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Nicolais: Don’t be shocked by a drawn-out Democratic primary in Colorado Senate race

Despite the entry of two-term Gov. John Hickenlooper, prepare for 10 months of infighting with progressive candidates

I’m shocked, shocked to find John Hickenlooper in the Colorado Senate race!

I’ve been waiting a few years to employ that famous line from Casablanca in honor of my high school civics teacher. He made watching the film the primary requirement to pass his class. In retrospect, his lesson plan seemed spot on.

Mario Nicolais

Hickenlooper didn’t wait long before jumping out of the presidential race and into a Senate race. Just about a week. Political operatives and media pundits hardly had time to bate their breath before he made his bid official on Thursday. Many Colorado Democrats see him as the single best candidate to knock off Sen. Cory Gardner next November. 

But first the question is what happens in the Democratic primary. 

With 10 months to go before Colorado Democrats choose their nominee, it seems a bit premature to coronate Hickenlooper. Of course, he is the odds-on favorite — he has almost universal name ID, a record-winning statewide office, a strong donor base and experienced staff. He will also likely benefit from a host of outside interest groups spending big to beat rivals over the head.

But like I wrote a few weeks ago, I don’t think Colorado’s version of Joe Biden can clear the Democratic field.

For starters, at least two of his top three rivals have a history of torpedoes-be-damned primary challenges. 

Eight years ago, former Speaker of the State House Andrew Romanoff ignored all calls to bow out of a primary challenge to sitting U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a then-unelected. Colorado Democrats worried that the nasty primary would leave the winner too weak to fight off a general election challenger. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

And Romanoff almost did it, garnering 46% of the primary vote.

Romanoff then got trounced by Mike Coffman in 2014 before jumping into this primary race. For a man who has spent a decade of political desperation seeking federal office, Hickenlooper’s presence won’t deter him.

More recently, former state Sen. Mike Johnston took his lumps running for governor just last year. After having millions of dollars dropped on his head by Jared Polis, Johnston pulled only 23.6% of the vote in a four-way race, more than 20 points behind Polis.

For candidates like these, holding public office is a near existential need, falling somewhere between breathing and eating. There is a chance both wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, straighten their collar and greet the reflection with a hearty, “Hello, Senator.”

There is almost no chance either backs out before being eliminated by voters.

While we don’t know as much about the other candidates’ taste for drawn-out primaries, people like Alice Madden, John Walsh and Dan Baer have dedicated large chunks of their lives to public service and obviously believe the have yet still more to give.

Of course, the best way to know how Hickenlooper will affect the others is through their own words. While I didn’t see any official reaction or social media posts from most, Romanoff has already taken off the gloves.

In a primary that should tilt hard left, Romanoff almost instantly dinged Hickenlooper for “echoing GOP talking points” and “comparing progressives to Stalin.” 

Romanoff recognized the need to stake himself to Hickenlooper’s left and laid claim to it before anyone else. In a state where Democratic caucuses, assemblies and primaries are regularly dominated by the most progressive voters, Hickenlooper better be ready for those barbs to start flying from every direction.

If Hickenlooper isn’t ready or doesn’t have the stomach to face such attacks for a seat he viewed as a booby prize, this race could get much more interesting very fast.

Don’t be shocked if Hickenlooper finds himself fighting for his political life six months from now.


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


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