Just under six years ago, then U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner entered the 2014 U.S. Senate race and cleared the GOP field.

Now Colorado politicos wait expectantly to see if former Gov. John Hickenlooper will attempt the same feat on the Democratic side in the race to meet Gardner in 2020’s general election.

Unfortunately for Hickenlooper, it appears he won’t enjoy Gardner’s remarkably smooth path to his party’s nomination.

Mario Nicolais

At first blush, the two circumstances don’t look too dissimilar. Gardner entered a crowded primary field baying for the head of Sen. Mark Udall. Hickenlooper, if he decides to stop tilting at presidential windmills in Iowa, would be faced with even more primary opponents setting their sights on Gardner

By the time Gardner got into the race, it already included a sitting state senator (Owen Hill), a member of the state House leadership (Amy Stephens), and a district attorney who had already been the party’s U.S. Senate nominee once and would go on to serve in Congress and eventually take the reins of the state GOP (Ken Buck). 

In contrast, the 2020 field appears comparatively light. True, Andrew Romanoff had been Speaker of the House, but his several abortive campaigns since have taken a lot of the luster off his promising future. Similarly, former State House Majority Leader Alice Madden and State Sen. Mike Johnston have also been trounced in attempts to move up the political ladder.

The remaining Democratic candidates seem to believe jumping in the deep end is the best way to learn to swim.

But that is about where the comparison ends. 

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Throughout 2013, GOP power players spent countless days wooing Gardner to enter the senate race. After Udall swept into office on the coattails of President Barak Obama’s historic 2008 victory, he proceeded to help enact much of Obama’s policy priorities.

In particular, Udall’s support for the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, made Republicans foam at the mouth for years.

Unfortunately, GOP poohbahs found their own announced candidates too flawed. After losing to Sen. Michael Bennet in the decidedly Republican year of 2010, Buck seemed too conservative. Stephens’ support for Medicaid expansion under the ACA made her too moderate for the base. The baby-faced Hill just seemed too green.

For months GOP leaders begged Gardner to get into the race. And for months, he ate it up. The more they begged, the more he coquettishly demurred. On and on the courtship continued until he finally relented in late-February 2014, only weeks before the Republican caucuses, and effectively cleared the field.

Hickenlooper won’t have that luxury. 

Sure, longtime associates like Curtis Hubbard have images of Hick4Senate.com running through their heads, but the liberal clamor isn’t nearly as loud for Hickenlooper as conservatives were for Gardner. He won’t be able to play coy for the next six months if he really wants to win the nomination.

While there may be many underlying reasons for that muted support for a two-term governor, the foremost must be the leftward lurch his party has taken since he last appeared on a ballot.

With Hickenlooper out of office, Democrats finally passed substantial restrictions on Colorado’s oil and gas industry, a move he had blocked for years. Then there was the crowd that recently booed Hickenlooper for rejecting socialism; an ominous sign after the Democratic bastion of Denver recently elected its first Democratic Socialist.

Democrats already in the race will be sure to highlight those less-than-progressive positions. Ironically, Hickenlooper could become the Colorado version of Joe Biden, a popular and electable general election candidate rejected by a rapidly growing and strident progressive base.

However Hickenlooper chooses to proceed, he is in for a much rougher journey than Gardner ever had to endure.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq