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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)

John Hickenlooper’s seemingly imminent entry into the U.S. Senate race in Colorado is prompting a behind-the-scenes chess match among Democrats.

His potential rival in the Democratic primary, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, released an internal poll Tuesday showing that Hickenlooper isn’t the only candidate who can beat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. 

The poll is a shot across the bow designed to refute the notion that Hickenlooper is the only Democrat who can help the party retake the seat and potentially the U.S. Senate in 2020. It’s also a clear indication that Johnston plans to stay in the race and not clear the way for the former governor and Denver mayor. Other rivals have vowed to do the same.

“Hickenlooper is not special. He’s not a savior. We don’t need him” for Democrats to beat Gardner, said Andrew Baumann, a pollster with Global Strategy Group, which is working for Johnston.

But the mere possibility that Hickenlooper may run influenced the decisions of two other big-name Democrats who recently said they’re not launching campaigns of their own. Both Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold and U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, two prominent Democrats, put the brakes on at least in part because of Hickenlooper’s potential candidacy. 

Griswold had formed an exploratory committee to fundraise for a possible bid and a poll indicated she would be among the primary race’s frontrunners. Perlmutter endorsed a prospective Hickenlooper U.S. Senate campaign in a tweet on Sunday night.

“If he decides to run,” the Arvada Democrat tweeted, “I’ll be proud to support him.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada, speaks to reporters outside the GEO immigration detention center in Aurora on Monday, July 22, 2019. Considered the dean of Colorado’s congressional delegation, he’s endorsed John Hickenlooper’s potential 2020 Senate bid after being considered a potential candidate for the race himself. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The poll and political calculations offer a glimpse of how much Hickenlooper’s potential bid is unsettling the crowded Democratic primary in Colorado. He exited the presidential race last week saying he is giving a Senate run “serious thought,” setting off an immediate flurry of speculation and activity.

MORE: “This won’t be a coronation.” If Hickenlooper wants to be a U.S. senator, he needs to clear many hurdles

The decision to abandon his presidential ambitions came after being courted by top party officials, including Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, and by the 314 Action Fund, an advocacy group trying to draft Hickenlooper to run.

A Hickenlooper spokesman declined to comment for this story. Hickenlooper has not spoken publicly since ending his presidential campaign.

The poll from Johnston’s campaign — first reported Tuesday in The Unaffiliated, the Colorado Sun’s political newsletter — shows that Hickenlooper fares no better against Gardner than a generic Democrat. Among likely 2020 voters, an unnamed Demoratic candidate receives 48% support compared to 38% for Gardner. 

The survey was conducted online on Aug. 13 and 14 — before Hickenlooper exited the presidential race and expressed interest in the Senate contest. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points. 

Its findings essentially mirror what Republican pollster Magellan Strategies found a month ago in a separate survey: Colorado’s blueward shift and the unpopularity of President Donald Trump will make it hard for Republicans to win.

“Gardner is very weak, there are probably several Democrats who would be strong against him,” Global Strategy’s Baumann said in an interview Tuesday.

Johnston is pitching himself as a former teacher and adviser to President Barack Obama who worked across the aisle and helped push tougher gun regulations and larger education spending. His campaign platform prioritizes moving toward renewable energy and lowering health care costs. When the campaign tested this message with voters, it gave him an advantage against Gardner on the same scale as Hickenlooper, a roughly 10-point margin.

Democratic candidate for Senate and former Colorado state representative Mike Johnston speaks at Indivisible Denver’s candidate forum at Barnum Park in Denver on June 9, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Likewise, the survey found Hickenlooper’s favorability rating is about even with those who view him unfavorably, a downgrade from public polling a year ago and a possible sign the presidential race hurt his profile. Johnston, meanwhile, rates similarly but only 23% of voters know him, despite an unsuccessful statewide campaign for governor in 2018.

Nevertheless, Johnston’s campaign is confident that the $3.4 million it has raised to date will help him get his message in front of voters. “We are going to have enough resources to get his message out,” Baumann said.

As for the 10 other Democrats in the primary, their response to Hickenlooper’s potential candidacy has been mixed. 

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

State Sen. Angela Williams released a statement warning that his entry would not be met with a coronation. And former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff doubled down on his earlier vow to stay in the race, pointing out that Hickenlooper has publicly said he doesn’t want the job and isn’t cut out for it. 

But others have taken a less defensive approach.

John Walsh, Colorado’s former U.S. attorney, said he wasn’t convinced that Hickenlooper would be jumping into the race, according to The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. “I am confident that John and I will have a conversation if he does get into the race,” Walsh said.

A campaign spokesman for Democratic candidate Dan Baer, an Obama-era diplomat who served in Hickenlooper’s cabinet, said they were withholding comment until Hickenlooper made a decision — one way or the other. 

Baer was briefly a candidate for Colorado’s 7th Congressional District seat when Perlmutter jumped into the 2018 Colorado governor’s race, but ended his campaign when Perlmutter reversed course. Hickenlooper then hired him to lead the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Democratic candidate for U.S. senate and former Obama administration diplomat Dan Baer speaks at Indivisible Denver’s candidate forum at Barnum Park in Denver on June 9, 2019. He hasn’t commented on the potential of Hickenlooper joining the crowded primary. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Dick Wadhams, a former chair of the Colorado GOP, said Democrats in the U.S. Senate primary will have to aggressively challenge Hickenlooper or risk him being the party’s default nominee should he jump into the race. That means attacking the former governor on topics like oil and gas and the death penalty, and questioning whether he really wants to be a senator or whether he made the switch from the presidential election just to remain in politics. 

“In order for someone to win other than Hickenlooper, they are going to have to go after him, they are going to have to draw contrasts,” he said. “The only way to take him down in a primary is other candidates are going to have to take the campaign to him.”

Republicans also are strategizing on how to handle a Hickenlooper candidacy. 

Gardner, in an interview with The Sun after an event Monday in Greenwood Village featuring former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, said he doesn’t plan to alter his campaign message that Democrats are embracing socialism if Hickenlooper gets into the contest. 

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, right, speaks at an event with U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in Greenwood Village on Aug. 19, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“No matter who is in the Democrat body, they will support a Democrat nominee who believes in these socialist ideas,” Gardner said when asked if those attacks will still work if Hickenlooper gets into the race. “So we’re going to push back on those. I don’t believe Colorado believes in socialism and I think that the Democrat nominee for president in this country is going to be pursuing those ideas and I’m going to push back.”

Hickenlooper made a point in his presidential campaign to warn voters against embracing his Democratic rivals’ socialist ideas, such as “Medicare for All” and more government jobs under the Green New Deal, saying they would be handing another term to Trump. “Socialism is not the answer,” he declared in a June speech to California Democrats.

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Still, the GOP sees openings to attack Hickenlooper for being too liberal based on his backing of a public health care option and his statements supporting the general concept of the Green New Deal to fight climate change. Hickenlooper thinks the latter policy, as a whole, sets unachievable goals.

“I’ve heard from so many Coloradans who want me to run for the United States Senate,” Hickenlooper said in the video announcing the end of his presidential bid. 

To see how his candidacy truly changes the shape of that Senate race will depend on whether or not he heeds those calls. 

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

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 newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....