Two lapsed Republicans walk into a bar.

(Actually, it’s a TV studio.)

“Republicans will never do anything on gun control,” says one, former Florida Congressman David Jolly. “Nothing. Ever. They won’t.

“Think about Las Vegas. They did nothing when 500 people were injured. The Pulse nightclub, 50 killed, the question for the nation was, do we allow terrorists, suspected terrorists, to buy firearms? Republicans did nothing.

Dave Krieger. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon.

“Parkland, they did nothing. Emanuel AME in South Carolina, nothing. Sandy Hook in Connecticut, nothing. The Jewish temple in Pittsburgh, nothing. The Jewish temple in San Diego, nothing. Sutherland Springs evangelical church in Texas, nothing.

“Now we have Texas, now we have Ohio, in the same weekend, and all we get is silence. … If this is the issue that informs your ideology as a voter, the strength to draw in this moment is to commit to beating Republicans. Beat ‘em. Beat every single one of ‘em. Even the safe ones in the House. Beat ‘em. Beat ‘em in the Senate. Take back the Senate.”

“You take my breath away,” says the other lapsed Republican, former George W. Bush communications director Nicolle Wallace. “But you’re not wrong. No Republican has ever been moved by any of those tragedies.”

“They have not,” replies Jolly, on a roll. “Notionally, I gathered with the Democrats when they had the House sit-in after Pulse, begging to form some type of bipartisanship in a moment of national crisis. Our (Republican) leaders were not to be found. They went home. They hid.

“And the reason I say to voters, and this is obviously getting easier for me to say these days, ‘Beat Republicans,’ is because of this issue. Republicans won’t do anything.

“And if you’re a Democratic presidential candidate right now who has the opportunity to win a pivotal Senate race, drop out of the presidential race and win back the Senate for a party that will actually do something on this.”

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The scene is not imaginary. It played out last week on Wallace’s MSNBC show, which has become something of a refuge for former Republicans who can’t stomach what their party has become. It came two days after back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

Jolly’s advice seems obviously aimed at three Democratic presidential aspirants: Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Steve Bullock of Montana, and John Hickenlooper of Colorado. Each would immediately become the favorite to win the Democratic Party nomination for a Senate seat available in 2020 in his home state. 

Jolly is hardly alone in offering this advice. Hickenlooper has unaccountably made Twitter his social media platform of choice, a place where he gets fewer “likes” than a Broncos preseason game update. The replies to his posts are littered with pleas that he run for the Senate instead.

With Majority Leader Mitch McConnell having turned the chamber into the George Washington Bridge under Chris Christie, blocking everything from election security to universal background checks for firearms purchases, control of the Senate is at least as important to future federal policy as the White House.

But Colorado is not the same as Texas and Montana. O’Rourke and Bullock are the only Democrats with a snowball’s chance of knocking off incumbent Republicans John Cornyn and Steve Daines in those states.

O’Rourke narrowly lost a Senate seat to Ted Cruz in Texas in 2018. Bullock won a second term as Montana governor in 2016, even as Donald Trump was swamping Hillary Clinton by 20 points there.

It is not as clear that Hickenlooper is the only Democrat with a chance to unseat Cory Gardner in 2020. Democrats swept Colorado’s statewide offices in 2018, electing a Boulder law professor to the attorney general’s office and a gay Boulder congressman to the governor’s office.

Any number of announced Senate candidates might be competitive against Gardner, among them former state Sen. Mike Johnston, former House Majority Leader Alice Madden, former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and former U.S. attorney John Walsh. (Full disclosure: I did three weeks of volunteer work for Romanoff’s policy shop last winter when I was out of journalism.)

And some political observers believe Hickenlooper big-footing his way into the race after flopping on the national stage might be more problematic than it appears.

Still, if Hick were to abandon his traction-free presidential bid and jump into the Senate race, he would initially float to the top of the Democratic heap, according to early polling, thanks to name recognition and a record of statewide electoral success through two terms as governor.

So the question for the state party is similar to the question for the national party. Just how progressive does it want to be?

In a way, Hickenlooper is for Colorado Democrats what Joe Biden is for national Democrats. If winning matters more than policy, they have the traditional advantages of name recognition and buoyant approval ratings. If progressive policy chops are necessary to fire up turnout, Democratic Party activists might think they can do better.  

Colorado Democratic primary voters who rank climate change as a motivating issue would probably prefer a Senate nominee who didn’t preside over a massive increase in fracking, as Hickenlooper did as governor.

Even on gun control, where Hickenlooper takes credit for 2013 reforms following the Aurora theater shooting, activists are likely to recall him apologizing to Colorado sheriffs, suggesting he signed a ban on high-capacity magazines chiefly because an aide promised he would.

In short, while Hickenlooper’s brand of centrism was perfectly acceptable to Democrats fighting for control of a purple state, party activists might be more ambitious if they believe the 2018 results indicate it is now solidly blue.

Democrats have been having this intra-party debate for years. Those who call for more progressive candidates to fire up the base point to the excitement that surrounded Barack Obama and the lack of same that plagued Hillary Clinton, who was considered a safe, centrist candidate four years ago.

Those who fear the party moving too far left point to the long list of liberal losers in the late 20th century, including George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

Hickenlooper said last week that he’s still committed to his quixotic presidential run, but acknowledged persisting through the cycle won’t make any sense if his poll numbers don’t improve. He appears likely to be locked out of the next round of debates, in September and October, owing to anemic poll numbers and a small donor base.

Bullock, too, will have a hard time making another debate stage, although a recent missive from the Democratic National Committee extends the qualifying period for debates in October, meaning it’s possible a candidate could fail to qualify for September and then make it in October because of the extra time. 

O’Rourke has already qualified for the September and October debates, so his presidential candidacy can be expected to continue a while, although polls put him well behind the top tier of candidates.

For months, many Democrats have urged these three to drop their presidential fantasies and help the party win back the Senate. Now, even lapsed Republicans are joining the chorus.

But this is a tougher call for Hickenlooper than it appears, and not just because he’s a “doer” who prefers executive positions. After reciting Republican talking points about “socialism” and Medicare for All on the national stage, he might return to Colorado to find more enthusiasm among lapsed Republicans than among Democrats.

Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. @davekrieger

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