooper was up by 40 points, so if you’re a progressive organization, why spend any money under these circumstances?” Ridder said. “This isn’t worth the fight.”