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Politics and Government

How the coronavirus snuffed the primary for U.S. Senate and cemented Hickenlooper as the front-runner

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who is front-and-center in the COVID-19 response

U.S. Sentate candidate John Hickenlooper speaks at a Democratic candidate forum in Montrose on Oct. 20, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Not too long ago, this week should have marked a definitive moment in Andrew Romanoff’s campaign for the U.S. Senate.

The insurgent progressive expected to stand on a big stage, in front of hundreds of supporters at the Colorado Democratic Party assembly, and claim the top line on the June 30 primary ballot.

Instead, the spread of the coronavirus quashed the moment — and possibly his campaign against former Gov. John Hickenlooper, the favored candidate of national Democrats who has secured place on the ballot. The same is true for a handful of women candidates seeking to qualify for the race.

Romanoff, former House speaker and mental health advocate, is still expected to win his ballot slot but without the fanfare.The party assembly Saturday and the delegate vote are now online. 

The candidate is not dwelling on the shift. “What folks are facing and struggling with, and dying from, is a million times worse than what a candidate has to go through just to reach voters,” Romanoff said in an interview.

But his campaign needed the spotlight to showcase widespread support among the Democratic faithful and win a jolt of momentum, the ingredients that drive fundraising and voter attention. Now, the new dynamics of the COVID-19 campaign mostly favor Hickenlooper, political observers say, and only serve to cement his already sizable advantage in the primary contest. 

“Any remaining events before the June primary will likely be virtual and mostly devoid of a real clash,” said Floyd Ciruli, the director of the Crossley Center for Public Opinion at the University of Denver. “Rivals are now denied a live audience and the dynamics needed to show grassroots support.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, the Republican incumbent, is focusing his attention on the COVID-19 pandemic response and the state’s recovery. The Yuma lawmaker faces a no-name challenger at the Republican state assembly, and with the party’s backing he doesn’t need to divert attention yet to the campaign trail.

“That’s the last thing on my mind,” Gardner said in an interview. “Nobody gives a shit about the campaign — they are worried about themselves, their businesses, their families, how they are going to put food on the table.”

Hickenlooper’s story and record give him an advantage in the reset campaign

Two months before primary ballots hit the mail, the Democratic contest is an afterthought to the COVID-19 virus as positive cases and deaths continue to escalate. 

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And even when stay-at-home orders lift, political strategists don’t expect the campaign trail to return to normal. The new political landscape — from the mechanics of the campaign to the mood of the electorate — benefits Hickenlooper. 

The two-term former governor is well-known and well-liked in Colorado, and his campaign amassed enough money before the pandemic to cover the cost of television and digital advertising needed in the homestretch.

Further, his personal story lends itself to the new times. Back in the 1980s, when he worked as a geologist for an oil and gas company, Hickenlooper was laid off after the market tanked. He pivoted to open a brewpub — the state’s first — in a seedy downtown Denver neighborhood and later made a fortune in the restaurant business.

He often talks often about what it felt like to be unemployed and look in the mirror. As a former small business owner, he is connecting with voters who know the pandemic’s economic toll. In a recent opinion column, Hickenlooper recounted his “sleepless nights” wondering how to make payroll. “I know the anguish that the service industry and other small businesses are going through now,” he wrote.

“I do sometimes wonder: Did I have this background and these experiences that somehow are more relevant than I thought they would be or than I ever anticipated,” he said later in an interview.

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Hickenlooper’s record as governor includes plenty of adversity, too. He attended 34 funerals in his first term between wildfires and historic flooding, mass shootings and National Guard troops deployed to the Middle East. Even now from the sidelines, Hickenlooper said he’s making calls to aid in the state’s response where he can be helpful.

Ciruli, the political analyst, believes Hickenlooper’s role as a disaster governor gives him the edge in the primary when it comes to “the issue of executive experience and competence.” 

“One of his most salient images in his eight-year term as governor was dealing with crises from fires, floods and horrendous shootings,” Ciruli wrote in a recent blog post.

But Hickenlooper’s bid may take a hit from a meager campaign. Many of the party activists who are certain to vote in June back his rivals. His campaign relies on support from less involved Democrats and unaffiliated voters who need more encouragement to turn out.

The pending ethics complaint accusing him of taking illegal gifts continues to get delayed with the next hearing pushed back to the end of the month, at the earliest. And looking toward November, Hickenlooper remains well behind Gardner in the money race. 

So far, the state’s lack of preparedness ahead of the pandemic is not leading to blowback on his eight years in office. Hickenlooper said his administration “put a lot of time into” preparation and building in resiliency after the wildfires and floods.

His administration also oversaw efforts to establish a standards of care model for a crisis, which was put into place this month. “Planning is the most important thing that anybody, that any organization, that any government, can do when you’re talking about preparedness for disaster,” he said.

Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff speaks to Democratic voters at a caucus site in Aurora on March 7, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Romanoff tries to steer the conversation back to broader liberal issues

For months now, the other candidates in the Senate race criticized Hickenlooper, often citing his initial unwillingness to run for U.S. Senate and his moderate stances on key issues, such as his prior support for fracking. The front-runner mostly remained above the fray, and now much of the leverage his rivals used to critique him dissipated with the shift in attention to the coronavirus.

Romanoff and the other challengers blasted Hickenlooper for not attending more candidate forums, but now in-person campaigning has ceased. Similarly, top issues such as the Green New Deal proposal and “Medicare for All” — two proposals that Hickenlooper has opposed at times — are overshadowed by the coronavirus.

“John Hickenlooper’s lucky streak continues,” said Dick Wadhams, a Republican strategist. “I don’t think his opponents were doing a very good job drawing any contrast with him before, but now, frankly they are out of the game.”

MORE: What the Colorado campaign trail looks like in the age of coronavirus, and what it means for the election

The inability to run a traditional campaign is more painful for challengers who can’t afford TV ads and rely instead on public events and door-to-door campaigning to increase awareness. And with the public health and the economic crises consuming the most attention, it may prove difficult to get noticed.

“It’s harder to run an insurgent campaign if you can’t have the candidate out door knocking,” said Tony Massaro, a Democratic strategist. 

“Voters already know what they are getting in Hickenlooper,” he added. “With Romanoff, most primary voters won’t have a clue. Without more money and big events and door-to-door (campaigning), he’s handicapped in a way that John Hickenlooper is not.”

In a preference poll at the Democratic Party caucuses March 7 — the last major campaign event before the coronavirus paralyzed the campaign — Romanoff trounced Hickenlooper. His victory lap at county and state party assemblies never happened. 

Romanoff soon shifted his strategy to address the crisis. He began to host weekly online chats with health care experts about COVID-19, mental health and related issues, inviting his supporters to ask questions. “I’m a Coloradan and American before I’m a candidate and a politician, so I want to be of service here,” he explained in an interview.

In small steps, he’s now looking to steer the conversation back to the issues at the core of the primary race before the pandemic took hold. Romanoff is making the argument that uncertain times call for bold leadership, not compromises, as a way to contrast with Hickenlooper’s pragmatism.  “When this pandemic ends — and it will — we should not retreat to the status quo,” he wrote in a message to supporters.

In an online town hall last week, Romanoff spent an hour answering questions about where he stands on key issues, ones largely separated from the coronavirus. He endorsed the concept of a universal basic income plan put forward by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. And he explained why he favors abolishing the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. 

Romanoff wants to put climate change — his top issue — back at the forefront of the campaign. He continues to criticize Hickenlooper for his prior support of the oil and gas industry and his less aggressive approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To amplify the urgency, Romanoff told supporters in an email that “the Democratic primary will shape not only the course of our recovery but also the fate of life on Earth for decades to come.”

All the problems that Romanoff faces in the reset campaign are enlarged by magnitudes for the other challengers. The three little-known candidates — Lorena Garcia, Stephany Rose Spaulding and Trish Zornio — similarly had to retool their campaign strategies. All three may not qualify for the ballot and suggest the coronavirus hampered their campaigns. Two other women already fell short.

Garcia submitted petitions but struggled to collect signatures in early March as the coronavirus fears spread. Spaulding and Zornio are seeking support from party delegates at the assembly but so far they are struggling to register. In interviews, Garcia and Spaulding said they are considering legal action against the state or Democratic Party if necessary to secure a place on the ballot.

“The heart of our message is pretty much still the same … focusing on everyday needs of working families and individuals,” Spaulding said. “The major shift for us has been how do we continue to present ourselves as a resource as opposed to asking for resources from others.”

Even if a virtual campaign is more difficult, Garcia said she is seeing people start to pay more attention. With this crisis, it is opening up the eyes of people who have never recognized the intersections about how policy can play a key role in how states and our country can weather a crisis,” she said.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, speaks at news conference celebrating the Rocky Mountain Regional United States Patent and Trademark Office’s fifth anniversary on Aug. 30, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The public health crisis allows Gardner to shift voter’s attention

On the Republican side, the party assemblies are virtual now, too. Gardner is appearing on video conferences to address delegates and cruising to an easy win at the GOP assembly at the end of the week 

He will have a challenger on the ballot: Margot Dupre, a Colorado Springs real estate agent, who is running a limited campaign. She needs 30% of the vote to get her name on the June primary ballot but it is unlikely to happen.

Gardner said that when he talks to Republican activists, he’s focusing mostly on the public health crisis. Rather than overtly campaigning, he said, he is putting “every ounce of effort” into the COVID-19 response. He is working closely with Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, who has praised Gardner’s work, and helping to deliver needed medical supplies. 

“Politics be darned, we have to get the people in our state of Colorado on track for recovery,” he said.

He is still facing attacks in digital ads from Rocky Mountain Values, a Democratic-aligned organization, for his opposition to a prescription drug bill and the Affordable Care Act, the health care law signed by President Barack Obama. And not long ago, he was campaigning at President Donald Trump’s side in Colorado Springs.

But in large part, Gardner is steering clear of the campaign as Democrats battle for the chance to face him in November. In crisis situations, voters often look to incumbents to provide stability, and this may give Gardner an opening in a race where he’s increasingly looking like an underdog.

The current situation “reminds people that when it comes to Colorado issues, he is there — and it transcends partisan politics,” said Wadhams, the former state GOP chairman. “Nobody wants the coronavirus at all, but it’s allowed people to see how good a senator he is for the state.”

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