KC Becker of Boulder, speaker of the Colorado House, “liked” a tweet the other day proclaiming John Hickenlooper’s entry into the race for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Cory Gardner.
In the absence of public commentary — and reticence is now fashionable among state Democratic Party officeholders in the suddenly sensitive matter of the Senate primary field — these are the tea leaves of the social media era. And it might seem natural that a Democratic elected official would like news that a popular Democrat was entering an important race.
But it would be a surprise if Becker, a supporter of stricter fracking regulation, backed the fracking-friendly Hickenlooper over more progressive Democrats. She was one of the key players behind passage of Senate Bill 181 earlier this year, which brought wide-ranging reform to Colorado’s oil-and-gas law, including specific steps Hickenlooper blocked as governor.
Becker did not return a call seeking her views on the Democratic primary race. Neither did Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, also of Boulder, who skillfully guided fracking reform to passage with a slim three-seat majority in the state’s upper chamber.
So state Sen. Mike Foote, a Lafayette Democrat who has made opposition to fracking near residential communities a centerpiece of his legislative career, was left to speak for Democratic officeholders frustrated by Hickenlooper’s romance with the oil and gas industry as governor.
“First of all, I think a number of Democrats could win against Cory Gardner,” Foote told me. “You never know for sure — obviously, elections sometimes can be unpredictable — but my view is a lot of Democrats could win against Cory Gardner. He has just not represented Colorado very well in his six years as a U.S. senator. So I don’t think it has to be Hickenlooper or nobody. I think there can be three to four other Democrats, at least, that if they were the nominee would end up beating Cory Gardner.”
Foote is backing former state Sen. Mike Johnston, who has raised more money for his Senate campaign than Hickenlooper did in his failed presidential bid.
“He was a whip-smart state legislator and I think he would be the same as a federal legislator,” Foote said of Johnston. “I worked with him on several bills and I was just always very impressed with him. So I think he would make an excellent U.S. senator.”
Foote does not buy Hickenlooper’s revisionist history of his relationship with the oil and gas industry. In Hick’s telling, he was the dealmaker who brought environmentalists and industry representatives together to create first-in-the-nation methane emission rules in 2014. These rules cost oil drillers money, Hick says, so he has no idea why the industry he once worked for would like him.
The massive increase in fracking during his eight years in office and his fawning over industry “innovation” at the Denver Petroleum Club have been eradicated in Hick’s history, aside from boasts about economic development, to which the fracking boom is now an unmentioned contributor.
“The former governor’s views and record on oil and gas issues are no secret,” Foote said. “It was always difficult to convince him of things that needed to be changed and that’s just how it was. I guess I’d just leave it at that. It was difficult to convince him about some of the necessary changes. Certainly, Senate Bill 181 would not have been signed had Gov. Hickenlooper been in office.”
Hickenlooper’s successor as governor, Jared Polis, signed the oil-and-gas reform bill into law earlier this year.
Foote acknowledges Hickenlooper’s role in the methane rules, but says limiting the discussion to that single item ignores a host of other issues.
“It certainly is true that he was in the center of the methane rules that occurred back in 2014. There’s no denying that, and those made good progress,” Foote said.
“There were a number of ideas, initiatives and bills that were designed to try to address some of the problems we were having with oil and gas, particularly the conflict between local governments and the state government, or local governments and oil and gas operators, that he and his administration did not support.
“I know that there were at least a dozen bills that did not make it through the legislature, so he didn’t technically have to make a decision about whether or not to sign those bills, but my view from the front lines was that he and his administration were not supportive of those bills, and, in fact, on some of them, the [Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission] director came into the legislature and testified against them, or the [Department of Natural Resources] legislative liaison talked with members of the legislature or lobbied against some of those bills.
“I mean, I think he can take credit for the methane rule, but certainly during the eight years he was governor many of the conflicts between local governments and operators and local governments and the state were not solved.”
A number of local political jurisdictions — Broomfield, Lafayette, Longmont, Fort Collins, the city of Boulder and Boulder County — attempted to halt or suspend fracking within their borders while Hickenlooper was governor. Hickenlooper threatened to sue them. An alliance between the state and the oil and gas industry succeeded in getting those community measures struck down by the Colorado Supreme Court on the basis of state preemption.
Do residents of those jurisdictions who viewed Hickenlooper as an opponent now take up the cause of finding an alternative to run for Gardner’s seat? Will Democrats motivated by the climate crisis support a friend of fossil fuels?
The early conventional wisdom is that progressives need to find a single candidate to make it a one-on-one contest. In the fragmented field of a dozen or so candidates that exists today, Hickenlooper is likely to win handily with a plurality of the primary vote based on name recognition alone, analysts say.
Foote believes such tactical analysis is premature.
“I gave up the political predictions business after 2016 because I was just so wrong about what happened in 2016 and I don’t really have a lot of confidence in my ability to predict going forward, other than just to say a lot of things can happen in politics, and what may seem unthinkable now may be a reality later,” he said.
“So I think a lot of that is going to probably shake out during the caucus and assembly process to get to the nominee before the primary. There’s a lot of time between now and then for candidates to make their case and for them to decide whether or not to stay in or drop out.”
For now, the only candidate to have publicly suggested he’s reconsidering his position because of Hickenlooper’s entrance is former U.S. Attorney John Walsh. “Obviously, this is a different race today than it was yesterday, and John and his team are working to plan next steps for this new phase of the race,” his campaign said in a statement.
The leaders in the race before Hickenlooper’s arrival show no signs of stepping aside:
• Johnston has raised more than $3 million and led the non-Hickenlooper field in the first primary poll that included the former governor, even if he trailed by 51 percentage points.
• Former state House Majority Leader Alice Madden speaks often about becoming Colorado’s first female senator at a time when Democrats nationally are electing women to Congress at the highest rate in history. She can argue she would mobilize voters yet another white male could not.
• Former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff has amassed more than 250 endorsements, raised enough money to be competitive, and was right behind Johnston in that early poll. (Full disclosure: I did three weeks of volunteer work for Romanoff’s policy shop last winter when I was out of journalism.)
• State Sen. Angela Williams, who entered the race just last month, is the only sitting officeholder among the high-profile candidates. As a woman of color, she embodies the diversity many activists believe Colorado has been too slow to embrace in statewide elections.
The most compelling progressive alternative to Hickenlooper would probably be first-term Congressman Joe Neguse of Lafayette, the son of African immigrants and already a star in the House, where he is a liaison between the huge freshman class of 2018 and the Democratic leadership team. Neguse has not ruled out a Senate bid, but he has consistently said it is “not on my radar.”
At 35, Neguse has the runway to build seniority and become a powerful member of the House if he wants to stay there. He’s also the most talented young politician in Colorado and could set his sights higher.
Nationally, the priority for Democrats is to flip the seat, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reportedly lobbied Hickenlooper to join the race. In fact, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee appears to have preemptively endorsed him.
One of the benefits of Hick’s belly-flop in the presidential race is he automatically gets the support of many of his former national rivals. Pouring praise on the departing losers and endorsing whatever lesser bid they resort to is a tried and true trope of national politics — the political equivalent of a football coach lavishing praise on a player as he cuts him.
Notably, though, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, competing in the left lane of the national race, did not join the hosannahs for Hick in the immediate aftermath of his announcement. In fact, David Sirota, a Sanders speechwriter based in Denver, retweeted criticism of the former governor. This might be significant in light of the fact that Sanders swamped Hillary Clinton in the Colorado Democratic Party caucuses of 2016.
Conventional wisdom says the race is Hickenlooper’s to lose. Of course, as Foote suggested, conventional wisdom has been wrong a lot lately. Whether Hick can win the support of Democrats who disagree with him on fracking will have a lot to say about whether it’s right this time.
Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. @davekrieger
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