On Sunday evening in Denver’s sun-baked Barnum Park, the city skyline glimmering in the distance, people fired up grills, set up lawn chairs and settled in to hear nine of the Democrats running for U.S. Senate speak in the race’s first forum.
But still the candidates brought gloom and doom.
“The reality is, and I think everyone here knows, that today we are facing a crisis in our democracy,” former U.S. Attorney John Walsh told the crowd. “We are facing threats to the idea that all people are created equal, threats to the idea that all people have certain rights that cannot be taken away.”
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“I joined this race because I think we are literally running out of time,” said former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, speaking about climate change.
“America used to be the country of ideas,” said former Colorado House Majority Leader Alice Madden, explaining how China is rivaling our economy.
The Democrats running to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020 might disagree on policy, but they were generally unified on the feeling that the nation is facing a list of disasters under the management of President Donald Trump and GOP leadership in the Senate. One by one, the candidates rattled off calamities facing America as they each spent a few minutes speaking to voters during an event organized by Indivisible Front Range, a liberal activism group.
If their message signaled anything about the future of the contest, which is more than a year away, it’s this: Democrats intend the 2020 election cycle in Colorado to be yet another referendum on the White House. It’s a strategy that worked well for them last year and one that observers think could be a potent tool for victory once more.
“It was really a little bit of a dissonance between this beautiful June day and we’re out there in the park and there was this message driven by disappointment, powerlessness and anger about the Trump administration,” said Ken Toltz, a Democratic activist who works on gun-control issues and once ran for Congress, who attended the event.
It’s a theme that mirrors what Democratic candidates on the 2020 presidential trail have been pushing as they campaign. Gov. John Hickenlooper has been saying the U.S. is the most divided it has been since the Civil War. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet went as far as to write a book about how the nation’s politics are broken.
But will it work on Colorado’s stage?
“It’s easier to get people riled up and interested in a race if you are focusing on fear and anger than hope and optimism,” said University of Denver Prof. Seth Masket, who leads the school’s Center for American Politics. “In some ways, this is similar to where Democrats are nationally and I think one of the things we saw in the last election was a lot of evidence that elections are very nationalized right now. Everything is turning on national issues.”
Not recognizing the national climate, he says, could actually be detrimental to a candidate.
“If you talk to a lot of voters, we are in a crisis,” Masket said. “That is sort of a generally accepted state of mind right now. If you project optimism, that could be seen as being out of touch.”
And there were signs that voters at the event wanted to hear the candidates talk about the issues that worried them most. Some of the biggest applause lines came on discussions about impeaching Trump, racial equity, gun control and, especially, climate change.
“I certainly would like to see the candidates stand up on the climate crisis,” said Bruce Norikane, who traveled from Boulder to hear the candidates speak.
He called it an “existential” issue. “I don’t see how we can avoid it.”
Former state Sen. Mike Johnston, another candidate, focused on gun control, saying that “we cannot afford to” not to pass legislation tightening firearm restrictions.
Lorena Garcia, a community organizer in the race, said that the contest is about more than removing the Republican incumbent. “This is not just about ousting Cory Gardner,” she said. “This is about our dignity.”
Dan Baer, an Obama-era diplomat, pressed a message of trying to move past the nation’s current political climate, posing a question to attendees about why they should feel influenced to get involved.
“Did we do everything we can to make good things happen instead of getting sucked in with the bad?” he asked.
Craig Hughes, a Democratic operative not involved with the 2020 Senate race in Colorado, said he thinks the messaging is “less strategic than a realization of what’s happening.” And in a top-tier federal race, Hughes says, topics like impeachment, climate change and abortion should be at the forefront.
“They’re not just about potholes and parking lots,” he said.
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But the messages from candidates could also have the effect of tapping into the discontent that propelled Democrats to sweeping victories in Colorado last year, said Laura Chapin, a Democratic activist working on Madden’s campaign.
First, she said, you have to present the problem. The solutions to fixing it come later.
“One of the most baseline estimates in politics is whether or not the country is headed in the right direction or the wrong direction,” she said. “Pretty much every pollster asks that question because it’s your baseline for what voters are feeling. I think what you saw (at the forum) is there is a feeling around here that the country is headed in the wrong direction. We saw that in the midterms already. This is kind of a continuation of what we saw.”
Chapin thinks the same anti-Trump sentiment that helped Democrats win in Colorado in 2018 is still there.
“Every candidate with an ‘R’ by their name was a proxy for the Trump administration,” she said. “I don’t see any of it dying off. I think Trump keeps throwing gas on the fire.”
Gardner’s campaign manager, Casey Contres, says his team focus on what the first-term Republican has accomplished and the impacts of those policies. That includes the Republican tax cuts, helping reduce student loan debt and work on public lands issues.
“Flashy talking points might do well in a primary,” Contres said, “but when they have a senator, people want someone who can actually get things done.”
Gardner, however, is considered among the most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection in 2020 given Colorado’s Democratic trend in 2018. He has endorsed President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign.
The Democrats vying for a chance to take Gardner on still have a long way to go before the June 2020 primary, and more people are likely to join the already crowded race.
But after Sunday the resounding, early message from the slate is clear.