By Nicholas Riccardi, The Associated Press
John Hickenlooper has refused to yield to pressure from his team to scrap his presidential campaign and instead run for a Senate seat in Colorado.
The former two-term Colorado governor is struggling to break through a crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates. He’s in the bottom tier of polling, hasn’t generated significant fundraising and is at risk of being eliminated from the fall debates.
But that’s not persuading Hickenlooper to become the first person to bow out of the largest Democratic presidential field in modern history. He insists he still has a chance, a belief that triggered the departure of four top aides, ranging from his campaign manager to his digital director.
The discussion about exiting the race was described by a Democrat familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy. Politico first reported the conversations.
While Hickenlooper’s presidential campaign is facing steep hurdles, a Senate bid might not be much easier. A dozen Democrats have already announced challenges to Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. Two announced this week that they raised more than $1 million in the past quarter, more than Hickenlooper is thought to have raised for his presidential bid over the same period.
Hickenlooper, a brewpub owner-turned-politician, launched his White House campaign in March. The future of his candidacy is under scrutiny as his campaign undergoes a major shakeup.
Campaign manager Brad Komar and national finance director Dan Sorenson have left the campaign. Spokeswoman Lauren Hitt confirmed their departures and said she, too, will exit the campaign in the coming weeks.
The departures come after the close of the second quarter of campaign fundraising. Hickenlooper is expected to lag well behind the Democratic National Committee’s benchmark of 130,000 donors needed to qualify for the debate stage in September. He is one of many candidates who could fail to meet that threshold.
“Well, we thought it was time to make a change,” Hickenlooper told MSNBC on Tuesday morning, saying it was a combination of letting staffers go and them quitting. “These campaigns are long hard campaigns. You don’t always get it right with the first team.”
Hickenlooper has tried to establish himself as a leading moderate in the race, repeatedly warning Democrats they risk being tagged as socialists by tacking too far to the left.
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But with several candidates, and many Democratic voters, embracing more liberal positions, Hickenlooper’s message — or at least the messenger — has failed to resonate. He was roundly booed last month at the California Democratic Party convention when he condemned socialism.
On MSNBC, Hickenlooper admitted: “I’m not always the perfect spokesperson for my own ideas.” But he also quoted his mother, who was twice widowed before she was 40: “You never quit.”
He added: “We understand, you know, it’s a steep hill.”
According to people who have spoken to him, Hickenlooper still believes the race could break his way. He’s watching whether former Vice President Joe Biden’s stumbles at last week’s debate might provide an opening to play a more dominant role as a leader of the party’s moderate wing.
Hickenlooper thinks he could shine during the next Democratic presidential debate in Detroit later this month. That could help him generate a swell of small-dollar donors who could push him over his greatest obstacle: the Democratic National Committee’s requirement that candidates receive donations from 130,000 people to make the stage of the third debate.
“Hard but doable,” said Alan Salazar, a veteran Democratic strategist in Denver who was once Hickenlooper’s gubernatorial chief of staff but does not work for his presidential bid. “He is one of the best networkers I have ever known, so it’s probably a challenge he wants to take on.”
Hickenlooper’s team projected optimism about the future, announcing that the candidate had hired a new campaign manager, M.E. Smith.
Smith ran Sen. Bob Casey’s successful reelection campaign in Pennsylvania last year. She was Hickenlooper’s deputy campaign manager in 2014, when Komar ran the governor’s successful reelection effort amid a Republican wave.
At least one of Hickenlooper’s departing staffers was headed to a rival presidential campaign. Sorenson, the finance director, will join former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign, O’Rourke’s team confirmed late Monday.
Sorenson’s departure had been in the works for some time. He previously notified the campaign that he intended to leave but stayed on until the end of the second fundraising quarter, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.