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Democratic presidential candidate and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper speaks during a rally held to help kick off his presidential run at the Greek Amphitheater in Denver's Civic Center Park on Thursday, March 7, 2019. Photo by Andy Colwell, special to the Colorado Sun

Fresh from a failed presidential candidacy, John Hickenlooper is eyeing a bid for U.S. Senate in Colorado — an alternative road to Washington with its own challenges that makes a political comeback less than certain.

The former two-term governor would enter as the contest’s presumptive front-runner after leaving office earlier this year with favorable poll numbers, but the campaign also would rank as the toughest of his career. 

The White House bid exposed Hickenlooper’s shortcomings as a gaffe-prone establishment Democrat, and he returns home to a party primary not unlike the one at the national level that spit him out after just five months. 

The Democratic candidates in the crowded race are vowing to stay put, and “Medicare for All,” immigration and climate change are emerging as clear dividing lines as the party’s vocal activists push for a progressive candidate instead of a moderate like Hickenlooper. One potential rival went so far as to say “this won’t be a coronation.” 

In a video announcing his withdrawal from the presidential race Thursday, Hickenlooper made a nod to calls for him to enter the Senate race, saying “they remind me how much is at stake for our country — and our state.”

“I intend to give that some serious thought,” he said of the Senate race.

In July, after a staff shakeup, Hickenlooper hired M.E. Smith, who was deputy campaign manager for his 2014 gubernatorial run, who has experience running U.S. Senate races, as his campaign manager.

Hickenlooper is getting encouragement from national Democrats who see him as safer in a general election against U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, the most vulnerable Republican facing reelection in 2020. “It’s early yet, but this move increases likelihood of (Democrats) taking the seat,” said Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University

Yet it’s not clear whether Hickenlooper wants to run. In the past six months, he’s said more than a dozen times that he isn’t interested and wouldn’t enjoy the work. “I’m not cut out to be a senator,” he told Politico in February. “Senators don’t build teams. Senators sit and debate in small groups, which is important, right? But I’m not sure that’s my — I’m a doer. That’s what gives me joy.”

In 2010, as he weighed whether to run for governor for the first time, Hickenlooper said he felt called to do it, as he recalled in his memoir. But just a month ago, when asked about the Senate race, he said bluntly: “I don’t think that’s my calling.”

MORE: Here’s who’s running to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020 — and who’s thinking about it

Hickenlooper untested in this political environment

Hickenlooper won the 2010 election without much of a challenge. 

Endorsed by sitting Gov. Bill Ritter, Hickenlooper avoided a Democratic primary and then saw a scandal-plagued Republican Party fracture with a third-party challenge from conservative Tom Tancredo. Hickenlooper won 51% of the vote and called himself “the luckiest guy in the world.”

Four years of adversity and an improving economy persuaded voters in 2014 to give Hickenlooper a second term, despite stumbles a year earlier. The race proved tighter, but the Republican candidate, Bob Beauprez, never gained traction, despite the GOP momentum that election cycle. Hickenlooper won by 3.3 percentage points. 

Kyle Kondik, an elections observer at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, pointed to preliminary polling showing the Democrat beating Gardner in a hypothetical matchup, but suggested it may prove tougher if it came to reality. 

“I can see why Democrats think he would be the strongest general-election candidate given his track record … but it’s not like he won landslides in his elections,” he said.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper addresses the crowd from the main stage at the Blue Sneaker Ball to celebrate the inauguration of Gov. Jared Polis at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science on January 8, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In his eight years, Hickenlooper focused on efforts to boost the economy and signed legislation to expand Medicaid coverage and strengthen gun regulations — a record that would boost him to the top of the Democratic field, his allies argue.

“I think that he is well known by the people of Colorado, we still have one of the strongest economies in the country, and we have a growing and diverse groups of people living here. I think a big part of the success of Colorado over the last several years can be attributed to John’s leadership,” said Rick Palacio, a Hickenlooper adviser and former Colorado Democratic Party chairman.

Moreover, Palacio said, the electability factor is the driver in the 2020 election.

What Hickenlooper would add to the Senate race, he continued, “is some peace of mind to people throughout the state of Colorado who want to see Cory Gardner out of office. I think he’s the best person we have to defeat Cory Gardner in 2020.”

MORE: The top Democratic and Republican pollsters in Colorado agree: 2020 is not looking good for the GOP

Hickenlooper is not progressive enough for some voters

But winning is not the only factor on Democratic voters’ minds. 

The presidential race is showing that progressive candidates can find support. And back in Colorado, Hickenlooper didn’t lead the most progressive debates, and conversely, he embraced the oil and gas industry at a time when drilling pressed closer and closer to homes and schools.

Earlier this week, former Colorado Senate President John Morse challenged Hickenlooper’s record on guns, suggesting that the candidate is exaggerating his credentials. “We don’t need to send someone as passive as he is to the U.S. Senate,” said Morse, who was recalled in 2013 for his support of gun laws Hickenlooper signed into law that year. “This is not an issue that he leads on, by any stretch of the imagination.”

Morse is supporting former state Sen. Mike Johnston’s bid for U.S. Senate. And even though he gives Hickenlooper credit for signing the gun bills into law, Morse said “he gets no credit for shepherding them through. His attitude was, ‘If they get to me I’ll sign them.’” 

He also said Hickenlooper did nothing else on gun control during the rest of his gubernatorial term, and “there was much, much, much, more to do.”

Not all Democratic voters are welcoming a potential Hickenlooper bid, pointing to his criticism of the bolder proposals from others in the presidential campaign. 

“I still look at moderates and think they don’t really understand the gravity of the moment. I don’t think John Hickenlooper understands the gravity of the movement,” said Katie Farnan, a Democratic activist who said Hickenlooper didn’t do enough as governor on the issues of immigration and climate change.

Another notable moment came when Hickenlooper made mistakes, such as when he wouldn’t identify as a capitalist and then dithered until he became its chief cheerleader as a way to push back against socialist policies he saw from his rivals.

MORE: Democrats in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race split on Medicare for All, as Bennet warns it’s “one sure way” to lose

Cindy Sandhu, who like Farnan is part of the Indivisible activist movement, said she “would be disappointed” if Hickenlooper entered the Senate race, citing the current field of qualified candidates. Both, however, said their priority is defeating Gardner.

Hickenlooper “has been in politics for so long that he has lost his ability to think like the regular person,” Sandhu said. “He’s thinking like a politician and how can he continue to be a politician, and I’m tired of politics as usual.”

Democratic candidate for Senate and former Colorado House Majority Leader Andrew Romanoff speaks at Indivisible Denver’s candidate forum at Barnum Park in Denver on June 9, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Democrats in Senate race vow to hold steady as Hickenlooper mulls run

The 11 candidates currently vying for the Democratic nomination anticipated the possibility that Hickenlooper would enter the race for months. And if he does, they say, it won’t change their trajectory.

In a statement Thursday, state Sen. Angela Williams, a newer candidate in the race, said Hickenlooper “spent his time in Iowa running for president, and as governor, working and campaigning against bold, progressive solutions that will move Colorado and the country forward.”

“If he’s going to switch gears and run for the Senate, he has a lot to explain to Colorado voters,” she added. “This won’t be a coronation.”

Johnston, who entered the Senate race in January, said in a statement Thursday that he is “energized by the campaign that lies ahead, and excited to win back control of the Senate and get to work for the people of Colorado.”

Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff sent a fundraising email to supporters on Thursday on the heels of Hickenlooper’s announcement. When he entered the race in February, he told The Sun he had considered the possibility of Hickenlooper running for Senate and it didn’t dissuade him.

Romanoff reiterated that point in an interview Thursday on NewsRadio 850 KOA, saying “what I heard Gov. Hickenlooper tell everybody who asked was that he wasn’t cut out to be a senator and didn’t want the job.” 

But at the same time, the rival campaigns are tweaking their strategies and reassuring donors about their plans to move forward. Kondik said the splintered field may help Hickenlooper, but “he won’t just get a free pass — particularly because there are some candidates who are going to run to his left and there is energy in doing that.”

“Hickenlooper starts as a pretty formidable contender,” he added, “and we’ll just have to see how many people leave the race and whether there are effective lines of attack against Hickenlooper with the electorate.”

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated...

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.