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The Democratic candidates competing in the June party primary for U.S. Senate are Andrew Romanoff, left, and John Hickenlooper, right. (Colorado Sun photo illustration)

The primary ballot is all-but official: It’s a two-man race for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in Colorado.

John Hickenlooper, the two-term former governor, and Andrew Romanoff, the former state House speaker, will compete in June for the chance to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in one of the nation’s most-watched November contests.

The intraparty battle pits the national Democratic establishment behind Hickenlooper against more progressive forces that back Romanoff, not unlike the dynamic that shaped the party’s presidential race. 

The long-foreshadowed duel was poised to test support for liberal litmus test issues, including the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All,” but now may become obscured by the coronavirus pandemic.

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

The vote at the Colorado Democratic Party assembly Saturday, held online without the traditional fanfare of a political convention, essentially cemented the ballot. The final certification comes May 7, and the only caveat is a potential legal challenge from a third candidate, Lorena Garcia, who announced Friday she would press forward after failing to qualify.

Romanoff overwhelmingly won the support of the party activists who served as delegates, taking 86% of the vote, according to the official tally. Two lesser-known candidates failed to reach the 30% threshold needed to qualify for the June 30 primary.

In an interview, Romanoff said the vote “means that despite all the wishes of the party bosses and party brokers in Washington, the people (of Colorado) have a different idea.”

“We have real differences in this race,” he continued, criticizing Hickenlooper’s ties to the oil and gas industry and corporate America. “We deserve a chance to air those differences and voters deserve a chance to hear them.”

The win gives Romanoff the top line on the ballot, but little of the momentum that typically comes from the assembly given the limited attention on the campaign amid the COVID-19 crisis. 

Hickenlooper did not participate in the assembly, despite competing in the March 7 caucuses, where he lost handily to Romanoff in a preference poll. Instead, Hickenlooper qualified for the ballot through petition after paying a political firm nearly $423,000 to collect voter signatures.

Asked about the primary race, Hickenlooper’s campaign issued a written statement that looked ahead to November.

“This health crisis has been hard on everyone and has made clear how broken Washington is,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s time to elect a senator to represent Colorado who will expand health care, tackle climate change, and stand up for Colorado workers and small businesses.”

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

The once-crowded race narrows but could add another candidate

The Democratic primary — which featured more than 15 candidates at various points — began to narrow after Hickenlooper entered in August. For months, the 68-year-old former brewpub owner said he was not interested in the U.S. Senate, but when his longshot presidential campaign came to an end, Hickenlooper reversed himself and declared his Senate candidacy days later.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that recruited Hickenlooper quickly endorsed his campaign and four other prominent Democratic candidates exited the race. A handful of others plowed ahead, promising Hickenlooper wouldn’t receive a coronation, including five women candidates who coordinated their strategies at one point to try to get one or more of them on the ballot.

Nine of the Democratic candidates vying to challenge Sen. Cory Gardner speak at the Indivisible Denver forum on June 9, 2019. Top row: John Walsh, Andrew Romanoff, Mike Johnston. Middle row: Lorena Garcia, Stephanie Rose Spaulding, Ellen Burnes. Bottom row: Alice Madden, Diana Bray, Dan Baer. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Stephany Rose Spaulding, a college professor and pastor, competed at the assembly with Erik Underwood, another little-known candidate, hoping to pick up support with Hickenlooper’s former delegates. But most moved to Romanoff, and Spaulding took only 9% of the delegate vote. Underwood received less than 1%.

Garcia, a community organizer and political activist, opted for the petition route. She needed to collect 10,500 valid vote signatures — 1,500 in each of the state’s congressional districts — and turned in 14,000. But her campaign announced Friday that the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections, counted only 9,427 valid signatures. 

MORE: Here are the Democrats running to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020 — and who’s campaigns have ended

She pledged to continue the fight, hoping to correct deficiencies and get certification in a five-day period that starts Monday, but it could prove too tall a hurdle. If she’s unsuccessful, Garcia has pledged to challenge the ruling in court because the governor declared a state of emergency March 11 as the coronavirus spread.

The declaration came a week before signatures were due, and Garcia argues it limited her ability to collect enough to qualify. The General Assembly drafted a bill that included an extension for petitions at one point, but it was stripped at the end in what dissenting lawmakers called a protectionist move.

“We still have two more opportunities to get on the ballot, and we’re going to need everyone’s help to get us there,” Garcia told supporters in an email Saturday, asking for donations to cover potential legal fees.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, embraces President Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the World Arena in Colorado Springs on Feb. 20, 2020. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A nascent challenge to Gardner emerges on the GOP side

On the Republican side, the incumbent Gardner faces a doubtful challenge from Margot Dupre, a Colorado Springs real estate agent. She first told The Colorado Sun she was interested in the race in January but never mounted much of a campaign.

In a video played at the Republican state assembly Saturday, Dupre did not mention Gardner by name as she pitched herself as the true conservative. 

The two things Colorado needs is leadership and truth, now more than ever before,” she said. “For 30 years, I’ve watched as the Republican Party has lost ground to an out-of-control government. … They’ve lost the fight against abortion. They’ve lost sight of the Constitution.”

Gardner, who never acknowledged his competitor, made his case in a video that started with President Donald Trump touting their partnership in Washington. Later in remarks to the online convention from his home in Yuma, Gardner revved his partisan fans by saying “the socialist left — they want to take over our courts, they want to take over our country and they take over our lives.”

The vote period for the Republican assembly is open into next week. Party officials said they would announce the results April 25, but it’s unlikely Gardner will face a primary.

John Frank

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